Mentoring in Practice: Jeff Cook of ARCO Construction

Mentoring in Practice: A Conversation with Jeff Cook, Co-Founder and CEO of ARCO Construction Co.

Q. Tell me a little about your history as an entrepreneur.

A. During high school and college, I worked with friends as partners painting houses, cutting lawns, sealing driveways to pay expenses and have spending money. After college, it was a tough job market. I went to work for the State Highway Department as a project engineer on the Innerbelt (I-170) for two years. I went back to school to get a masters in Engineering Management; I always believed education was very important.

After that, I went to work as an estimator for R. W. Murray Company. That’s where I met several mentors and coaches, one of whom is my partner today – Dick Arnoldy, who is fourteen years my senior. I started in estimating and didn’t know much about construction. They knew I was anxious to be a project manager, and I got an opportunity with a move to Kansas City. I said to Dick, “If I go there, I want to learn everything you know.” I would send him everything: all the contracts, letters, and correspondence, and ask for his feedback. Dick finally got to the point where he said, “Stop. I don’t want to see anything else. You’re doing fine, relax.”

Dick asked me what I wanted to do, and I was pretty bold. I said, “I’d like your job in seven years.” He loved it. I think he loved the energy, the enthusiasm, and the aspiration. When I moved back to St. Louis in 1991, I went to Dick and said I’m interested in ownership, a stake in the game. I didn’t have that much money, but I was itching. We decided to leave R.W. Murray amicably, after offering to purchase the company, and started ARCO (ARnoldy and COok).  It has been an awesome experience.

Q. Is there any one person who stands out as having the biggest impact or who really made a difference?

A. Numerous people have been coaches and mentors throughout my life – my parents, my sister, friends, and a few teachers in college. After college I have had several people who have helped me both personally and professionally. In my first job after college, Leo Odendahl, an engineer 20 years my senior, was a smart guy who answered any question I had. For the past 20 years, one of the most influential mentors in my life has been my partner, Dick Arnoldy. I also have a priest/friend, several business partners, a group of friends, a couple of small groups that meet monthly, a 19 year-old son, Nick, and a patient and very bright wife, Rebecca. Each gives me feedback and support while being interested in my success.

Q. What about your role as a mentor to other people?

A. Asking questions and helping the person you are trying to support by simply saying, “I believe you have the answers within you. Would you like to talk about where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’d like to be, and why?” Getting people to talk about what they want, clearing out all the stuff around it, to get to what the core, couple of issues are, is a process. I’ll ask them what they’re passionate about, what they love to do and talk to them about what I’ve learned through my experiences.

I believe in reading (studying) several business/leadership books a year and finding tools to serve me in life. I’ve found tools to help me develop habits and knowledge to help serve others and me. I share these tools with people. For example, here is a tool from Strategic Coach: What’s your goal, and what’s the result you want to have at the end of the goal? What are you attempting to do? Now, let’s go backwards: what are the obstacles? And then, just break it down into manageable chunks and develop strategies for each one of those obstacles.

Another tool is having an annual one-day retreat with yourself to sort through your goals, your schedule, the habits you’d like to develop, determining your strengths, etc. There are endless exercises and habits that people may use. Having a process with commitment and accountability can serve people to help themselves.

Q. What have you gotten out of the opportunities to mentor other people?

A. Well, I have received satisfaction from giving back. The satisfaction comes from seeing the light go on (individuals getting clarity about how they feel and how they want to be), seeing the weight off their shoulders. To the extent you feel you can help a person at any given time, that’s rewarding. I, like many others, enjoy helping and serving others.

Q. What would you tell someone who is looking for a mentor?

A. Keep asking. People generally want to help other people. They’ll make the time. If there is somebody that you think can help you, ask him or her. What happens if they say “no”? Nothing. What’s the consequence of that? Nothing. What’s the upside? The upside is potentially fantastic. Most successful people are willing to give people an hour and share experiences if they are asked.

Q. What about someone who is a mentor, if you had to give a piece of advice to someone who is mentoring other people?

A. First of all, consider how you communicate; I work hard to use my mouth and ears proportionately. Put some thought into it. Develop a line of questions. A big part of what I’m doing is helping people get confidence, determine capabilities, and determine direction, interest, and passion. A relationship built on trust, confidentiality, and character is very important. Trust is the ability to say anything without fear of hurting the relationship. It’s just like any relationship: if it’s working or not, having the ability to celebrate or exit the relationship is important.

Q. Is there anything about mentoring or coaching that you want to add that you haven’t said?

A. I think it’s a tool that will help serve you in your life. The other big thing is helping those that want to be helped. Unless somebody wants the help, I’ve learned not to offer suggestions. If I were to say anything to people, it would be watching how you show up. Create an atmosphere of calmness, openness, and trust. Being present is one of the most important attributes you can bring to a coaching role. If I can’t be present, then I can’t do my job at being an active listener. One of the big benefits to helping others is how much you get to learn and grow with them.