Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturers' Network podcast. I'm delighted to introduce you to our guest today, Keith Ledbetter. Keith is President and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Southeast Michigan. He manages this 250 Member construction trade association in southeast Michigan and helps lead its affiliated skilled trade school, the southeast Michigan construction Academy, with over 500 student apprentices.
As the architect of a dramatic construction association turnaround, Keith's unique professional background helped create an uncanny ability to get things done using relationships and personal appeal. His wide-ranging skill set, ability to find when propositions amiss disagreement and strong leadership enable him to build motivated teams, quickly adapt to new challenges, and flourish in diverse corporate roles. Keith, welcome to the show.
Keith Ledbetter: Thank you, Lisa thanks for having me today.
Lisa Ryan: Well, you and I talked a bit about your resume and your journey. You've been all over the place. Please share with us where you've been and really how you got to where you're at right now.
Keith Ledbetter: There was certainly no straight line as part of that path. While I was in college, I enjoyed politics, and I wanted to get involved. I wanted to do something big. I wanted to have a meaningful impact on people on an enormous scale. When you're young, you're probably not going to be the CEO. You're not going to be a leader of a significant organization.
I got involved in the political system, and I worked in the Michigan house of representatives for 15 years. It was cool. At a relatively young age, I got involved and made many key decisions on state policy matters. At first, I was just the quiet guy in the room, taking notes and offering private counts to my boss. As time went on, I became in a more significant role. From there, I became a lobbyist for the heavy construction industry. I did that for another six years, and I advocated for people's interests related to infrastructure investment, road and bridge improvement things like that.
That area's expertise led me to work at Chrysler, and I was a corporate government relations executive. I represented the company's interest to elected officials in the northeast United States, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Maine. I was the go-to for the company anytime they had issues or concerns related to public policy.
Strangely enough, I ended back up in the construction industry after using some of the same skills. I read an article in The Wall Street Journal this morning about making sure that when you're applying for the jobs that even if they're not related entirely to what you're doing, that you want to make the connection for any particular person who's doing the hiring. Some of these job skills that you have in these various areas apply to what you do. I took those same skill sets, and then I began running a nonprofit on my own: Associated builders and contractors of southeast Michigan. I also ran a trade school called the southeast Michigan construction Academy, where we have over 500 apprentices who are learning skilled trades.
So, how did this guy who started in politics, and doing that kind of stuff, how did he end up in the skilled trades, and training, all these young people, most of them without college degrees? It's been a strange ride. But it's been pretty cool to see that your skill set can go from one industry area to another fairly easily.
Lisa Ryan: When you joined ABC, it sounds like it was a mess when you took it over and putting some work into it. And getting the right leadership team in place and just running it. Taking what you refer to as a ragtag group of individuals and transforming them into a winning team.
That's why I wanted to have you on the show today. Even though construction is a little bit different from manufacturing, both industries run into the same problems. How do you take people when there is already a skilled Labor force and find people like you. You don't necessarily have the right to the same background that you're looking for—finding those people with those inherent skills and getting them in the right seats on the bus. Please share the story of where you started and what it took to create that winning culture that you have now.
Keith Ledbetter: Right, I think to provide proper context, you have to go back to what I came into. It was pretty dramatic. We had a situation where only a year earlier, the association couldn't make the mortgage payments. They were getting ready to lose their building. They had significant indebtedness. We had a membership in our association that wasn't a group of people who want to be involved as an association.
I remember we celebrated my hiring at ABC. I think we had about six people show up. It sent a message, like, hey, we've got some work to do. On the school side, we were floundering. We weren't being successful and weren't bringing in the new students we hoped to bring in. All these things are tearing down the organization, we weren't following proper rules and protocols, and we really needed to tighten up across the board, and so, frankly, at the time, I didn't know what I was coming into, and even worse.
My predecessor hadn't been paying proper dues to ABC National, so we found significant indebtedness beyond even what we owed the Bank. That was the starting point that I had, and I quickly recognized that I didn't have the right team in place. There was a culture there that had to be changed in significant ways.
When I parachuted in, I had no idea; I just assumed everything was great, and I would go into this opportunity. These are not things that necessarily come out in the job interview. That boy, you've got a tough job on your hands. I found out literally on day one; when there was a board meeting, we had some major problems that had to be dealt with. I realized this very early on. I had to have the right people in place to get it turned around.
Lisa Ryan: Isn't that funny that if you had known everything that you were running into, there's a pretty good chance that you may not have taken that.
Keith Ledbetter: You know, life is funny. I love the challenge, and I look back five years from now, literally my fifth anniversary coming up here very shortly. The turnaround that we have has been miraculous. I'm still. I'm excited today about what I do than I have been in many years because I had to change teams. I had to get new people in that had a different set of skill sets. It's been a pretty remarkable recovery.
