Coaching Up Your Executive Team with Lawrence Armstrong at Ware Malcomb

CEOs often look for ambition within their organization but can overlook the importance of coaching up the ladder. Today’s guest is Lawrence Armstrong, Chairman at Ware Malcomb, ranked at #4019 on the 2020 Inc 5000 list. Ware Malcomb provides planning, architecture, interior design, branding, and civil engineering services to commercial real estate and corporate clients. Lawrence has reaped the benefits of coaching up within an organization in his leadership position. He encourages all organizations that aspire to be fast-growing to learn why coaching up is so beneficial, even more so than hiring new talent. Learn how you can apply these principles to your own company.

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Target Audience: Lawrence Armstrong is the Chairman at Ware Malcomb. Ware Malcomb is a contemporary and expanding full-service design firm providing professional architecture, planning, interior design, civil engineering, branding, and building measurement services to corporate, commercial/residential developer,s and public/institutional clients throughout the world. With office locations throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico, the firm specializes in the design of the commercial office, corporate, industrial, science & technology, healthcare, retail, auto, public/institutional facilities, and renovation projects. Ware Malcomb is recognized as an Inc. 5000 fastest-growing private company and a Hot Firm by Zweig Group.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Lawrence Armstrong
It becomes really important, I think, to get the growth, and all the aspects of the company sort of covered and running in an excellent way. And so I think choosing the right people and trying to estimate that out is is really important. You know, not being afraid to change people until you find the right people is another one. That’s very important. I think we just have to end up you have to be relentless about having the right number, the right people in the right seats. To help you get there. We’ve been very fortunate that, our executive teams been in place for 15 years almost. And so after a lot of tinkering, a few years before that, we ended up with this awesome, what I call world-class executive team.

Intro [0:55]
Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs of the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host, my name is Gene Hammett. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth, are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett [1:12]
Developing an executive team is a very important job for the CEO, when you have a strong executive team that really is clear about what the mission of the business is, knows how to execute Heaven knows how to connect with the people, and knows how to get the most out of the people by creating an atmosphere of high performance and creating the right culture, then you’ve got something magical. Your job as CEO is to optimize your executive team. Now, how do you do that? Well, today we’re going to talk about coaching up the executive team, your job is not to solve their problems for them, but actually to create space for them to think about the problems from different perspectives, to ask them questions that allow them to discover this for themselves, coaching them up, will give them the confidence and courage as leaders to go out there and really take ownership or empower them to really develop the others inside the company. That really is a powerful force inside the business when you coach up your executive team. So our guest today is the chairman of where Malcomb they’re an architectural firm, over 600 employees, many, many countries, they’ve grown to this level. And we talked with Lawrence Armstrong about what does it mean to coach up your executive team? What does that really look like? And we get into the details of how long he spends with them. And one of the important details is about who brings the agenda? Well, you have to tune into the interview to find out what that is.

Gene Hammett [2:37]
My name is Gene Hammett, I work with the founders and CEOs of fast-growth companies. If you have a challenge in front of you that you’re not quite sure you know what to do next, or you’d like to talk to an executive coach about getting a clear perspective about how to move forward, then make sure you reach out to me on my website, There’s a link in there to start your journey. I’d love for you to think about what is next for your journey as a leader, and contact me so that I can help you get more clear about it. If there’s a chance for us to work together, we’ll talk about it. If not, then we’ll be friends. And I’ll be glad to help you in any way I can. And when you think about leadership, and you think about your own growth, make sure you go to, and go start your journey if you want to be a visionary leader for your company. Now, here’s the interview with Lawrence Armstrong.

Gene Hammett [3:22]
How are you?

Lawrence Armstrong [3:23]
I’m doing awesome. How are you doing?

Gene Hammett [3:25]
Great. I’ve been doing a little bit of a second round of interviews. It’s the second time you’ve been on the podcast. So thanks for taking your time.

Lawrence Armstrong [3:31]
Absolutely. Well, thanks for having me. I look forward to it.

Gene Hammett [3:35]
I would love for you to give us the context of Ware Malcomb. And just really just tell us about the company or Ware Malcomb sorry. Right.

Lawrence Armstrong [3:45]
So, right. We are an international architecture, interior design, civil engineering, and branding company based here in Irvine, California. And we have 23 offices across North America, basically. And, you know, we’ve grown over time from a regional Southern California company into you know, what we are now.

