CEO Spotlight: Bob Higgins of Barge Design Solutions

Bob Higgins

The President and CEO of Barge Design Solutions shares his thoughts on character, the importance of humility in leadership, and how to inspire courage in your team.

Spark: When you think about character and leadership, what comes to mind?

Bob: My grandfather was a big influence in my life. He was a carpenter and a preacher. And I learned at a very young age, just modeling, watching him try to model his ... He was purposeful. He was deliberate. And if he was going to show up, something meaningful was going to happen. And just literally he modeled that in front of me all through my childhood. And I could remember a particular moment when I was 12 years old, and he shows up one Saturday morning after school's out with a lawnmower.

            And he said, “I've got Ms. [MacReynold's] yard, you get the rest." And that taught me an awful lot about how we as leaders, whether it's in your family, it's at work, you have such an opportunity to impart and help others. But he taught me that. And all of a sudden I was a young 12 year old boy in Lewisburg, Kentucky with money in my pocket. I had a job. I had to maintain my equipment. I had to honor my commitments. And I learned so much about just business and life, and being who you say you're going to be. Right? Ultimately. And he was just a huge influence on me early on in my childhood.

As you think about character formation at Barge. Are there any defining moments that come to mind?

Barge has had a few defining moments along the way. The normal business cycle about starting a business, growing it, maturing. And then if you don't adapt or reinvent something along the way, your business can decline. We see it happen all the time. And I remember one instance specifically back in '07, '08 timeframe when we had an economic collapse, the private market was gone. A lot of our work went away. And we had to adapt, because all of a sudden the larger firms, the global firms were coming into Nashville and other communities where we had offices, and reshaping the way we were doing business. And it was either adapt or become a part of that. So we were able to adapt our company and move our entire structure from a geographically based structure, to more of a business line or marketplace based structure, where we could leverage the power of the whole firm, regardless of whatever community you were in.

            And that helped us combat this global pressure for those large global firms that we were feeling even in the local community. And that was one part where we really, "Who are we? How are we functioning? What can we do differently to combat this new challenge that the market has placed on us?" There's opportunity in each market, you just have to work to find it. So we pivoted our organizational structure and realigned our company to be more effective for our customers. So we don't want to be the local firm you have to settle for like, "I've got to spend my money locally. So I do that." We want to be the local firm that grows and adapts, and changes with what the communities, the customers need. And that was a big instance for us in the '08 timeframe we realized, "Hey, we better change or we're in trouble here."

It takes courage to make a drastic change or pivot like what you described. How do you create a culture that is not afraid to make mistakes? Because what stops people from acting courageously is the fear of failure.

Well, you asked me one of the most important traits or characteristics a leader should have. And I served in Desert Storm in the Air Force. And ultimately under General Norman Schwarzkopf. And I never met him, but he had a lot of influence on my life as a young airman overall. And I remember the message the night we shifted from Desert Shield to Desert Storm. And he had asked all the troops, "I need you now to be the thunder and lightning of Desert Storm." And he had a way of motivating you and encouraging you. And this quote, he says, "Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you're going to be without one, be without strategy." That the character of a leader, it's like, if you want people to follow you, I follow people with good character more so than maybe the best strategist, right? People that you want to work with, people that you want to emulate.

            Another one you have up there is humility. And to me that's such an important trait or characteristic in a company and in a leader. We can't be afraid of not having the answer. Or if someone asks you a question saying, "I don't know, but let me get back with you," right? Too often I see leaders in their companies get isolated, because they're not willing to be humble. And I think courage starts with humility. Number one, knowing that you don't know everything overall. And you need help from others to get there. But I think it starts there. So having that culture in your firm, where that then creates more of a sense of collaboration. And we need each other. There's no project we bring about that's just done by one person. It's raised by the whole village, some portion of our company each time.

            My boss took me to a client in 1999. And we thought we were about to get fired, and he needed to make a change. And he was doing this. And we were in the car, we're on our way back. We pulled in the parking garage, literally just across the street from here. And I said, "I'm excited about this, but I'm going to make mistakes." He said, "I'm counting on it, because you'll learn from your mistakes." And having that culture from my boss, that he enabled me to say, "It was okay to try." Now, I think that we try to tell our people, the company can be sort of this umbrella of protection over you. "And if you're going outside the umbrella, just let someone know. Let us go with you. Don't go out there by yourself." Right?

            And so he created that for me very early on in my engineering career, that it was okay to make a mistake. But what did you learn from it overall? And how can we get better as a result of it? So having that gave me the courage to know that I had his support overall. That's part of the culture we've created at Barge. Our project managers, our project engineers––they're out there with their customers. They know that we have their back. They can make that commitment. They can look them in the eye and they could deliver whatever they need to. And if it gets a little one way or the other, we're right behind them to help them get it back up on where it needs to be.

            Barge went through an exercise to define its values a few years ago. And we wanted them up there. We wanted them on the wall, "But who are we? What's our personality? What's the character of the organization? How do we respond when we don't even realize we're responding that way?" We put an employee team together, and they came up with the CARES model. And the first time I heard them like, "Oh, we can't be Barge Cares." But it stuck. The more we talked about it, the more the team went through it. And I said, "That's who we are. Barge Cares." Care about our customers. We care about the community. And we care about our people. That really fit us.

