As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Justin Krueger, CEO of MFRG-ICON Construction. His company is an award-winning General Contractor that solely focuses on the occupied renovation of affordable housing communities throughout the country. The company’s accomplishments have been recognized by INC Magazine, USA Today’s Top Employers, and Arizona’s Corporate Excellence award for fastest growing privately held company. Krueger credits his company’s culture as the key to their success and wakes up every day with a smile knowing that he’s responsible for making a huge social impact while changing lives.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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?
Well, that’s a loaded question! I grew up in Wisconsin and I think my mid-west values have been the driving factor in my career. Things did not start out great. A 1.7 GPA in high school was far from impressive and my first business was a complete failure. Looking back on my business’s failure; I’m grateful it happened because that was my “education.” Like the old saying goes, fall down 10 times, get up 11. That is me in a nutshell. Perseverance, hard work, street smarts, and my ability to surround myself with incredible people are my greatest qualities. Construction was a fluke but it really started with my dad showing me how to fix or build just about anything.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was starting out as a Project Manager, I was about to start a new project and I had studied it extensively. I called my client and after saying hello, I spoke for about 5 minutes straight without letting them get a word in. When I finally shut up, they said “Justin, we have no idea what you’re talking about.” Turns out, I called the wrong client. That taught me to slow down a little. Party Foul.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I totally agree. First and foremost, my beautiful wife, Erika. She’s put up with my ever-changing schedule and is an incredible mother to our three children. I have been flying 100 times a year for 14 years straight, and she picks up my slack when I can’t be home. I’d be remiss not to thank my mentor and business partner, Kelly Sands. He gave me a chance, taught me the business, helped craft my business skills, and it changed my life.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My goal was to look back at all the good and bad experiences throughout my career. My vision was to take the good experiences and incorporate them into my business. Equally as important, I would do everything possible to avoid the bad things I experienced.
My overall goal was and still is; to treat our team, our clients, and our subcontractors like family. I am proud to say that I know our team’s spouses, children, and in some cases, parents and grandchildren.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Business can be tough, but COVID-19 was the most challenging. March 2020 was probably the most brutal month of my life. There was so much information coming in, and it was continually changing. For almost two weeks, I thought the world was ending. I had not been sleeping, so I was watching the news constantly. I sat down with my #2 at work, and together, we made some tough decisions. The best decision made that day was deciding to no longer watch the news. We had a business to run, and we needed to continue to be the company we were before COVID, during COVID and to strive to be a better company after COVID. We communicated 12–16 hours a day with our team, our clients, and it made all the difference. We made things happen that other companies could not, and our business ended up growing more than 20% during the pandemic.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Being an entrepreneur isn’t easy.
Being the boss isn’t easy. You realize that you live in a “glass house.”
Everyone inside and outside of your organization is always watching your every move. It’s tough to live that way, but at the end of the day, I chose that path.
My motivation comes from never wanting to fail again. I’m far from perfect, but I will NOT fail.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Staying calm, and maintaining confidence in yourself and in your business.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Engage your team. Be present and reinforce that you’re going to get to the finish line and that you will do it as a team. Remind them that no matter what is thrown at you, you are stronger together.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
We call them courageous conversations. Do not wait; pick up the phone or meet in person immediately and lay out the facts.
Have a proposed solution or different ideas available.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Finalize your yearly plan and budget prior to December and count on it happening. Always have a plan B, plan C, and plan D. Pivot and pivot fast. Do not worry about things that you cannot control.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
A strong culture. It may sound cliché, but having a great company culture can carry a company through the best and the worst. Having a leadership team or stakeholders that you trust and rely on will hold its weight in gold.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Leaders who wait for their competition to react in difficult times rather than forge their own path. Your mindset should be that you are your competition, and you shouldn’t worry about anyone else. Generally, this is ego-driven.
- Ownership or leadership not being forthcoming with accurate information. You need to be vulnerable and not sugar coat information. Doing this will lose respect from your team and kill your morale.
- Trying to be great at everything. It’s impossible and I have seen so many companies make this mistake. You should stay in your lane and focus on your strengths.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
When the economy is difficult, you need to understand it’s difficult on most parties. Your existing relationships are your primary concern and by focusing on doing everything in your power to help them will always be remembered. Those relationships will cultivate a deeper appreciation and they will introduce you to others in their world which will ultimately turn into business.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Communication. Over Communicate Constantly. Share information daily if needed. It’s ok not to have an update, but you will realize that people appreciate you staying on top of it.
- Remain Confident. Once you lose your confidence, your company is in major trouble. Lean on those closest to you and trust in them to rise up and help handle anything.
- Be vulnerable. This doesn’t show weakness and people appreciate having your emotion front and center. Your passion will be contagious.
- Stick to your vision even though you may have to change your vision. It’s normal to evolve. Most companies who “have done it this way for 20 years” are losing market share by the minute.
- Self Care. Take time to yourself. Recharge to give it your all. I used to be guilty of this, and if you don’t work on yourself, everything in your life is affected whether you know it’s happening or not.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Simon Sinek — “The best way to drive performance in an organization is to create an environment in which information can flow freely, mistakes can be highlighted, and help can be offered and received.” Simon is my favorite author.
How can our readers further follow your work?
LinkedIn is the best for MFRG-ICON and myself