Ryan Marshall has been president and CEO of PulteGroup, one of the nation’s largest homebuilders, since 2016, but his deep well of experience with the company has allowed him to hit the ground running as chief executive.
Prior to being named CEO, Marshall filled several roles throughout his 15-plus years with PulteGroup, including executive vice president of homebuilding operations, area president for the company’s Southeast Area, area president for Florida, division president in both South Florida and Orlando, and area vice president of finance. This deep well of experience and first-hand knowledge of the operations side of the business gives Marshall a unique perspective as CEO.
Chief Executive spoke with Marshall about his leadership style, how his past experience informs him as CEO, and what he’s excited for in the year ahead
Q: You’ve been with PulteGroup for a long time, but are there any things that have come up that you didn’t expect as CEO in your first year-and-a-half on the job?
A: There are a few things that I did not expect, to be totally candid with you. The first thing that I would tell you is I didn’t expect to have as much fun as I’m having. It’s a really great job at a really great company that I love. And sometimes, at least when I thought about the CEO job, your perception is that there’s a lot of pressure, there’s a lot of responsibility, there’s a lot of accountability. All of those are true. But it’s a very fun job that I’m very much enjoying. And I think that’s quite a surprise.
So when you think about the board, and the management team and the employees, those are all things that I certainly expected. There are a number of things and people that I think are outside the company stratosphere, or maybe they are adjacent to the company, and they all want access. They all want time, they all want the speaking engagements, the conferences. The requests that constantly are coming in, I’m really very surprised at that. So I’m figuring out how to manage that and appropriately spend my time and resources in the best way that I think benefits the shareholders.
I think one of the things that I’d just add is the level of responsibility and the pressure to succeed. I think there are a number of people that are certainly counting on us to be successful, and I definitely feel the pressure and the mantle of leadership on my shoulders to ensure that we’re executing our strategy in running a great business.
Q: You’ve had a lot of prior management experience within the company. How has that benefited you in the CEO role?
A: Number one, I have deep relationships within the organization. I think that’s working to my advantage in a tremendous way, and that I have built deep-rooted relationships with key leaders and frontline employees in the organization. They know me, they know what I stand for, they know what I’m all about. And so I think there’s a high level of trust that really works to continue to allow me to lead the company in the direction that we want to go. And we’ve got a lot of leaders and a lot of employees that want to continue to partner with me as we execute our strategy.
I’m also an operationally trained leader, if you will. I grew up in the organization, spending about half my career in the finance side of our business, the corporate finance side, and the other half of my career in the home building operations function. So, I think not only do I have those deep-rooted relationships from having been here for 16 years prior to taking the role, but I really understand how this business works and I understand what our strategy is. And those two things I think are contributing to our success, as well.
“I think I’ve evolved my leadership style in that I’m very deliberate in the things I’m choosing to be involved in.”
Q: How has your leadership style evolved throughout your career, and how has it evolved in since becoming CEO?
A: I think about leadership in three parts. Part one is coach, part two is navigator, and part three is what I refer to as a demolition expert. I’ll talk about the coach piece first. I think that’s about putting the right people with the right skill sets in the right positions for success. And then coach—teach, train, and hold people accountable. The things that you’d think about when you think about a coach. A navigator, from the standpoint of laying out the destination that we’re going to, what is it that we’re trying to accomplish? And talking about the various steps along the way, along the journey that we’re going to take, and how we’re going to get to that end destination. And then a demolition expert, and I know it sounds little bit funny, but I very much look at my job from the standpoint of removing obstacles and getting things out of the way that may prevent us from reaching our final destination.
I think, going back to my operational background, that’s one of the things. Because I know and grew up inside of the business and the industry, I have a pretty good nose for sniffing out some of those unnecessary obstacles and we can tear them down and get them out of the way so that our team can be successful.
As far as evolving goes, I think I’ve evolved and that I don’t need to be involved in everything that goes on inside the organization. I’m a hands-on and historically has been a very hands-on leader. But we have a very talented, capable team, and I’m very comfortable setting the destination where we’re going to, setting the expectations, and letting our talented leaders lead the way. I think I’ve evolved my leadership style in that I’m very deliberate in the things I’m choosing to be involved in. And what that means is the things that I choose to engage with, there’s a lot of focus and a lot of effort that goes into those things. And it’s really about making choices, not spreading yourself too thin, trusting your team.