Gene Hammett [4:09]
And over 600 employees, that’s still accurate.

Lawrence Armstrong [4:12]
Yes. Over 600 employees, right.

Gene Hammett [4:15]
The reason why I brought you back on the show is because I think a lot of CEOs want to know what’s next. And you’ve actually taken this leap recently, and I’m not sure how recently but you’ve moved from Chairman or from CEO to chairman of the company, how recently and kind of walk us through kind of why you made that move.

Lawrence Armstrong [4:34]
Well, okay, great. Well, I we transitioned basically January 1 of this year, so we’re almost a year into this now, which is great. You know, the reason I do it was it was time to transition the company. I was ready I felt like my team was ready behind me to take over and in the Definitely where they definitely are. And they’re doing an awesome job. And so I’m in that transition role right now, and really enjoying sort of the new role of advising versus running a company every day.

Gene Hammett [5:14]
Well, before we cut in the recording here, we talked about the theme for the show, which is really about coaching up your executive team. But you were kind of talking about one of the big choices that happen when you’re building an executive team, which one of the options is let’s go hire some really experienced smart people? Or let’s build them up? Walk me through kind of that which process you see has worked for you?

Lawrence Armstrong [5:38]
Yeah, so? Well, you know, in our case, I would say it’s a combination of both with the sort of overriding goal is when you understand and set out your vision for where you want to take the company, what the goals are, what the culture is, what you’re trying to accomplish. And then to get there, you know, in a company like ours, like any company, the team is the most important thing. And so you have to assemble a team that you believe can execute on the goals, and help define them in the first place. And so, over time, I think we’ve found a good mix of, you know, bringing people up through the company, and giving them opportunities for promotions and to grow their career with what they’re, you know, in the direction they’re passionate about. Or, and or hiring senior people with experience, that maybe don’t quite get our culture quite yet. But I definitely understand the business and the competency of leadership and what they’re trying to do. And, and so then, you know, it’s a combination of learning skill and experience versus learning are having the experience but learning our culture and learning to fit in and, and support the, you know, the sort of the program.

Gene Hammett [7:04]
So when you think about that, having both has worked for you. You’ve seen probably companies out there that have chosen one path of the other more more regularly, what were your thoughts, when someone shows, I’m going to go out there and buy my team and hire just expense, the expensive experience people?

Lawrence Armstrong [7:24]
So I think that you know, we are not an acquisition machine over here, you know, we don’t, we’ve done some, and we’ve done some acquisitions, I think we’ve done five, and you know, there’s challenges no matter what you do, right. And so we’ve always preferred to promote from within because that’s our, that’s our culture, hair. That’s what worked. I mean, that’s what happened to me. So what happened to my partner is what happened to people right behind me, you know, coming up. And, you know, a lot of that has gone on, and it’s worked for us, it’s been great. Sometimes we don’t have the right people on the bench, you know, at the right time when we need to go into a new market. So we have to either hire that in or do an acquisition to get that. And, you know, I mean, anyone that’s done an acquisition will tell you, I mean, those aren’t always the smoothest thing, because you’re trying to meld two cultures, and employees don’t like change.

Lawrence Armstrong [8:19]
So sometimes employees with the original company you’re buying, don’t always hang around, they leave because it’s different and a lot different. And, you know, depending on the wants and needs of the seller, they may leave, or they may hang around for a while and be part of the solution. Or they may hang around for a while and not like the changes. So there are all kinds of things that go on. And you know, those are good learnings. They’ve been great learning experiences for us as we grow. You know, so it’s been this cool combination of bringing people up through the company, having some senior people or, you know, mid-career, people come into the company and meld in with the culture and, and I always say, when we hire a senior person, if they come in, and they’re open, and they want to understand our culture, and our goals and our vision, they usually do pretty well. If they come in, and they say, Well, I’m experienced, and I’m just going to do what I’ve always done in a different company, that usually doesn’t go and that doesn’t usually work out and they don’t usually end up being here. So, you know, that’s been our experience. And it’s, it’s fine. You know, that’s how that part of the process, you have to find the right people to put on your team, you know, these are, these are sort of long-standing. Good, great sort of concepts, right? And jack welch concepts, building your leadership team so.

Gene Hammett [9:46]
Let me transition into the reason why we really came here to talk about, you know, you saw your role as chairman of the company is his advisor to the current executive team, the CEO and I think those around him supporting him You said the words, the best way I have been able to do that is to coach them up. So what exactly is coaching up your executive team look like.

