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Leadership Through Brush Strokes

I recently had my living room painted. My initial goal was to stay out of their way, but as I was holed up upstairs, I overheard a few things that stuck out to me: “I’m almost done here.” “You grab that and I’ll finish up here” “What’s left?”

My particular favorite conversation was when the owner, Pete Gray, asking his guy, “how did you prep that?” He could tell his guy felt a little defensive, so he followed with, “I’m not questioning, just trying to understand your process.” This led to a conversation that highlighted Pete’s skillful leadership in effectively creating a climate of open communication, growth & development and innovation.


Here’s what I observed:

  • The simple act of explaining why he wanted to know, put his guy at ease. This opened up dialogue, and created an environment of open communication.
  • This also created an opportunity for learning for all involved. The owner showed that even with all his experience, he was receptive to something new and still growth minded.
  • He cultivated innovation. He didn’t shut down his guy. He didn’t resort to, “this is how we’ve always done it.” Instead, he realized his employees are intelligent and capable (which is probably why he hired them) and gave them the space to experiment, potentially fail and grow.

“What I heard were professionals who took pride in their work to do their best”

In another instance, he explained the WHY. This in itself gets me excited, because the easy way is to just say, “just do what I told you to do,” or my least favorite, “because I said so.” The employee was asking about moving the paint up the stairway. He was trying to go above and beyond the scope of the job to blend a corner. The owner explained that they’d be back to do the next section at a later date. The employee asked a few questions to clarify what the intent was, because he obviously takes pride in his work and didn’t want to just leave it not looking great. Pete could’ve easily gotten frustrated, and resorted to those responses, but not once did I hear him shut his guy down or show frustration. Instead, he explained his process up to that point, and the plans for the next phase. As a result, they were able to move forward on the same page.

In almost every discussion I heard an explanation or a lesson. I heard constant dialogue and communication. What I heard were professionals who took pride in their work to do their best, largely because I heard the environment that was cultivated by Pete.

Here’s how it benefited his business:

  • He had trust in his team. As a result he was able to leave and go to other worksites without having to worry that they would cut corners or misrepresent his company.
  • They had mutual respect. I heard tons of manners, and gratitude, throughout their conversation. So despite any challenges, they didn’t get rude or disrespectful. They talked it out and were able to get this big job done in good spirits.
  • Their communication and problem solving made them efficient. The checking in on their progress allowed them to prioritize what needed to be done, stay on task, and not overlap work.

When I told Pete about my observations, he downplayed it as just being an “old guy with experiences.” I don’t think Pete even realized how special this was. It’s easy for people to get stuck in their ways and resort to coercive or passive leadership. It takes much more effort and engagement to lead effectively. All of these wonderful attributes cultivated a culture of growth and collaboration, helping this team provide a fantastic experience and service.

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