I’m a big fan of a book that Greg McKeown’s wrote called “Essentialism,” which talks a lot about having limited resources, and choosing the spots of where you want to engage. And I wasn’t always that type of leader. I was the leader that was trying to fit 10 pounds into a 5-pound bag, and working from 5:00 in the morning until midnight, and figured that, if I just work harder than everybody else, that would equal success. And certainly, I think I’ve got a work ethic gene that’s helped to contribute to my success, but I do believe it’s about working smarter not harder in this role.
Q: What are some of the common traits that you see in your best leaders within your organization?
A: I look for humble and approachable leaders. I look for intelligent leaders that have a very healthy dose of common sense. To me, there’s just no replacement for good street-smarts and good ability to make real-time, battlefield-type decisions. And sometimes there’s just not enough book learning that can teach you that. I look for leaders that are good teammates, that want to help others win and help others succeed. I like our leaders to be life-long learners, always looking evolve their style, evolve what they know about this business and what’s changing. Because one thing is for certain in the industry, in the entire world around us, the consumers are changing, and so we have to do that as leaders. I like leaders that will challenge the status quo, that are not willing to accept current performance or the way things are going as “Well, that’s good enough.” I want leaders that are willing to push the envelope.
Work ethic is a big deal for me. I grew up in rural America, and one of the things that I learned at a very young age was to put in an honest day’s work. And that’s certainly something that I think has paid off for me as I’ve gone through my career. And then, finally, I like leaders that are talent developers. Leaders that will give employees and managers opportunities to do more, to challenge them, to coach them, to allow them to fail and fail forward, ultimately with the goal of helping that talent progress in their careers, in their development.
Q: What are some of the things you’re doing as CEO to make sure that employees throughout the organization kind of remain engaged and focused on the larger goals of the company?
A: I think it goes back one of the things I talked about with my leadership style, and that’s part navigator. I think my job is to be a great navigator and to clearly articulate where it is that we’re going as an organization and why. There have been a lot of things written and talked about with specifically the Millennial generation. They want to work for a company that has a purpose. And so, I think that’s one of the things that we have that’s unique about our story and our company is we do have a purpose. And the opportunity that we have to be involved with homeowners and their pursuit of the American dream in building a home where they’re going to raise a family and live their life is something unique and special that we have. And it doesn’t matter if it’s someone’s first home or their 20th home, the passion and energy that goes into where people live and how people raise their families is really special, and we get to be part of that.
I think it’s my job, after we articulate where we’re going and why we’re doing it, to make the trip fun. And there are things that we do to create really high engagement and make Pulte a great place to work. We’ve been part of a Gallup engagement survey for the last eight or nine years. Our most recent survey, we got the best results that we’ve ever had about our employee engagement. We’re in the top 5% of all companies in the world with the engagement level of our employees, which is really special.
Q: What are some of the things that you’re most excited about in the year ahead as CEO?
A: I’m really excited about the team that we have. We have some of the best and brightest in the industry, period, that I’m confident in. We’ve got really high engagement, as I just talked about. When we combine great people with an excellent strategy, we have been following and executing a strategy over the last six to seven years that’s different than any of our competitors, and that’s allowed us to win. And we truly are winning, and that’s a lot of fun. People like being part of a winning team. And I’m probably most excited about the innovation that I see starting to take place in home building. It’s an industry that hasn’t had a lot of innovations.
I sometimes joke a little bit that the biggest innovation that the housing industry has seen would be advent of the nail gun. That’s about to change. There’s a lot of capital that’s being invested in working to make our business more efficient, more energy efficient, more technologically savvy and advanced. It’s something that this industry has to embrace. And I feel that if the competitors or the companies that don’t embrace innovation will be left along the side of the road.
We’re a company that’s got a long, rich history of trying to innovate, some successful, some not successful. But we’re right in the middle of some really cool things right now that I think are going to be very innovate in the way we build, the way we sell, the way we create experiences for our customers and our employees. I think it’s going to be an exciting journey for all constituents that are affiliated with PulteGroup to be part of.