Lawrence Armstrong [10:11]
So it’s taken a few different forms over time. But they’ve, they’ve worked, you know, I’ll use sort of our long-standing concept around here of having a number two. And so we teach all our leaders that you have to have a number to somebody can fill in with you, for you, if, if you’re, you know, on vacation, somebody that can hopefully take over your business unit, if you get hit by a bus, you know, somebody brings along with you. And so I’ve always, for many years, have the ultimate number two, who is our now our new CEO, his name is Ken wake, they’ve done an awesome job. And I use to hold him up as an example, all the time. And the way we’ve done it is, you know, we have, I put them in an office with me, several years ago, we sit next to each other, he hears everything I say, you know, when I’m fed up, or have too much going on, I hand him something and delegate something to him, and he takes care of it. And so we end up with this, you know, a great relationship, he understands the company inside now, he gets he executes on everything I’ve ever asked him to do. And, and so he was more than ready to take over when we decided to make this transition. So that’s sort of one piece of it, you know, sort of this idea of the number two? And

Gene Hammett [11:30]
I’m kind of curious about what would his title be if he was the number two to the CEO of a company your size?

Lawrence Armstrong [11:36]
So he was the CEO, COO, basically.

Gene Hammett [11:39]

Lawrence Armstrong [11:40]
Or the president?

Gene Hammett [11:41]

Lawrence Armstrong [11:42]
He didn’t carry that title at the time. But he was an executive vice president at the time, he was basically in charge of operations for the company.

Gene Hammett [11:49]
Yeah, perfect. All right, so what’s the other piece behind this coaching up?

Lawrence Armstrong [11:52]
Well, then, you know, the other thing is, you’re just sort of filling out your executive team, right. And, you know, you have to have a strong CFO and a strong marketing group, and, you know, architectural, in our case, people watching over that, and interiors, and that sort of thing. So, you know, this is where it becomes really important, I think, to get the growth, and all the aspects of the company sort of covered and running, you know, in an excellent way. And so I think, choosing the right people, and trying esting note that out is, is really important. You know, not being afraid to change, people until you find the right people is another one, that’s very important, I think you just have to end up you have to be relentless about having the right number, the right people in the right seats.

Lawrence Armstrong [12:50]
To help you get there, we’ve been very fortunate that, you know, our executive team has been in place for, I don’t know, 15 years, at least. And so after a lot of tinkering, a few years before that, we ended up with this awesome, what I call world-class executive team. And, and then, you know, it’s just a matter of understanding each individual where their strengths and weaknesses are and spending, you know, quality time with them every month. You know, beyond the day to day what’s going on in the business, sort of helping them you know, understand where they’re strong, where they need to have areas they need to work on, and helping them with those, those ideas, those concepts, and so a lot of energy on that idea.

Commercial [13:41]
Hold on for a second, Lawrence just said that you shouldn’t be afraid to change out people when necessary. Now, what does he mean by that? Well, what I’ve seen in my journey of working with executives and their teams, is sometimes the people that got you to a certain point, aren’t the people to take you to that next milestone, for example, I’ve had a lot of companies that are going from a million to 10 million, well, it takes a different set of skills, a different set of leadership to manage that kind of team. And so sometimes you have to know when to let go of people. And you have to have the courage to have the conversations, if they can’t be coached up, you’ve got to coax them out. Now, I say this, because I care about your business. And I care about those people. If you take the perspective that you’re hurting them. What if you actually look at this differently and said, you know, what, if you are freeing them up to go be where they’re supposed to be because they’ve run their course where they are now, instead of looking at the negative side, you look at the positive side for them. Just a little bit of word of insight here, in this episode, back to Lawrence.

Gene Hammett [14:42]
Let’s dive into that. Because I want to make sure it’s really clear for you because I think this is not just a chairman role. I actually see that coaching up your executive team is really a CEO role, too. Would you agree to that, or did you see it differently?

Lawrence Armstrong [14:55]
Oh, 100%. I mean, this is I most of the time that I did what I want was saying I was the CEO. Right? And so it is a CEO role for sure.

Gene Hammett [15:04]
Have you on here? Because you’ve been through this not just for a year, but you’ve been doing this for many years. You said, once a month, is that about the frequency of a scheduled call? How long are those calls?

