A New Chapter: Pioneering Leader Hands Over the Reins

A New Chapter: Pioneering Leader Hands Over the Reins

Wally Womack has been the face of the Transmission & Distribution (T&D) Group at Burns & McDonnell. Now, with his retirement in December 2012 after a distinguished four-decade career, Womack has handed over the duties of leading the firm's largest global practice to John Olander.

Womack has one simple philosophy for life: "Work hard, play hard."

Cliché? Perhaps. But it's very likely the root of why the T&D Group at Burns & McDonnell has grown so strong under his guidance and leadership. "I like to have fun," Womack says. "If you work with a bunch of dull, boring people, well, that's not fun."

Because Womack focused on having his team work with him, not for him, the transition hardly made a ripple.

"Wally's counsel and business sense have been just what we needed during every stage of our growth, and his mentorship to dozens of young engineers, including me, means that the Burns & McDonnell culture is deeply rooted in everything we do," says Greg Graves, Burns & McDonnell chairman and CEO. "But as is typical of our firm, we have a super-star leader in John Olander who is ready to continue and build on what Wally started."

Changing Hands, Not Methods

Olander deeply appreciates the managing style Womack adopted — hire great people, promote from within and hire more great people. Inspire, don't command, and get out of their way, because the next great idea, project or opportunity could come from anywhere.

"We have to keep the entrepreneurial spirit going," Olander says. "We have to keep pushing the edges at all times. Part of that is letting them investigate on their own. They'll realize the risks and opportunities. My job is providing guidance and certainly not discouraging people."

"It's not ‘trial and success,' it's ‘trial and error,'" Womack adds. "They're going to make mistakes and that's OK. The key is to investigate new ideas and consider them, but remain savvy enough to know the good ones from the bad ones."

That's something Womack knows a thing or two about. Early in his career he saw a power plant opportunity with a potentially large client, but was advised not to pursue the lead because it didn't seem likely Burns & McDonnell could win it. But Womack had a gut feeling and went after the job anyway. Old Dominion Electric remains one of the firm's largest clients.

"I like to ask for forgiveness rather than permission," Womack says with a chuckle. "But I've been on the other side of it, too, when I advised someone against pursuing a project for what is now a huge client of ours. You just have to have that sense that it's right."

The ability to pursue the right opportunities will be the guiding principle for how Olander moves the practice into the future. While he anticipates expanding by about 10 percent in 2013, growth for the sake of growth has never been a driving force. It's shifting along with the economy, knowing what clients need and exploring new fields, such as natural gas pipelines.

"We need to provide opportunities for our people," Olander says. "If that means growing teams, fine. But there's not a specific goal to grow our number of people. The main goal is matching opportunities with our resources."

Focus on Clients

This approach makes sense not only because it follows the philosophy of an employee-owned firm, but also because it keeps clients at the heart of the business. And that's something for which Olander gives Womack credit.

"What Walt has been able to do for me is build relationships and hand those off," Olander says. "By building those, he's got trust — internally with our other practices and offices and externally with clients. One thing that will remain clear is our clients will know they're getting Burns & McDonnell, not a variation, not a segment, or something they perceive as not as good."

That will be the case in Kansas City, Mo., where the firm is based, and throughout the country where Burns & McDonnell regional offices operate. Because every project benefits every employee-owner, a shared responsibility for making a project successful leads directly to satisfied clients.
"The machine is growing, but the culture Burns & McDonnell is known for has remained strong with that growth," Olander says.

Passing the Torch

Keeping that machine going requires a team approach. That has become a hallmark of Burns & McDonnell service because senior leaders in the firm understand their role is to educate as much as it is to manage projects and develop business.

"It's really great to work for a company whose management is just as interested in your career development as their own," Womack says. "We are teachers who freely share our knowledge and experience to help everyone expand and grow."

While Olander plans to maintain a similar management style, any leadership shift is bound to come with changes. But this transition had been in the works for months, and Womack has no qualms that he turned over his role to the right person because of one simple belief: "He's smarter than I am."

"I have a lot of respect for John's skills," Womack says. "He'll have no problem doing this job. He's got all the pieces: He's worked on projects from the ground up, project management, development — plus he has business and people skills. He'll be different than I am, but I really think promoting from within is great."

But Olander chalks up T&D's bright future to the legacy Womack left.

"He has left me the best group of people," Olander says. "Wally set the standard, and now we just have to carry on with what he started."

Contact John Olander at 816-822-3883.

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