Mary Zappone | Crain's Houston

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Mary Zappone


Houston-based BRACE Industrial Group provides industrial construction services, including scaffolding, insulation and fireproofing. Before her new role as chief executive officer with BRACE, Mary Zappone was president and CEO of Service Champ, a large specialty distributor of automotive aftermarket maintenance parts and accessories. She previously worked at Exxon’s Baytown Refinery, where she led quality maintenance and reliability efforts, and at General Electric’s plastics division.

The Mistake:

I left out my own opinion in putting together a recommendation.

Pretty early in my career, I was a plant engineer at Exxon, and I was asked by my boss to put together a recommendation related to turnaround.

I dutifully ran around and talked to eight to 10 stakeholders and organized everybody’s thoughts. I had a beautiful little memo put together with everybody’s opinions, and I was very pleased with this. My boss, to his credit, walked down the hall to where I was and said: “Really nice job, really nice summary. But Mary, I don’t see your opinion in here anywhere.”

I had been in finance, so I was used to just reporting on things and gathering numbers. I switched from finance to operations, so that was a new area for me as an engineer.

I sort of laugh at myself because now I always give recommendations and I always have alternatives. But I do remember when my boss said that, and thinking, "Gosh, he really wants me to give recommendations." It sounds so silly now thinking back on it, but it was actually motivation. Now I’m so opposite of that, and I have really high expectations of my team as well to give recommendations.

In that case, I just re-sent the memo with what I believed. I had an opinion, I just hadn’t thought about it as a very young engineer.

Hand that project to your boss on a silver platter.

The Lesson:

The lesson is to actually give a recommendation — give alternatives and give a specific recommendation.

People make recommendations at every level. Some might be on how to build a new manufacturing plant or how to set up the company holiday party. People always have influencing roles, but you can take it upon yourself to write something up in an organized way and recommend something as an improvement.

There’s a management principle called completed staff work, where you absolutely need to get the data all collected, but you have to give your recommendation and hand it over with the alternatives and the recommendations. You have to come forward with your recommendation, not just summarize what everyone else is saying.

In every job I’ve had since then, I’ve always talked to my team about the importance of completed staff work, and having a fact base and having different alternatives, and then actually recommending one of them. In effect, hand that project to your boss on a silver platter — don’t be asking them to make a decision. It should be all set and ready to go. And I’ve really done that ever since then, and that certainly helped me rise, and I’ve taught many people.

As leaders, we should give people exposure early in their careers when they need some help. Do what my boss did, and be really clear on expectations. Provide training and clarity on what’s being asked.

Now when somebody who I’m training gives me alternatives, I’ll say, "Oh, so what do you recommend? What are some of the thoughts and what are you thinking about?" And I ask people to write things up, but I’ll help with that.

People will make mistakes of course. They might recommend something and maybe they’ll miss a core assumption they should have had. As a peer or leader, you can say, "I actually think the point is that you missed this particular assumption. Would that change your recommendation?" Give them a little space to speak up, but also give feedback too and don’t let them go blindly making mistakes.

Photo courtesy of Mary Zappone

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