I say it's a ragtag team, but these are high-level professionals. In their previous roles, they weren't necessarily appreciated for what they brought to the table. For us, more of our new hires were the foundation of our turnaround were people who had been fired or left under less than ideal circumstances at their most previous job. I had another gentleman who was an uber driver and a substitute teacher who was partially retired, yet I had another guy who was a key employee of mine today, but he hadn't had a real job. For several years, he'd done a little bit of this and a little bit of that but hadn't had a real job. How do you take this ragtag group of people and turn them into what I consider to be an incredibly high-performing, high-achieving team?
I've done pretty well not to brag on myself, but I think one of the things I've done well is identifying areas in which people excel: and put them in those areas that they are best. For example, I often think of a football team analogy, where the field goal kickers will not be great quarterbacks. A quarterback isn't going to be a tremendous offensive line. If you get them in their skill set and have them do what they're fantastic at, it pays dividends.
I was able to see the value that they brought, find areas in which I needed their skills, and put them in those areas. As a boss, I'm not afraid to admit that my people are better at their jobs than I would be. I've hired specialists. I've heard people who are experts in their craft in their area. I've let them go, and they've done quite remarkable things.
Lisa Ryan: So, how did you determine that a conversation you had with them, asking them what they were good at or what they enjoy doing. Was that something that you were observing and just seeing what lights them up? How did you get to that point of pinpointing where to put people.
Keith Ledbetter: Well, it's an ongoing joke within our staff, especially when hiring new people. I looked in my network, and I thought, okay, I need someone good at this area. I need someone who can go out there in the community. I don't have to push them out the door, but they prefer to be outside. What I often did is I found people who work full-time employed or were under challenging circumstances. I interviewed them, but they didn't know they were being interviewed.
We were able to have some very, very frank conversations, and then at the end of those conversations at a few of them say, are you interviewing me. I found people that I wanted to hire. I said, well, as a matter of fact, I do have a position open that, frankly, I do have a job opening that I think would be an interesting fit. Why don't we continue to have some conversation to determine whether this worked out or not. My looking for people wasn't a one job interview.
In some cases, I did some job posting on posting boards. But in many of my key positions, I look within my network. I found people looking for work and then try to have a very candid conversation over weeks to determine whether we'd be a good fit for each other.
It's a little bit unique. What my approach was, was an ongoing conversation. It was a relationship. I feel that professional world, you're most successful when you have relationships with people, bringing people in, and understanding their background. Maybe what was lacking in their previous roles, and what you might be able to do for them. Then for them to have a real frank and genuine understanding of what you need from them.
That's been the secret sauce to me—my ability to build these great teams. I realize now that many of these people, while they may not have been ideally suited for some of their previous roles, were ideally suited for my organization and me. They had a fantastic skillset, and then I'm finding that they are far better at what they're tasked with doing in my organization.
That's when you know you've hit the sweet spot when you're not the smartest people in the room that there are so many other great talents out there. You that can add stuff that you're not very good at. I recognized that and humbled myself to acknowledge that these people were phenomenal in my weak areas, and they're going to be a fantastic addition to the team.
Lisa Ryan: Well, I think the big idea that just came out of that was the fact that interviewing is not placing an ad or going online, looking for a specific person or turning out over to HR, and saying hey, this is the person I'm looking for. It's a continuous conversation. It's looking for people who would be a good fit and having those conversations.
One of the things I say in my program is that you want to hire more slowly and fire more quickly. It comes to getting rid of those toxic people and for you taking that time to get to know people. You're assessing, "Is this person going to be a good fit. That's how you keep that you find talent. You can control it a lot easier if you found that to be true.
Keith Ledbetter: I probably had a little bit of unfair advantage because I've had a great network of people and professionals I've known. Being in the legislative world and being a lobbyist, you're a connector of people. You know people across numerous industries. I used that network of people to have conversations that the average CEO or that maybe the average person looking to hire doesn't have. When I was taking inventory of my strengths, I said that is an area that I'm good at that I have a network of people, so how can I find the right people to be able to work, the organization, and not everyone is a great fit.
But it certainly worked out for me. In some cases, you have to do some online advertising or some job postings, and you have to be good at that, too, especially when you don't find that person in your network that can do a job that needs to be done. Again, I think, really delving into the people and understanding them understanding what they're good at having some frank conversations. It isn't a point of discussion. When people are nervous in a job interview, you don't get a lot out of them, so the degree that you can early on break down those walls and have an excellent personal conversation. Please get to know them a little bit more on a personal level.
