A Life of Climb Podcast Episode 3 – ME Engineers Principal Ed Bosco on building a team for long-term success
ME Engineers Managing Principal Ed Bosco talks about what it takes to build a team that works on some of the largest, most complex engineering projects in the world. Ed also shares how he approaches hiring for long-term success. Then Ed’s mentor and Vistage Chair Jerry Cahn speaks with me about the power of transformational leadership and what leaders need to be doing to prepare for an unpredictable future.
Sam Reese (00:36):
Hello, and welcome to A Life of Climb podcast. I’m Sam Reese, your host and CEO of Vistage, the world’s largest CEO coaching and peer advisory organization for small and mid-sized businesses. On today’s episode we’ll be hearing from Ed Bosco, a leader who works on some of the largest engineering projects in the world and has a unique perspective on what it means to build a truly successful team, and also have some interesting insights into what a lot of leaders are doing wrong when it comes to making their next hires. Joining Ed is long time Vistage chair, Jerry Chan. Jerry and I will talk about what it takes to be a transformational leader in today’s environment.
Introductions: Vistage Chair Jerry Cahn and Managing Principal of ME Engineers Ed Bosco
Jerry Cahn (01:23):
Hi everybody. I’m Jerry Cahn. I’m a chair in New York City and I have the privilege and pleasure of interviewing Ed Bosco who’s a managing principal of ME Engineers. He’s actually based in New York so I have the privilege of working with him. Ed, why don’t you say hi and introduce yourself and tell everybody about ME Engineers?
Ed Bosco (01:48):
Ed Bosco. I’m the managing principal of the New York office of an international engineering firm. We do our work all over the world. We tend to find very interesting projects. There are 300-plus engineers in 14 offices. So we’ve always had the goal of being able to deliver a project of any scale and complexity anywhere in the world, and we’ve done a pretty good job of that over the years.
Ed Bosco (02:11):
A lot of the firms that do what we do, do very traditional work. It’s pretty typical. It’s almost cookie cutter, but we’ve always tried to be the guys out on the edge. So we’re out there. We’re focusing on unique building types, large scale buildings, and a lot of sports work. We do a lot of the retractable roof baseball and football stadiums around the world. So it’s large public assembly buildings, things people have seen and things you watch them on TV every night. So it’s a great forum for doing the kind of interesting work we need and also for just growing the engineering practice in general.
Jerry Cahn (02:45):
Tell us a little bit about the kinds of relationships you have with the clients that you build, that’s unique and different than most people in the industry that I’m aware of.
Ed Bosco (02:56):
We try to focus on the projects where our impact and our participation can really make a difference, where you can look backwards after the five or 10 year projects and you can see that there was an inflection point in that project where some idea you had regarding design, or an approach, or the way the building looks, or a way to manage budget, or construction really had a difference. When you can look back and say, “If I hadn’t done that, we would be in a different spot now.” We see it on these large projects and large sports stuff.
Ed Bosco (03:26):
I did the renovation of Madison Square Garden, took a building that was about 50 years old and completely stripped it down to its bones and rebuilt it again to be a venue for the next century. We took it apart as kind of an aging venue, but delivered a building that’s on par with all the current venues with regard to sight lines and power and infrastructure. There’s nothing tired about that 50 year old building anymore, and you preserve all the greatness it is, Madison Square Garden.
Ed Bosco (04:00):
After that, we put a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, the main tournament court at the US Open tennis tournament. We looked at it about five, six years before we figured out how we could do it. Then over the course of three years we built the infrastructure, then built the big nest, and then covered it for that third year.
Jerry Cahn (04:20):
Ed, what makes for great leaders for me is they never rest on their laurels, all the wonderful work you’ve been doing to help New York City, people at Vistage, the whole country, the whole world, figure out how to get back to whatever our next phase. I think there’s going to be several of them before we have a new normal of any sort there. You’ve already said, “I need to move to the next big issue.” Ed, want to share some of the things you plan on doing?
Ed Bosco (04:46):
I think if you look at the next one, if you look at what the real next issue is going to be, it’s going to be climate change. It’s going to be carbon and climate change. We were just about beginning of last year starting to really focus on that, legislation that was focused towards it. I think federally we’re announcing today a huge goal for carbon reduction. It really feels like that has to be the next approach because the pandemic we can address through filtration and chemicals, but you can’t address carbon the same way and you can’t address carbon quickly. The nice thing about the pandemic is you can address it instantly. In an hour you can make a space safe. You watch the models for carbon and climate change, it’s a much longer, it’s a heavier moving vessel to try to turn.
Ed Bosco (05:29):
So I think we could argue if we already waited too long, but I think if you start now and you look at buildings being 40% of the carbon we produce, 40% of the energy we use on the earth is consumed in buildings. If we can go out and attract top talent engineering, give them interesting work to do, engage them in solving this, we’ll figure it out. That’s our biggest challenge. We need to find a way to draw smart people to engineering when it isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do.
