David Bolt of GMB Architecture and Engineering: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company
Have a growth mindset. Leaders are going to make mistakes, lots of them. Early on, I would get frozen in decision making because I was afraid of making the wrong choice. My world changed when I read Carol Dweck’s book, “Mindset,” and realized that making mistakes was the best way to learn. I started to tell myself, “sure you might have been more ready for this role in 5 or 10 years, but think of all the things you’ll learn by doing the role now. In 5 or 10 years, you’ll be twice as ready as you would have been had you not taken this role.”
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing David Bolt. He is the President of GMB Architecture and Engineering — a company that believes in generating more for the world, by working with communities to equip students for lifelong learning. David is a 1999 Calvin University graduate with degrees in business and communications and earned a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Michigan. He has spent his entire career with GMB, where he began as an intern in 1999. In 2015, David was entrusted with the presidency of the company and has worked to create a human-centered workplace. He is passionate about building GMB into a Team of Teams’ His job is to inspire, lead, dream, and provide an environment for teams to learn, grow and give. David is a Grand Rapids Business Journal 40 under 40 award recipient and a Holland Young Professionals Leadership Matters award winner. GMB was named a Best and Brightest company to work for in West Michigan in 2018, 2019 and 2020, a Crane’s Cool Place to Work in 2018, a 2018 Michigan 50 Companies to Watch, and a 2019 and 2020 Best and Brightest in the Nation company to work for and wellness program.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m an architect by training, and that was how I got started at GMB. Architecture is about making the world a better, more livable, more beautiful place, and for me, I discovered that my true passion was ultimately finding how people can live a better, more beautiful life. This led me to working more and more in the systems that drove our company rather than the product we were making. After being an architect for 12 years, I became the president of our company 6 years ago.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Being in a 50-year-old company, I had the benefit of a lot of foundational groundwork laid by many others who came before me and who worked with me. But the aha moment that revolutionized how we run our company was a combination of a few ideas and inspirations borrowed from others.
The aha moment came in realizing that in order for our company to be best equipped to bring about a future full of rapid change, we needed to create a foundation of trust in order to best work together. That led to our development of a network-of-teams environment built on trusting each other to create opportunity for all.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
There were so many obstacles. Part of having a great foundation for our company also meant taking the bad with the good. Picking apart some of those foundational things that needed to go in order to free us up to make the leap to the future was hard. Many times, I did, and still do, have moments where this monumental work seems impossible. My drive always comes from wanting to create a better future for everyone. Whenever something seems like a struggle, I remind myself that there is a real person on the other side who needs the benefit of the change we are fighting for.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Change is ever present. The biggest win for all the hard work that we’ve put in has been creating a flexible company that can adapt to whatever is next. We’ve seen that over the past year more than ever and it’s exciting to have a company positioned to lead our future.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’ve aligned our belief system into our company purpose — to help communities invest in the future by creating learning ecosystems and providing opportunities for all, with our internal systems of company organization, ownership and empowerment. Everyone can control their own destiny when they are in a system that provides maximum opportunity. Education can do that for learners everywhere, regardless of what phase of life they’re in, and so does our company for our employees and clients alike.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Too many of our leaders are shaped by an old, classic “hero” model. I think the worst advice I ever received was that someone told me that early on as president I was going to have to make an example of someone in order to show that I wasn’t someone to be messed with. That’s terrible advice — I became so worried about finding that situation, and how I was going to have to act. It’s so in-authentic to who I am as a person and a leader. The whole thing bombed greatly and burned capital with those around me rather than actually building it. I now know that the best way to gain respect is to create trust through vulnerability — basically the exact opposite of the advice I received.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Empathy. One advantage I have in my position is that I have worked my way in the company from intern to president. I have done every job in the company from delivering blueprints to contractors and filling up cars with gas, to designing buildings, leading project teams, dealing with clients, and ultimately president of the company. Because I know what it is like to be in each part of the organization, I can empathize with many of my coworkers and understand what they are thinking and feeling.
- Future thinking. I really tend to live in the future. I get so excited by new technologies and future possibilities. The fact that I’m dreaming half the time about what is possible, helps me to get beyond the moment to imagine what is coming next.
- Humility. It feels strange to put this on a list, but I truly believe that humility has allowed me to be successful. In wanting more for others than for myself, it was easier to have a team that works together and balances all our strengths and weaknesses. I’m just a single part of a whole team, and I just happen to play the president role, but this is not anything that I could have accomplished on my own.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Two things that I do to keep things “fresh.” First, read lots of books. They give you so many new ideas to think and dream about. Whenever I’m feeling stagnant, I try to read something new. It’s not always the ideas in the book that are great, but it gets the wheels spinning and makes me excited again for the future. Secondly, whenever I start to think that everything is hopeless and too much, I look at the people I work with and remind myself that I truly want to make life better for them. I imagine all the great things that they will be able to do to change the world, and it inspires me to keep going, to give them that platform to be change makers and learners in our world.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Focusing way too much on the minutia and not enough on the vision and dream that got them started in the first place. It’s easy to get dragged down into the day-to-day issues and lose sight of where you’re going, thinking that you can put it off until later.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Giving and receiving feedback is one of the hardest and yet most valuable skills that a leader can have.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be authentic. Early in my role as leader, I would try to act like previous leaders, or other people I knew who were successful. But this was so wearying because it wasn’t me. When we can’t be ourselves, we have to “flex” into another role; it’s exhausting, and I found that I was burning out so quickly. Once I accepted that I could just be myself, not put on an act or play a role, leading became easier.
- Be humble. No one is a lone wolf; we live in a community with each other and we share our successes and failures together. Practicing humility makes you a better listener, better able to inspire your team, and keep everyone focused on the organization’s goals.
- Care, but don’t micromanage. A leader’s only job is to care for those who they lead, so those people can take care of their work. When leaders micromanage, they lose the trust of their employees, and risk pulling the organization down rather than lifting it up.
- Have a growth mindset. Leaders are going to make mistakes, lots of them. Early on, I would get frozen in decision making because I was afraid of making the wrong choice. My world changed when I read Carol Dweck’s book, “Mindset,” and realized that making mistakes was the best way to learn. I started to tell myself, “sure you might have been more ready for this role in 5 or 10 years, but think of all the things you’ll learn by doing the role now. In 5 or 10 years, you’ll be twice as ready as you would have been had you not taken this role.”
- Empower others. Don’t take other people’s problems — empower them to figure out how to solve it; that’s how they learn the most. A common mistake most leaders make is wanting to solve everyone’s problems for them. And a lot of employees just take their problems to the “boss” to solve. Every time a leader just solves the problem for someone, you’re stealing their opportunity to contribute. Sure, they won’t solve the problem the same way you would, but their growth is going to lead them to do great things that you never would have thought.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think revolutionizing education is our number one priority. When you think about the amount of brains, energy and ideas that are untapped in this world because too many people haven’t had the opportunity to learn and grow and contribute, it’s a cause worth fighting for. Education creates opportunity, and opportunity inspires growth, creating a better world.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Follow me personally on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-bolt-74528012/
Or follow the company on Twitter: https://twitter.com/gmb_ae?lang=en
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!