I don't care all that much whether the people I hire are particularly skilled or have a background and precisely the job title and responsibility that need them. I want someone who's pliable. I want someone who learns. I need someone with the basic foundational skills, whether it's a people person who needs to be out there selling or marketing was a person who Is a financial guru. Suppose it's a person who's very organizational in nature. In that case, you know, I have needs across the organization in all those different areas, and some people will be phenomenal in one of those areas and very, very weak. I think the other thing also has done reasonably well.
I've taken people, and I've hired them, and I've told them, look, I'm hiring you for this role, but we're going to find out where you best fit within this organization. This is not a stopping point for you; you're not limited to just this role. We're going to figure out what you excel at what's you're very talented at. We're going to put you in that role, and we're going to make you incredibly successful, so I say, look, bear with me for a little bit while we figure this out. In comparison, you figure out what you like doing here. What we figure out makes sense, how you can use those skills, and we're going to put you in that role, and it's been a unique thing. Most new employees liked the idea that hey, they're going to work with me that.
If I get stuck in a role that I'm not good at, it doesn't mean that I have to stay here. We can have some ongoing conversations, so then once you've onboarded them. Part of my strategy has been let's have some discussions on an ongoing basis. How are you doing here? How do you like things? Do you have frustrations closing the door, so it's me? That employee has a good, really good conversation to understand each other and send the signal. They know that they can reach out to me, even if they have a direct report different from mine.
My role as CEO is the guy who is masterminding all of those relationships, putting them all together have this tapestry that we put together that utilizes the best of all people's skills and abilities. That's been kind of neat, and frankly, it's been fun. I'm learning as I go. I don't have this all figured out immediately, but I also have accumulated this great team and then motivate them to stay with me and not just take off when we hit rough waters.
I also have high expectations of what my team is going to do. Sometimes I'm sure this frustration. It's like I'm asking them for the impossible. I want them to stretch. I want them to reach. I want them to struggle to get the best out of themselves. If you do hire a high-performing team, they want to know that they're high-performing. They want to achieve great things. Sometimes you have to be in a level of discomfort to do those things. It's been pretty cool to watch this organization. I talked about how when we started. We were in debt. We weren't following the rules. We had a low-performing organization. We were on the verge of being kicked out of our National Association because we didn't do what we were supposed to do. To go that to where we are today, we've almost tripled enrollment in our school. We paid off a million dollars in debt on our building, and now we owe it free and clear. We have no debt that we have at this point. We've grown our trade association membership four years in a row. We may be the only or one of the only chapters in the entire United States that can say that we've done that. We've turned it around from what would be considered one of the lowest-performing organizations in the country.
One of the highest performing organizations with again what I'm referring to is this ragtag group of team members that maybe didn't work at their stride when I hired them. But we brought him in. We motivated them. We gave them off the appropriate onboarding. We gave them a big vision of what kind of accomplishments. We've inspired them. We work with them, we train them, and we talked to them and having ongoing conversations. Those are all been part of what it's taken to transform this into a winning team. Hopefully, I'll be able to continue keeping them. I realized that a certain number of cases,
I think it all starts with remarkable authenticity, a desire to help your people become better and do well in this world and the professional career, and I certainly take that on myself. I asked my employees what do they want to do? How can I help you? Let's build some skill sets that you can use throughout the entirety of your career? I think that's very important.
I'll give you a story. I have one of my directors of education who is phenomenal. Susie is 26 years old. She is undoubtedly a phenomenal employee of ours and has been an essential part of our team. I know she has aspirations to do other things. I also know she has an extreme interest in being part of the political world. We had an opportunity as an organization to testify before the Michigan house committee last week.
I could have done that. I'm a lobbyist by trade and background. I have a former state representative who is my Vice President of workforce development either one of us could have done that testimony. Recognizing how important that was for her and how meaningful it would be in terms of her career progression to get exposed to that and do that, I decided to have her do the testimony. It did, is it put when did her sales that these people care about me that they're giving me opportunities. That would be very hard for me to find anywhere else. They care enough about me that they're going to allow me to shine in the public limelight.
That's just an anecdotal example of some of the things that I like to do to put my team in a position to develop themselves. Even when we could find other ways too, or we could have done other things, and in that particular situation, I needed to provide that an opportunity for my employees.
Lisa Ryan: You have given us so many great hints and strategies to attract and retain great talent, so from a networking standpoint, if you were to think about something that you would like to learn from industry, other industry, colleagues, as well as what would be your areas of expertise that you'd like to share or you'd be open to sharing what would that be?
Keith Ledbetter: As someone who prides me, leading an organization is growing by leaps and bounds and having a lot of success. I always struggle with that next step. Are you willing to put some things on the line? To risk a few things to get to that next level. As an example for