The Charleston Digital Corridor's Leadership Profile series is focused on the individuals who are driving Charleston tech scene forward. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.
Brad Elmenhurst is Boeing's Director of Engineering Systems and IT Executive for South Carolina. He leads a local IT team of more than 700 employees. Elmenhurst began working at Boeing in 1985 and moved to Charleston in 2013.
Where did you grow up? What was life like and what are your memories?
I grew up in the Seattle area. My parents moved in 1963 to the place that they have had forever. We had a bunch of woods. It was a childhood where either you were motorcycle riding, horseback riding, water skiing or swimming. It was a very fun time. We lived in the backwoods, and you could do whatever you wanted to do – build tree forts and play whatever type of games you wanted to play. My parents were very outgoing, so we did a lot of things from fishing to camping to hunting, just about everything.
How did you come to be in Charleston?
I graduated from Seattle Pacific University with a computer science degree and decided that I would take a shot at Boeing. I went to the interviews, was offered a job and started working at Boeing in 1985. I got to do a lot of really cool things like helping create the first local area network and working on a lot of the major programs at the very beginning.
I spent many years in the Seattle area, where we raised our kids. Then I had an opportunity to go from Seattle to St. Louis to work more on the military side of the house. We moved to St. Louis for just under two years and then ended up moving back to Seattle. I was reassigned to work on 787 Dreamliner activities, leading the CAD/CAM group and trying to make sure that we were going to be successful in the CAD/CAM area for 787.
Then, shortly after we got back to Seattle, Kim Hammonds, who was the CIO of the company at the time, asked me if I was interested in moving to Charleston. Charleston was kind of a build-up site. We had less than 40 IT employees, and Boeing wanted to grow the site to be one of Boeing's IT centers. I talked to the family – my wife, my son and his wife, and my daughter – and said, "Hey, do you guys want to go to South Carolina?"
After a little bit of thought everyone said, "Yeah, let's go." My wife and I came out first in 2013, and my son and his wife, and now they have two kids. Then our daughter and granddaughter came out last. Both of my kids have masters in information systems, and both of them work for Boeing.
What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?
The cool thing about Boeing is that a lot of people don't really understand it is also an IT company. We have every IT skill you need from project management, architecture, security, coder, tester, integrator, database, infrastructure and more. And then it's got big, broad functions like engineering, manufacturing, quality, supply chain, HR, finance, corporate.
In my career, when I started off, the one thing I wanted was to be challenged. I don't do well if I don't have a problem to solve. One of the vice presidents at the time asked me to create a matrix that had, down the left-hand side, all the IT jobs or skills that you could use, and across the top, all the functions like engineering, manufacturing and quality. He said, "Every time you take a new job, make sure you complete a new square." I had so many different, incredible jobs because I just kept going from one thing to the next.
A lot of jobs I've had were pathfinders for the company. When I first came in, it was working with industrial engineers to figure out how to do a better job of estimating and planning work. Then looking into the local area network. Going to the military side was incredible, working on programs like Apache helicopters or F-18s being built or Chinooks, C-17s. Being part of all that has just been a really cool thing.
Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on, or did you acquire it through experiences?
I had it early on. A lot of the stuff that I was able to work on with Boeing were pathfinder jobs. And then the real entrepreneurial side of the house was coming here to South Carolina, because we went from 35 employees and now we're over 700 IT employees. How do you take a mature company like Boeing and make it feel like a startup company? To get that energy, because you've got all this young talent.
In your own words, what does your company do?
I'll bet you a lot of people don't know what our company does. It's funny, here in South Carolina, they think we built 787s, and we do. We also build a bunch of other things. This year it's our 100-year birthday, and the company has done just about everything. Of course, what we're really known for is airplanes, but we also design and build satellites and missiles and helicopters. The Boeing Co. is huge in the sense that it does whatever we need to do. Whether it's laser technology or submarine technology or whatever it is – there is no bounds for us.
What drew you to your current business?
