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From barracks to boardroom: How Bill Sandbrook parlayed military experience into corporate success

You will know when to ask me for permission.
— Bill Sandbrook

As a former school leader turned organizational psychologist and executive coach, I hold a particular interest in how leadership plays out in various professional fields. I like to know what similarities exist between, say, leading a mission-driven not-for-profit and running a corporation, and how experiences in one arena may play out in a new environment. I use that information to help guide clients to the best outcomes for themselves and their organizations.

It was thus a particular treat for me to be given the opportunity to interview Bill Sandbrook. Sandbrook, who has served as CEO of U.S. Concrete Inc. for the past five years, is a military veteran who uses his experiences in the armed forces to help him lead one of the most successful corporations in the building materials industry. I sat down with Sandbrook to learn more about his story and the intersection between his military training and successful corporate leadership.

Sandbrook took over U.S. Concrete in August 2011, at a precarious stage in the company’s development. It had recently filed for and emerged from Chapter 11, the stock was trading below $2 per share by the end of the year, and its new board of directors was looking to quickly change the corporate culture while generating much-needed shareholder equity.

Not surprisingly, when Sandbrook arrived he found a defeated executive team. The company was in free fall, stock options had become near worthless, and bonuses were not handed out in many years. Moreover, the entire organization was embedded in an ask-first culture, in which all decisions, large or small, had become channeled through (and often rejected by) central command in a desperate attempt to preserve limited corporate resources. This approach had stifled personal creativity and decisiveness and overburdened leadership with weighing in on too many petty details. He knew that this needed to change quickly.

In his words, Sandbrook did this by getting out there. He was a regular at each of the company’s plants throughout the country and took the time to meet individually with as many of his people as possible. He understood the importance of changing the thinking and practice at U.S. Concrete’s highest levels and felt that the best way to do that was to be present and engage in direct conversation. He spent most of the time listening, knowing that this would best help him to understand the issues and how to support and guide his people. He was interested in “tactical feedback” (military language for planning and operations), not just strategic insights.

Sandbrook addressed the culture of fear through empowerment. “You will know,” he said, “when to ask me for permission.” The refrain was repeated continually over a couple of months before it slowly became accepted. Folks had gotten used to being micromanaged and distrusted and had difficulty adjusting to this new way of thinking.

When I asked Sandbrook whether it was harder to emerge from Chapter 11 or to resurrect a defeated leadership team, he quickly said the latter. You can find ways to get funding and other components that are needed for a turnaround, he told me, but it’s not so easy to change people’s mindsets and behaviors.

Success, he said, works from the inside out or from small to big. To use a military analogy, he sought to make winners out of people who weren’t used to winning. Once they developed a greater sense of control, efficacy and success on a personal level, it was just a matter of time before the company would benefit. As of this writing, the stock trades well over $50 per share.

As our conversation unfolded it was clear to me that Sandbrook’s turnaround approach leaned heavily on his military past. In the military, a leader’s primary task is to make a winning team. Soldiers must believe that they are winners if they are to achieve anything of substance. Even mediocre talent can win if the team believes in itself and acts cohesively, putting “we” first.

In addition, the battlefield demands the ability to make sense of multiple, concurrent inputs. With threats from all over, information may be sporadic and imperfect, but it’s what you have to work with. A leader’s role is to take what he’s given and analyze it as well as possible to produce the best possible outcome.

These lessons translate easily to corporate leadership. For starters, leaders must find ways to build up our teams, individually and collectively. We may not always be surrounded by the best talent, but that should not stop us from empowering our people and finding ways to bring their abilities and strengths together.

In many ways the marketplace is like a battlefield. There, too, critical decisions have to be made, often on a moment’s notice and without the benefit of complete information. When opportunities and threats encircle us, we can’t just sit on our hands and wait for complete clarity. These circumstances demand that we chart a course of action and then be flexible as needed.

After 9/11

While Sandbrook has managed to bring U.S. Concrete to new heights in just five years under his leadership, perhaps his greatest command was spent organizing and executing a massive cleanup effort shortly after 9/11. At the time the Twin Towers fell, Bill was employed by a company with operations in West Nyack, N.Y., a short drive to Ground Zero. Sandbrook and his team viewed with horror from the top of a quarry site as both towers collapsed.

Immediately, he sprang into action. Sandbrook used connections with local political leaders to offer them a fleet of heavy equipment to help with search and rescue. At 4 a.m. the next morning he got the call. He would need to get his equipment to the George Washington Bridge by no later than noon, no simple logistical feat. They would be met by police escorts and then soon deployed to Lower Manhattan clearing roads of crushed vehicles.

Throughout this episode Sandbrook acted unilaterally. Though he did not have approval from his superiors, he knew what needed to be done and set about making things happen. Sandbrook set up a command and control center and stayed on site round-the-clock to make sure everything was coordinated until the order came to withdraw their equipment.

Military leaders are trained to think on their feet and make timely decisions based on what the situation demands. They also learn early on to put their people first and to serve and support them in their efforts.

Though 9/11 was tragic in so many ways, its heroes remind us of the power of strong leadership and what can be accomplished when people come together and are empowered to make a difference, something that Sandbrook has made central to his leadership style in the military, after 9/11 and throughout his time at U.S. Concrete.

This post first appeared in SmartBrief on Leadership.