Ed Bosco (06:04):
People don’t accidentally become engineers. They become engineers because they kind of slog it out. They’ve been the math and science kids in high school. They go to an engineering school. It’s not easy. They graduate from that and then try to find a job. There’s a lot of points in that process where we can lose these people. So if we can give them enough of a pull and incentivize them enough and motivate them enough along the way, we’re going to keep the better ones in our business. I think that’s important for us. So my focus is retaining good talent, the marathon of building people into our profession. They may not work for me. They’ll go work somewhere. But just being in our profession, they’ll help us somewhere.
Jerry Cahn (06:36):
We’ve had to learn how to be resilient as a group of people during the pandemic. Maybe if it’s really positive, as you’re seeing it, is that we’ve learned we can make changes in talent management, and how we run our companies, and how we combine the fit, not just market fit with people buying products, but fit between people in companies with the clients they have and the kind of projects they do. As you speak to new leaders, the young people who are starting, and existing leaders who want to transform as you have, what two or three pieces of great advice would you give them?
Ed Bosco (07:21):
I think we’re too lazy in our hiring. I think we go out and we try to find someone that meets exactly the need we have. They have the skills we have. They have experience in what we do, and it lets you just hand the work you have to them and walk away. I think that’s probably a very shortsighted vision. So when we go out, we try to find people we like. Our interviews are three, four hours long, like literally sitting in a room for three or four hours talking. You find out a lot. You find out if can you sit there and talk to this person for hours? Are they interesting? Are you aligned?
Ed Bosco (07:57):
When you start having interviews like that and hiring that way, you start hiring people based on skills that you can’t teach. It’s people that have some kind of unique thing in their background, a challenge they faced. It’s people that have team sports, or a leader in their peer world, or in a fraternity or sorority. It’s people who’ve had maybe just a horrible job but stuck with it, somebody who really needed to work and just had to get a job and took the job that paid the best because they absolutely needed that money. And you find these people. I can teach them to design mechanical systems and electrical systems, but I can’t teach all those soft skills.
Ed Bosco (08:35):
So if you take a workforce that’s trained to change jobs every two or three years, you’re going to have five different engineers on that project and you got a mess. So we say we got longterm projects. If I can find longterm clients, longterm employees, if I can find staff that I can commit to forever, if I can look in someone’s eyes when they’re 21 years old and getting out of college and see who they are at 40, and see that they could fit into our plan, then I have a team that’s consistent through that project. It gets us away from that transactional work.
Ed Bosco (09:07):
The smaller work we talked about before it’ll come and go in six months, and it’s fine that someone stays two years because they could do four of those. But once it flips the other way and you really have to staff a job almost forever, you really need those longterm people. You have to hire not based on the individual specific skill. You have to hire somebody you can imagine growing with for the next 15 or 20 years. Then at some point I retire and they’re the core of the firm, but it’s not like you’re running out trying to find somebody to run this firm from scratch. Those people have been there 15 years and they already understand it. So that’s been our secret. It’s finding people we can commit to longterm. It’s dealing with whatever happens. It’s exciting along the way. They get married, they have kids, people get sick. There’s an awful lot of stuff that happens, but you deal with it like a family.
Jerry Cahn (09:54):
If you just listened to yourself and I hope all the leaders that are listening to this podcast will hear it, is that the key to leadership from a transformational point of view is the day after tomorrow, and the day after that, to see the longterm timelines that we have to live with in our society today, and that what we have to do is plan for it, bring in the right kind of team that can be there. The concept of bringing in someone to succeed you for tomorrow is good. But the problem is, the challenge is to bring in people today at 20 who will want to stay there for 20 to 30 years and grow it, and will organically pour their hearts in like you have with your science, and your interesting customers, and interested in projects to be able to take us to another level, so I want to applaud you for being a great transformational leader. I thank you very much, Ed. I really hope a lot of people will learn from what you’ve said. Thank you.
Ed Bosco (10:51):
Thanks for helping me. It’s been a great relationship and we’re just getting started.
Sam Reese (11:42):
Welcome back here. I’m sitting here with Jerry. Jerry’s walking through some of his insights on transformational leadership. Welcome back, Jerry.
Jerry Cahn (11:52):
Well, thank you for inviting me.
Sam Reese (11:54):
Well, let’s take off on right from the start of our discussion. You start off right at the start talking about transformational leadership. What does transformational leadership mean to you? Give me a little bit more around your definition of that.
Jerry Cahn (12:07):
Okay. So transformational leadership consists of really a mindset that’s totally different than what we do right now. So leadership is what we’ve all been raised to look at, to understand. Eisenhower has this great definition. It’s getting people to do, because they want to do what you want to do. They recognize they have to change their mindset. Covey has a great expression, we should start with the end in mind. I love that because that kind of starts where I go.