Well, that's a really interesting question, because what drew me there was I was married and I had to get a job. I think I was like many other people who said, "Okay, let's get started at Boeing but then go do something different." I think everyone who I remember talking to had the same attitude: Go work for Boeing two years and leave. All those people probably still work for Boeing.
You started and you realized that you had so much potential for career development, that you never feel like you're doing the same thing over and over again. As you jump to the next thing, and the next, you realize that it's like going from one company to another, but you don't lose your benefits.
One thing about Boeing that I truly appreciated was the fact that when I raised my kids, I was able to have that work-life balance. My kids played soccer at a high level. I coached their teams during that time. I think it was about eight years where I coached five days a week. I would flex my schedules and I was working with my bosses, and I was on programs like 787, all major programs. I was on critical-path stuff and was able to do that and spend the time with the kids. The company allowed that to happen.
How would you describe your organization's culture?
We're such a diverse group, from all different backgrounds, from different parts of the country, different universities, different areas you grew up and all that stuff. Everyone brings what their culture is, and what we try to do here in South Carolina is to blend it. We have an open and inclusive environment. People can share what they believe, and other people can listen and learn.
We work very, very hard on making sure that every teammate feels valued, every member feels that we believe in diversity of thought, we believe in diversity of religion, we believe in diversity of preferences. All that just makes you a stronger team.
What is your management style? Why is that your approach?
My management style is a servant leader. I believe that it's super important that I try to make everyone around me better and that my job is to help them be successful, whether it's removing roadblocks, listening, coaching or connecting dots, whatever it is. It's my job to serve everybody around me so that they can do better in what they do.
The reason why that is my style, I'm 100 percent confident, is because I coached soccer for so many years. That's what a coach is supposed to do. They're supposed to be rah-rah when they're supposed to be rah-rah. They're supposed to be discipline when they're supposed to be discipline. They're supposed to put the right players on the field. They're supposed to do scouting to understand who you're going to play against, what the opponent's strengths are and what their weaknesses are, and how do you take your strengths and exploit their weaknesses, and how do you cover up their strengths and all that. You make everyone work together to be successful. You can't do that as a coach by standing in front of a team. You do that by standing behind the team. That's what you do at work, too.
What lessons have you learned from good bosses? Bad bosses?
The good bosses and good coaches are the ones that care about you. They care about how you're doing, how you feel, what can they do to help you and how can they make you a better person by learning more or challenging you or connecting with you, or whatever it takes. At the end of the day, you feel like you are valued, you are respected, and you left work accomplishing something.
The bad bosses are almost a reverse of that: You're not worthy, whatever you do is wrong because I know better than you and no one is going to be smarter than me. It's my way or the highway and your opinion doesn't matter and everyone is not as smart as I am. As a matter of fact, I don't know why I deal with these people. Those are the bosses and the coaches that drive me nuts, and get you really frustrated. That's an environment that erodes, and if you stick in that environment too long, you'll start to erode with it.
What's the hardest or most important lesson you've learned in business?
The most important is to care for people. You've really got to put people above you, your needs, and that might be your family or that might be people at work. It's not about your career and where you are, or where you want to go, as much as it is how many people can you help.
At the end of the day, when you truly retire from work and people sit there and say, "Oh, you were an executive or you were a vice president or you were this at The Boeing Company," is that important? Or is it important, when you retire, that people say you helped hundreds of people to be successful? For me, it's the latter.
As a soccer player, it was great being part of national championship teams as a player, but it was much better to coach people as they won a national title. That was 10 times more rewarding than when you won personally.
Do you have a routine that's important to your day? A morning ritual, meditation, etc.?
When I get up in the morning, I personally read the scripture or read something that's positive and try to get my head on straight, because I know every minute that I see people, if I cannot demonstrate that I respect them, then I'll tear down trust.
I say hello to everybody. I've challenged people by saying, "If you walk by me and I don't say hello or greet you or smile or something, stop me in my tracks and call me on it." I've never been called on it yet, and I don't think I ever will be.