Lawrence Armstrong [15:16]
Yeah, so depending on the person, half-hour, an hour, okay, you know, it can happen more frequently if something comes up. But that’s generally what we do, just to get some space. You know, I, the way I coach is I usually give assignments in between, it’s like, okay, go work on this, try this, you know, come back in a month, let’s talk about it. Let’s check-in over the next couple of months on how you’re doing on this issue. So that’s kind of how I do it.

Gene Hammett [15:42]
Do they bring you their challenge? Or do you observe, observe this to say that, you know, this is something I think you need to work on? Which is, do you do both?

Lawrence Armstrong [15:51]
Well, mostly, it’s the first one. You know, usually, when I’m mentoring or coaching someone, I asked them to set the agenda, like, tell me what you’re, you know, what you’re struggling with what you think your goals are, that you’d like to achieve, you know, what is it that you’d like to do better? Or that you know, you’re trying to do, and then, you know, let them bring the agenda, then I ask a lot of questions that, you know, sometimes get to the heart of when I have a perception of something, maybe they’re not seeing, you know, I asked a lot of questions, but I usually let them set the agenda. Because, you know, I think, you know, if they are seeing and understanding what they want to work on, normally, they’re right. Occasionally, it might, they might be missing a piece that I see. And then I’ll figure out a way to weave that in as well. But that’s kind of how I do it.

Gene Hammett [16:41]
I want to make sure this is clear, too. Because I noticed within the clients, I coach, I coach a lot of CEOs, and that’s what I do behind this, this podcast is whatever they see as the issue was not really the issue. For example, I had a client once bring to me this issue, and he goes, I get too much email, and the too much email, like, you know, I hear it now I listened to him, and I try to understand what’s going on, and kind of what’s behind it. And I said, What if it’s not too much email? What if you get emails that you shouldn’t be getting? Because you haven’t empowered your people the right way? And he goes, I think that’s it. So you know, help them see what the real core issue is beyond the symptom that they’re feeling? Or?

Lawrence Armstrong [17:22]
I think that it’s Yes, I mean, that happens many, many times. And, you know, sometimes, though, I mean, it depends on the person, and they’re pretty, pretty self-aware of sometimes, and they get it and they want to understand how to break through a roadblock. Other times, they’re, yeah, they’re talking about sort of the end result, rather than the symptom that caused it. And then we help navigate around that by talking about it. You know, what, what I found over time is, so many of these issues that come up, are very prototype, I mean, you know, I, you see him over and over and over again. And a big one is I’m just delegation, you know, understanding how to delegate and empower, just like you were just saying, that’s a big one. And it’s kind of a prototype, kind of an issue.

Lawrence Armstrong [18:10]
I think a lot of people go through it. And, you know, the reason I think they go through it is that you know, whatever profession, you’re in Europe, you know, you’re doing your job, you went to school for x, in my case, an architect, and you become good at it. And then you get promoted into some management or leadership position. And you find out that’s a different job that you don’t have refined skills to do. And you didn’t go to school for that. Right. And so, a lot of times, you have to learn a lot about these kinds of things. And you have to learn that people don’t work just like you do. People aren’t motivated just like you are, you know, and you have to understand how to work with different people. And, and, you know, delegation and empowerment is a big one. That’s an art and a science. And people need guidance and understanding of how to do that. And that becomes a very common issue.

Commercial [19:11]
Now, hold on for a second, Lawrence has talked about delegation. And one of the things I’ve seen that people get wrong in this whole idea of delegation is they try to delegate for to someone a task, and they want to show them how to do it. Well, some employees need to know how to do it, maybe in the early stage of their careers. And maybe it’s something they’ve never done before. But eventually, you want to make sure that you’re not always telling them how to do it. You want to make sure that you’re signaling to them that you trust them, and you don’t delegate the task. You delegate, the direction you delegate, where we’re going. You delegate the goal, not how you get there because you want them to figure out the process. You want them to figure out the challenges along the way, and really have the grit to figure out how to get to the place where you’re really trying to be because the idea of how to do it From your perspective may not be actually the best way to get there, you may want to figure out how they can do it. And maybe they collaborate with others to figure out an even more elegant, more graceful way to get to where you really want to be, which is really the best thing for the overall company. So, and these two cents here is sometimes you don’t delegate the task, you delegate the direction, never an article about this for ink magazine. This is just a little bit of insight for you here, as you tune into this episode. Now, back to Lawrence.

