How To Reverse-Engineer Highly Impactful Leadership with the CPO of CEI

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The Culture Code

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For anyone working in people and culture, it’s important to strike a balance between moving quickly and reflecting thoughtfully.

As the chief people officer (CPO) at Veeva Systems said, “Because one of our core values is speed, we're always accomplishing a lot in a short period. It’s just as important to stop and slow down to think. We all need to learn to engage in slower, more systematic thinking to gain a different perspective or approach things a little differently.”

At Cupertino Electric Inc. (CEI), the construction company grew so fast that they’ve found themselves at an inflection point. Now, CEI is attempting to slow down to observe its most effective leaders and determine what makes them great. To learn more, I met with CEI’s CPO Estrella Parker.

CEI is one of the largest electrical engineering and construction firms in the US. Employing roughly 3,500 people, their revenues were slightly above $2 billion last year.

Estrella Parker, CPO of CEI
Estrella Parker, CPO of CEI

Slowing Down to Decode the Mindset of a Highly Effective Leader

Despite being a 70-year-old company, CEI has seen a spike in growth in the last five years. “We’ve grown so fast that we now need to figure out how to keep our culture intact,” Parker said. “This means building systems into our people processes that enable us to decode what it means to be here.”

Leadership is a keystone component of this work. “We're beginning to try to understand these legendary leaders at CEI and what makes them great.” Parker remarked. “People talk about what great leaders these people are, and so we developed a framework to capture important commonalities in how we use a leadership mindset at Cupertino,” she elaborated.

CEI refers to this mindset as “one team.” There are three tenets of the one team mentality:

  1. CEI leaders are connected on a human level. They connect to you as a whole person.
  2. CEI leaders are accountable. “We pride ourselves on our projects, and we deliver. We do what we say. We do it on time and on budget,” Parker highlighted.
  3. CEI leaders have an adaptable mindset. “Resiliency is how this company grew,” Parker explained. “The construction industry constantly faces challenges, and you really have to adapt to what your customers want, to where the industry is headed, and to the societal shifts that are underway.”

Within CEI leadership development programs, Parker expressed that her team trains employees to develop many of the same critical leadership skills that other companies train. To bring these skills to life and tailor them to CEI, Parker and her team connect them to the tenets of the CEI leadership mindset.

The Culture That Binds Employees Together at CEI

With their leadership tenets top of mind, the way Parker describes company culture at CEI fits what you might expect. “What binds us culture-wise is probably, first and foremost, our love of the work that we do,” Parker said. “There's reverence among us for being able to build the infrastructure that this country needs. Many of our projects are critical to the development of our nation and society.” Parker then pointed out several simple tenets at CEI:

  • We are builders.
  • We are problem solvers.
  • We are collaborators (with each other, contractors, and owners).

“I describe our culture to people as everyday joy in your work,” Parker remarked. “You feel good about the work that you're doing, you're working hard, and you have a team of people to share that with.”

Parker’s Podcast Recommendation: Wisdom From the Top

Parker recommended the podcast “Wisdom from the Top” with Guy Raz. “Guy interviews different leaders from different sectors to hear their stories. You learn a lot about leadership and the authentic struggles, successes, and hard lessons that people have learned.”

Parker’s Advice for CPOs: Think with Your Heart and Love with Your Brain

Parker’s advice for someone stepping into a CPO role is to think with your heart and love with your brain.

“The CPO job is tough,” Parker explained. “You're dealing with people, and people need love. But you are also a strategist for people, so you have to think with your heart. You have to be rational about how you approach the softer side of organizations, and at the same time, you must solidly ground your thinking. Approach your work with empathy and an understanding of the service and contribution that you're providing your community.”

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CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.