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Observations on George Shultz’s Contribution to the Global Infrastructure Industry

Former US Secretary of State, George P. Shultz, passed away at the at the age of 100 this past week. The articles and obituaries chronicling his life have understandably focused on his time in multiple important posts within the United States Government. Llittle or nothing has been said, however, about his important role in the building and development of major Infrastructure projects throughout the world where for many years he made major contributions. Indeed, he had a rich, 25-year long career in the engineering and construction business where he exerted enormous influence on both the company he helped lead, Bechtel Group, and on global infrastructure.

When Mr. Shultz first joined Bechtel in 1974 at the age of 53, he had already distinguished himself as a professor of economics at MIT and the University of Chicago, as the head of the Office of Management and Budget, as Labor Secretary and as a Secretary of the Treasury. At Bechtel he was elected Group President in 1975, a post he held until 1982 when he became President Reagan’s Secretary of State. He returned to Bechtel in 1989 and served on Bechtel’s board and as a valued advisor to the company for many more years.

George Shultz welcomed challanges and leading a global infrastructure company after a career in academia and government was certainly a challenge. He worked hard to learn the nuts and bolts of the heavy engineering and construction industry as well as the many facets connected with infrastructure in general. He frequently said he found it most satisfying when one could see the tangible results of one’s efforts firsthand. He loved being in an industry where you actually built things, and he stressed that he loved being a builder. Of course, he was also unique in that he could pick up the phone and call literally anyone, anywhere, and moved in a wide range of intellectual circles.

During that long tenure in the infrastructure industry, he made a big difference, and this past week several of us – who were lucky enough to have worked with him closely -- were inspired to reflect on his very important contributions to global infrastructure and to the people and companies with whom he was associatred. Here are a few thoughts on the lessons that George Shultz– ever the teacher – taught those of us privileged to work with him.

  • Internationalization: George constantly encouraged thinking about how to become more of a global business, bringing strategic insight and discipline to those endeavors. He helped Bechtel expand into large infrastructure related markets in the Pacific and Middle East and positioned for major transportation projects in Europe, while vastly expanding the company’s existing presence internationally. George's immense economic and geopolitical insight, and his extensive international network of contacts and financial acumen were applied to the basic business strategy -- changing it and enhancing it in profound ways.

  • Leadership: George was not simply a manager – more than a few possess those capabilities -- but a magnificent leader by way of example, intellect, foresight, understanding, personal drive, talent and mentoring, and his leadership transcended the various segments of the business. He forced discussions to go deeper and further.

  • Listening and Learning: George listened carefully to his associates, to clients, to people up and down the organization, and to the vast array of public and private interests connected with major infrastructure undertakings and to the world in general. He could summarize with great clarity the disparate and complex views and the essence of what he learned from listening to any discussion. He wanted to hear and understand what others were thinking, their concerns and their solutions. Out of confusion would come order and a path forward. One of his favorite expressions which he, himself, epitomized was "If you are talking, you are not learning". The company, and I personally, constantly learned from George. And not just learned -- he helped us practically apply those lessons on a daily basis throughout the business. I can recall multiple instances in which I would meet him in an airport car in Beijing (after he had flown all night), brief him during the car ride to the Great Hall, then watch him chat through complicated project details with the Vice President of China and other high officials. He never missed a single detail. And he never left the meeting without a business “ask” or action. He was the best listener and synthesizer I ever met. Ever. “If you are talking, you are not learning”. “If you are talking, you are not listening.” He said those lines hundreds of times and truly exemplified that approach personally.

  • Industry Thought Leadership: George not only learned the EPC business -- the practical details of the engineering and construction business -- but also came to understand and then contribute immensely to the various infrastructure related activities throughout the world including issues around electric power, oil and gas, pipelines, heavy industry, mining, and transportation. CEO's and ministers of all types called upon him for his views and recommendations across an array of subjects. Often, he would have a suggested solution for them, simultaneously helping them and his company, and he was a trusted thought leader. He had a major impact in organizing forums for key industry clients, introducing new ideas and identifying challenges. These would usually be small gatherings where industry leaders shared ideas and got to know one another. The forums he organized and hosted for clients kept his own management constantly on top of clients’ key needs and positioned the company to help them address their strategic and operational project goals, and helped shape the industry.

  • Finance, Money Management, Project Development and Risk Evaluation: While contributing mightily to the day-to-day engineering and construction business, George simultaneously was at the forefront of dramatically changing the company’s approach to finance, investments, money management, risk management and innovative new techniques for infrastructure project development.

George’s practical wisdom was evident in many ways:

  • He was a natural teacher: He had been a professor and his natural inclination to be a teacher and mentor throughout the organization brought great value and respect…and affection. He had immense leadership capabilities which he consistently applied to global business. He led by way of example, displaying his skills in diplomacy, and insisting on honesty and integrity and civility. He believed in making expectations clear and then seeing to it that they were carried out.

  • Patience: George brought great patience and insight when dealing with difficult situations. Numerous observers have commented on this quality in his government service, but he brought it to industry as well. He would patiently keep working a problem or relationship, until it was resolved – no matter how long.

  • Humor: George brought a keen and wry sense of humor to his dealings as well as empathy and understanding. He was always appropriate, but not stiff. He was not afraid to let his human side show through – with underlings as well as senior government counterparts.

  • A Natural Competitor: George was a natural competitive athlete – he gave no quarter on the tennis or golf course.

  • Industry and Strategic Thought Leadership: George actively pushed everyone around him to focus on business insights. He brought keen strategic analysis into what had previously been general business processes, and he focused on understanding where major infrastructure project undertakings would evolve, on the geopolitical implications of positioning for future business, on where finance was trending, and where investments should be directed.

  • Friendships: George was a master at establishing deep and lasting friendships throughout the world which served him and Bechtel well in both business and personally.

In short, George was one of the major architects of the infrastructure industry as it exists today. He was a true master builder in every respect and operated most successfully as a business executive, and thoughtful, strong leader and strategic thinker. The many articles about him in the past days, while often capturing the greatness of the man, do not do justice to his numerous contributions to the building of major engineering, construction, development and infrastructure operating companies throughout the world. We have, therefore, tried to distill some of the important lessons learned from working with such an extraordinary man. Moreover, as the country and world moves forward with a new effort to transform and rethink the infrastructure systems of the future – redefining what we need, where we need it, how cities will function, how and where work will be conducted, and the kinds of energy systems we will need – we would benefit greatly from the type of thoughtful, probing, multidimensionsional leadership George Shultz provided.

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