Jerry Cahn (12:34):
So I call it, we should be focusing on the day after tomorrow. We both have young men as children in their twenties. We’re working as hard as we can for their world. We are a function of our parents’ world, and we have a choice. Are our kids going to be a function of the world we grew in and screwed up maybe a lot, or are we going to be a function of changing the world for them? So the mindset is that you’re focused on the day after tomorrow. We talk about blind spots. One of the greatest blind spots is, what’s going to happen the day after tomorrow, okay?
Jerry Cahn (13:08):
So, I mean, think about the way the stock market works. If you had zero people making deliveries in 2019, roughly, and then in 2020 you’ve got Seamless and Grubhub and everybody else making them, and Netflix generating all kinds of films. And now we go to the next phase of where the pandemic is going to go, people say, “Oh my God. People aren’t going to be home watching TV anymore. They’re going to want to go cook. They’re going to go to restaurants. They’re not going to be there. What’s going to happen?” Well, the smartest people have thought that through already. They’ve figured that out. Take Zoom. Zoom came up about two months ago, I remember reading, with a new way of using Zoom, something that they can basically have other companies white label as part of their operating systems for what they’re doing. Because we’re not going to use it. Does that mean we can do it more often? Sure. But we’re going to do it in a different way.
Taking a transformational approach to the business
Sam Reese (14:00):
When you look at Ed, your member, how did Ed have himself prepared for this pandemic? I feel proud of some of the things we were able to do as a company, just always being ready for whatever the environment throws at you and then having a long-term strategy. But what was it that had his business so pressure tested and ready to go, where they actually embraced it and were sort of excited about it? What was it he did?
Jerry Cahn (14:25):
So I think the real answer is, from the very beginning he took what I’ll call a transformational approach to his business and asked a couple of different questions. The first one was, how do we become transformational? Well, think of a fireman. In the early days of fire, what it meant is of somebody’s house was on fire, we all grabbed a pail and we took water and throw it, and we kept building fire departments to fight fires. But at the end of the day, what was the smartest thing is? Fire protection, by preventing it by changing the codes and buildings, by creating spaces, by creating all kinds of other ways of getting people out. We could save 10 times as many lives. That’s a transformational thought process. He’s been doing that. What he’s done is he’s said, “If I want to build a company that’s going to attract the best people and it’s exciting to work for, what do I have to do? I have to work on big challenges.” So he started looking for big challenges.
Sam Reese (15:20):
When you think about Ed and these things he does as a transformational leader, what are some of the other leadership qualities that you see of him? And I’d say some of the top CEOs you’ve worked with that allowed them to navigate this really crazy environment over the last year, that you might be able to organize and say, “These are the things that were similar with the people that really came out of this pandemic and had their company still strong.” What did you see?
3 things that run a company: Strategy, culture and leadership
Jerry Cahn (15:45):
There are three things that run a company, essentially: strategy, culture, and leadership. And you have to work on all of them. What strategy is all about is guessing. It’s scenarios. You take scenarios, you look at them, you look at the data, and then you have to take an educated guess of where to go. And what transformational leaders are about is they can juggle. They can eat… They can walk and chew gum at the same time. They can kind of look at it and figure it out where they’re going. So going into the COVID situation was fascinating in this way. All of them understand that strategy is about making trade-offs and they need as much information as they can, and they know they have to be scientific. A lot of them are in their own ways, which means you experiment. It’s a hypothesis. You try it out, et cetera.
Jerry Cahn (16:32):
The second part is culture. It’s not something anyone puts on walls. We know that. What it’s all about as the actions and behaviors of people. But the difference here for all of my members, and I think that’s one of the criteria, is they have a growth mindset, meaning they’re not hiring people to stay in the job forever and ever. That’s one of the problems when people talk about engagement and everything, that they’re missing. The goal of a person is that they become part of your group that’s growing your company over years, but moving up. That’s really what Ed told us in that interview is that I learned these people are going to work on these long projects for 20 years, and I want to work with them on it because the challenges get better and it means people have full-time jobs. They don’t have to worry about it, and I build better stuff. And that’s the point.
Sam Reese (17:24):
Tell me more about that, because his interviewing process, there are a couple things that jumped out at me. One, that he said, we don’t just try and look for the exact qualifications. And two, it was something around, hey, we’ll spend three or four hours with somebody just to make sure that they’re somebody we can get along with. Tell me about how that aligns with the culture that he’s trying to build.