Gene Hammett [20:29]
I want to give you just a chance to express your ideas on delegation because I have my own thoughts. What is the one thing that you see is people are getting wrong with delegation? And what do you need to do differently?

Lawrence Armstrong [20:42]
Yeah, so like, get, like so many subjects, it’s about a balance, right? I was taught super early in my working life. And I’ve repeated it many times. delegation is not abdication. Right. So some people think, Oh, well, I delegated that to him, that person, and it didn’t go very well, they didn’t do it. Right. I go well, okay. Did you just abdicate that? I mean, did you just hand it to them and not check-in, you have to check-in you have to guide you have to help? You know, so there’s this fine line where you, you know, you give people the empowerment, not to be copied on every email and every little thing that goes on, but you still check-in and understand what’s going on, and, you know, and help them. And I think that, you know, over time, I’ve gotten pretty good at that. You know, for whatever reason, I think that, and I think our people have gotten really good. I mean, people in this company are, you know, empowerment is a big deal. In our culture, we’ve made that a huge thing. And I think people have kind of adapted to that idea. But again, every time we get a new leader coming up, it gets promoted is something they have to learn.

Commercial [22:00]
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Gene Hammett [22:12]
Alright, so I want to wrap up this series of conversations around you specifically as a coach. Now, I don’t think you have to go get coach training. But I’m kind of curious, did you when you started coaching more people in your leadership roles, probably even before you became CEO? Did you seek out some kind of resources? Or did you read books? Or did you do anything specifically that would help you with the coaching skills?

Lawrence Armstrong [22:38]
Well, you know, I was in a vestige group for many years. And that helped me a lot with all kinds of subjects, not just this, but I think I, I do believe I have a natural ability for this. But I guess the main thing is I really relied on understanding business, really studying business, being a student of businesses, studying businesses that are not related to our profession, you know, just great businesses, reading business books, promoting business books around the leadership of our company, we’ve all in our company now read, you know, I don’t know how many, but a lot of business books, we have three or four that are sort of a stellar baseline for everything we do. And then we’ve, you know, read a lot of other ones together that have helped us refine different systems. So I would say the books have been really great. You know, for me.

Gene Hammett [23:31]
My curious mind has to ask, what are those three books that you hold up?

Lawrence Armstrong [23:36]
Okay, well, like I said before, and this wasn’t a book, it was just reading a lot about jack welch and the way he built a Leadership Academy at GE, and of all the great things he did at GE, I’d say that was really one of the great things he did, he really built a great leadership, culture, and Academy. They’re at GE. And, and so I tried to learn a lot from how he did and so he’s written, you know, he wrote a couple of books, and I read a couple of those, I think, from the standpoint of the company and learning and basing what we’re doing, you know, good to great is one of our books. And you know, it’s an older book now, but there’s still so much stuff in there that’s, you know, just as relevant now as it was when it was written. Another one is Blue Ocean Strategy.

Lawrence Armstrong [24:26]
You know, that’s a great book. It helps us be strategic and in how we compete, or how we create space where we don’t compete. It’s really been fantastic for our company. And then the last one’s a little different, but it’s been really great in terms of an attitude, which is Freakonomics. And you know, Valens just, it resonates in our culture, because we don’t do things the way other people do. We don’t believe things happen for the, you know, sort of the way people think may think you’ve got to look deeper and be a little skeptical the way things happen and why. And that book is awesome. And it’s just sort of guided a little bit of an attitude in our company, which has been great.

Gene Hammett [25:11]
Well, Lawrence, I really appreciate you being here. Share your wisdom with us on leadership and coaching out that executive team. So thank you.

Lawrence Armstrong [25:18]
Absolutely. Great to see you. Thanks.

Gene Hammett [25:21]
Well, this wraps up another fantastic episode of Growth Think Tank where we have been talking to a leader about this time coaching up your executive team and learning the skills of that. One word of advice I would say to you as a leader is it’s not always solving their problem. But it’s learning to ask the question that allows them to see the problem for themselves, allows them to really understand what their next step is, if you tell them what their next step is, typically, they come back to you for the next step. And so if you want to understand your coaching skills, as a CEO, make sure you check out some of the free resources we have on the website, If you want to have a conversation about creating that plan for yourself, you can schedule time with me it’s absolutely free. Go ahead and do that. Start your journey. It’s what you’re looking for on my website. As always lead with courage. We’ll see you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.


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