I've got to (start the day with) that positive frame of mind when I'm going to work so that when I see people, I'm not somewhere else mentally.
What obstacles have you faced building your business? How have you overcome them?
The obstacles you face in Boeing – it's big, and being a big company, moves slow. When you're a big company, everyone believes they have a vote, and so it's easy to say no and it's difficult to say yes. You constantly run into scenarios where you get something going and someone believes they can say no and stop it, and they do. Then you've got to go and fix that, and you've got to go to the next one.
Those are the big challenges you have in big companies, and you have to navigate through them. You've got to squash a lot of things, you've got to remove a lot of barriers, you've got to open a lot of doors.
What do you look for in the people you hire?
What I look for is the EQ side of people, the Emotional Quotient side, and are they people who care about people. Do they have the soft skills? Can they work with people? Can they encourage people? Because you can be really smart in the technology, but if you can't talk to people and you can't get along with people, you're not going to do much.
If you're an introvert, that's fine. Then how do you work with the team as an introvert? If you're an extrovert, that's fine, too, but how do you work with the team as an extrovert? Are you dominating, or are you working together? You look at all those things, and at the end of the day, you want to pick a person who first cares about The Boeing Company, they really want to be there. Because if they don't really want to be there and they don't care about The Boeing Company or whatever company they are getting hired for, they will be out of there fast.
Lastly, you want to bring in a diverse group of people. Once you get that diversity, the thinking and the conversations change drastically in the environment in a positive way.
What is your biggest pet peeve in business or amongst colleagues?
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs and new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?
My dad made me listen to positive mental attitude tapes, and I didn't like it, but it has probably ended up being a good thing. The one thing about having a positive mental attitude is you believe you can do whatever you want to do. You know you are going to have setbacks, and that's fine. Setbacks are good learning opportunities, so it's how you deal with the setbacks and how can you turn that setback into a strength and a learning opportunity.
I honestly believe if you have a vision and you have the desire and the dedication and the positive attitude and the ability to rally people and sell your concepts and your ideas, with the understanding that your idea might be better with other people's input, you will succeed.
Don't get so stuck on what you're thinking as being the only idea, but be able to morph and change your idea based on what you're hearing or the needs out there.
Also, bank ideas. An idea today might not be the right timing, but don't it throw away. Bank it.
So to have that positive mental attitude and be able to drive and be able to morph and change and pivot – that applies to everything. It applies to a college student coming into the work environment and an entrepreneur trying to start a new business.
In either case, you really have to understand what it takes to run a business. Money is not free.
What do you see as the future of your company?
For Boeing, the future is anything and everything. It's Mars, its holograms, it's a virtual environment that's real. There are no bounds. I don't believe the leaders in the company today or the leaders of the company yesterday ever had a bound of where Boeing could go.
What one person have been the biggest influence on your business life? And why?
My dad. My dad taught me a lot about, like I said, positive mental attitude. He taught me stuff like never back a person into a corner, always create a win-win situation, learn how to talk to people. Even if you know the right answer, you never tell them. You ask them questions so that they can figure out the right answer. Be strong, call it as it is. Don't sugarcoat things. Reward people. Listen more, don't overtake conversations. Listen and drag information out of people. He was a brilliant person. He could do anything. There wasn't anything he couldn't fix, there wasn't anything he couldn't do.
Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?
I grew up in the PC world, so I'm more of that. I have a Blackberry.
What is your usual Starbucks order?
Outside of work what keeps you busy?
The grandkids now. If you would have asked that two years ago I'd say soccer, but now it's really the grandkids.
What are your thoughts on how Charleston's technical landscape has grown?
It's grown quite a bit. It's really cool what the Charleston Digital Corridor has done. We've got wireless in all the parks now. The people I've met, like Nate DaPore, former President and CEO of PeopleMatter, and Grier Allen at BoomTown, those guys are really "people people." They really care about their companies, but they also know technology, and they can fuse the two ingredients into the company. They want the people to be happy and to get the best out of the people, and they want to build a technology company here and make Charleston part of that fingerprint.