Jerry Cahn (17:42):
That whole concept of interviewing that we’ve done and seen in the last 20, 30 years is very antiquated. He gets it. We’ve had these kinds of conversations because why? Because at the end of the day, what you’re looking for is where’s your imagination? Again, the day after tomorrow. Where do you want to be? And that’s what he’s looking for, people who want to improve, who want to learn, and that’s why the interviews are so important. And then going back to culture, you want to be with other people who are like-minded in that. They will challenge you. They will help you see a blind spot. That’s the value of Vistage. You’re working with other transformational leaders that are challenging you if you’re willing to be challenged, and that’s what’s great about it.
Having a fixed vs. a growth mindset
Sam Reese (18:25):
Now, I’m hearing a lot of CEOs nervous about the future and they take a different take on it. I’d like to get your take, and maybe you could juxtapose it with the way that Ed thinks about his business. A lot of them are worried that what’s happened with COVID and this work from home is that productivity is going to go down, and that people are not going to want to collaborate, and that people are all focused on what’s comfortable for them and not connected to the business. It’s becoming more about what I want to do, not what I could do for the business. What do you think about that trend or that as a real possibility? Because I know a lot of people are nervous about that.
Jerry Cahn (19:00):
So two answers to that. Remember there’s a difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
Sam Reese (19:05):
Jerry Cahn (19:06):
So in a fixed mindset, if that’s how you’re going at it, I can’t probably do very much for you other than say, wait and see what happens. If you have a growth mindset, now you really take a look at it a different way and you say, look, productivity went up during the initial weeks of the pandemic for a simple reason. People had a task, a responsibility, they knew what they had to do. They didn’t spend two hours traveling. They could focus. They didn’t care if they worked until 8:00 at night, because guess what? At 2:00 I took my kid out to take a walk together or whatever. So again, they had a full life. They reallocated the 24 hours of the day in whatever way they wanted, including getting up at 3:00 in the morning sometimes to work on something because they couldn’t sleep and whatever the case may be.
Jerry Cahn (19:51):
Other people aren’t going to be like that and for them more structure is necessary. What’s happened, and I’m seeing this right now, is that people are tired of just working on what they’ve done. They want to change. They want to grow. So they don’t want to give up their kids. They don’t want to give up their family. The smart transactional leadership companies will say, let’s talk about the day after tomorrow. Let’s talk about the things we have to do, things we haven’t done yet, and how would you like to get involved? Then except that some of them are going to say, “Can I come in every day? Because I hate working in my bathroom.” And some will say to you, “I love being there and helping to tutor my kid when he’s got a math problem and that he doesn’t understand, but I don’t mind coming in whenever we’re going to work on what’s the plan, how are we changing our strategy, how are we opening up new markets, how to create new relationships with new countries.” For those who take advantage of this growth, some will be at home. Some will not. They will want to collaborate because they know what they’re collaborating on. That’s what’s really difficult right now.
Sam Reese (20:56):
Jerry, you’ve been doing this work almost, I think, 11 years here. We’ve just been very fortunate to have you a part of our team for 11 years. What is the reason you have so much passion behind this work? Because you clearly are just a bundle of energy, a bundle of passion. Tell me more about why this work is so important to you.
Jerry Cahn (21:17):
Because we need to unleash more transformational leaders. Again, it’s about, remember I told you, it’s where you come from. My parents were Holocaust survivors. They came here, nothing. My father came to this country on a banana boat and they couldn’t do very much. When I came to Kona College, I had to kind of figure it all on my own. And unfortunately I was older than many of the people I knew, so I didn’t have any guidance. I had to kind of figure this out on my own. That got me thinking about how many other people must be like that. Today that’s why I have that mentoring program and we’ve been running it through the pandemic. Once we got the lockdown done, we started it again. I’ve got right now, one of my hopefully best students ever showing up for the summer right now.
Jerry Cahn (22:03):
I have faith. I have a growth mindset. I have faith that we can solve our problems and we can create a better world. I have three children, three boys like you do, who I made a decision to have, if God granted me that ability, because I wanted to give them a better world than I grew up in. That was my goal and that’s been my drive, and I work with all of my people to do the same thing. Give them a better world and give them the chance to pass that onto their kids. That’s what drives me.
Sam Reese (22:33):
Well, I would tell you that we certainly feel very privileged to have you part of our team and you are making a huge impact. Thanks so much for spending time with me today. Thanks so much for spending time talking about an incredible member of yours, Ed Bosco. It’s just been a pleasure spending time with you, Jerry.
Jerry Cahn (22:51):
The feeling is 100% mutual. Thank you so much.
Sam Reese (22:59):
Thanks again to Ed and Jerry for such a great conversation, and thanks to all of you for joining us on this edition of A Life Of Climb podcast. This is only the start of the journey we’ll be taking together, so please subscribe to follow the podcast to get all of the latest episodes. Visit vistage.com/climbpodcast for more resources to support you on your own leadership journey.