            And the C in that is for collaboration. The A's for authenticity. The R is for responsibility. The E's for excellence. And the S is for service. And how we define those in the collaborations, teamwork's essential in everything we do. So we expect to have help, and help others if you see an opportunity. And so we define that for all of our employees, that's what we expect when it comes to collaboration.

            Then the A for authenticity, is that we are who we say we are. We're not trying to be something that we're not. That's where your honesty, your integrity, your trust, all that comes in. And we're authentic overall as people. Then the R for responsibility. That, "Bob Higgins is responsible for my attitude, my actions. And if I'll do that, I can make Barge better." Just be responsible for me overall. Each day when I come in, if I have a great attitude or I have a bad idea, what is that? So responsibility comes to me to take care of me. And by doing that first, I can help make the firm better, maybe take care of somebody else.

            And the E for excellence that we go all in. We expect more of ourselves than others expect of us. And we don't do things halfway. If we're going to take on a new office in Florida, then let's go all into it and let's try to make it happen together. And put our resources toward it to be successful. And then the S is engineers, architects, [inaudible]. We use our gifts in service of others. It's all about improving the public the quality of life, the health and safety of our community with new infrastructure opportunities. And that's where the service comes in. And then we align our community foundation about that. And to support causes that help us help the community.

As a leader, how do you make sure that those flow through to the organization?

You go in so many places where you see the values on the wall. But I think number one, those better be, as CEO of Barge, they better be my values, right? I better model the way, if there's something on the wall that doesn't fit with the leadership, my leadership team, our leaders in the different offices and various functions. Then why is it on the wall if we're not modeling it, right? So I think modeling the way is the most important thing a leader can do. They'll look at what you do more than listen to what you say. It's like, "Bob says one thing, but he does something else." They'll do that thing, that other thing. So if those values on the wall don't fit with you and your leadership team, then they can't be aspirational. They're who you are ultimately.

            So I think number one, it's the leadership team has to model the values. It can't just be something on the wall for everyone else. If it's good enough for everyone else, it's good enough for me. I think that's number one. And make sure they're defined. It's okay. Put them on the wall, define them. Make sure you've got definitions for what every one of them mean. And then recognize them, reward them when you see them happening in your organization. 

Are your performance evaluations based on that CARES model as well? 

They are. So the values don't just stop there. But every new employee I meet, every new person I interview for our leadership team. They hear me say, "These values are pass, fail. If you're not following these values, if this isn't who you are," I say, "Don't come here. Because we'll find you. We'll find out that this isn't who you said you were." So we really mean it. So that to me is the first thing, that's pass, fail. If we've got a values challenge, let's work on that. We give people opportunities to work on that. But I'm not going to talk about your performance overall on your job if I can't get past this first piece. So every person that ... Everybody I interview or I touch, I go to our employee orientation after we get a few people in, we bring them all together, bring them to Nashville.

            And I tell everybody, we go through the values exercises, we define those for everyone at that meeting in that moment. But this better be who you are. Then I also get some feedback. Some of those folks in orientation had been with us for about six months, and I get some feedback, "How are we doing on this?" And the feedback's been excellent. "This is really what attracted me to Barge. It's what I love about the company. It's what we're seeing in the organization." So we get that feedback from new folks too on, "Are we who we say we are?" And it's thumbs up so far.

I know collaboration among your team and with your clients is important to your business. How do you maintain both of those in a world that has gone remote?

The remote work certainly has proved challenging to still have that same personal connection. But through the video conferencing, whether it's Zoom or Teams, or one of those software platforms, we are checking in on people. Checking in on our customers, having live calls with them, live interviews that we're doing over Zoom or one of the software platforms. We have moved to be able to do that. And that is helping overall when I can see a person, connect with them at least with a video. That has been helpful. But nothing replaces being together and having the intimate moments that you have in your company overall. But we're still celebrating our wins, celebrating the successes, communicating information. Doing that with either live virtual meetings that we host, where myself or a COO are up there in front of the whole company, talking about what's going on out there and what's happening so they can hear it, their families can hear it.

            Because that's another opportunity that's here. Because so many people are working from home, their families are working from home. Those communications really have a connection to the whole team, the whole family at the house. And we've been able to leverage that. So mom and dad know everything that's happening, whichever one is working, whichever one is supporting. So we've been able to connect with the families a little more too. And it's things like, "Hey, bring your pet to the phone call." And just as we all know, just living with those interruptions and those different things, and just talking about it. I had my dog with me when I'm talking to the whole company, that type of thing. So yeah.

We’ll give you the last word. What would you like to say?

Well, I think I might say something positive about you guys at Spark. In Barge's journey to develop its people, it's really been a great partnership with Lipscomb and Barge to help us, whether it's through CEO Connect, it's through our Leadership Institute. The work that you all are doing to enable us to have the venues, the opportunities to learn at our Leadership Institute where all of our leaders can participate with our core group going through that class together. And they can hear from us how we would respond to certain situations, certain opportunities.

            It's been an incredible partnership with Lipscomb. And I really have appreciated that. Our staff have thoroughly enjoyed the CEO Connect program. The Leadership Institute work, you all have done has been amazing. Now three classes that we've had together. And I can tell such a behavioral change in a difference in our people. And oftentimes you send somebody somewhere to go do something, you don't know if it really sticks. But the programs where we've gone through this with you all have really stuck. And it's helped make us a better firm.

Do you know an emerging leader?

Nominate him or her for CEO Connect, Nashville's premier executive leadership program taught by CEOs.

Learn More