Leading with Pride
Effective leadership requires trusting others, providing space for creative thought, and allowing for honest self-evaluation. For Walker Mattox, founder & CEO of Gray Solutions, a Gray company, these are essential exercises.
Walker started Gray Solutions with a vision to provide complete, long-term solutions that transform customers’ operations. The company’s service offering was designed to complement Gray’s role as a design-build partner as well as to improve processes for customers with existing facilities. “The vision was always focused on utilizing our technological knowhow to create value for our customers.”
Setting a New Course
Walker has led Gray Solutions with purpose and direction, but prior to founding the company in 2018, his leadership path was just being charted. As a young adult, he trusted his entrepreneurial instincts over a conventional educational path, pursuing opportunities that led him from political campaigns to startups.
“One of the biggest impacts was working early in my career for a man who eventually became governor of Kentucky,” he explains. “Political campaigns are essentially startup businesses. Going through that cycle is boot camp for entrepreneurship… there’s no better way to learn how to build an organization, sell a product, and interact with different stakeholders.” This fast-paced experience proved to be the catalyst for establishing his own business in the following years.
Walker feels it’s increasingly important to share the story of his non-traditional path. “I used to be ashamed of my background,” he admits. “But after a parent whose son was reluctant to consider technical college practically shouted at me during dinner one night to be more open about my story, I realized how important it was to share. Seeing an openly gay man without a traditional education successfully grow and lead a company might just inspire someone else to try, and that makes it worth it.”
A Home at Gray
As Gray Solutions has grown and his leadership expanded, Walker remains grateful for the guidance that comes with being part of the Gray family.
“I clearly remember Brian Jones (Gray Construction president and CEO) sharing that he recognized leadership is not a destination, but a continuous journey and that no one is ‘good’ at it. He went on to explain that leaders must continuously be willing to learn, grow, and evolve. Having a group of leaders to develop relationships and experiences with has been transformational.”
Walker also draws inspiration from the company’s legacy of developing leaders and the feats that its matriarch, Lois Gray, was able to accomplish during difficult times for the business. “Gray’s history speaks for itself. If you think about what she was able to do as a businesswoman in the 1970s, it’s remarkable.”
That same spirit empowered another Gray family member, Jim Gray, to become the first openly gay mayor of Lexington, Kentucky, where Gray is headquartered. “The impact of seeing Jim navigate the business world with such success and then translate that to high-level public service gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams and be proud of who I am, through and through.”
Empowerment & Embracing Difference
Walker has always felt that opportunities at Gray exist for anybody willing to work hard for them. As he progressed in his career from contributing to projects to leading a team nearly three hundred-strong, Gray trusted him to take ownership and turn his vision into reality—a lesson that remains with him today.
“You have to empower the people closest to the front lines to make decisions and trust them to do what they do best,” he says. “Leadership isn’t about being the smartest guy in the room. Our people are great at finding answers to complex problems; my job is to give them the confidence to present ideas that won’t always work, then use that experience to explore the next creative solution. Curiosity is the foundation for great Solutioneers.”
Under Walker’s leadership, Gray Solutions has grown quickly. This growth has required a balance between maintaining the organizational agility of a smaller business and developing the resources necessary to realize the company’s full potential.
“Our job as a leadership team is to provide the systems, technology, and processes for as many team members as we can dream, but to make decisions like there are still only five of us,” Walker explains. “When we started Gray Solutions, Stephen Gray was very involved in helping develop our ‘people plan’—who we would hire and how we would develop them. This changed my view of how important it is as a leader to invest in your team.”
The practice of empowering teams and maintaining a close-knit culture seamlessly overlays Gray’s core values. These common threads of respect and integrity tie the company’s many individuals together and define the Gray experience for team members and customers. Instilling these values begins on Day 1.
“I tell new hires during orientation ‘if you make a tough decision without compromising Gray’s three core values, then we’ll have your back,’” says Walker. “Relying on that common framework makes it easier for my team to operate.”
As an openly gay man, Walker understands the importance of celebrating a team’s differences, rather than viewing them as obstacles. “We have to continually create an environment where people feel like they have a voice and are welcome to be who they are,” he says. “Being complacent is never an option: the reality is that we can always do better.”
A New Era
Gray’s values are a constant force, but the solutions Walker and his team provide are always evolving. Across all industries, the pace of technology’s advance remains high, and as its capabilities and efficiency increase, so too have customers’ awareness and demand for it. According to Walker, companies are no longer on the fence about investing in automation. “There has been a big change, not in if they’re buying, but why they’re buying. Companies are acknowledging that they can no longer operate and remain competitive without automation—it’s a foundational concept to run their businesses.”
As this shift occurs, Walker believes that Gray Solutions will take on an increasingly significant role—one that will lead to new heights of success while supporting Gray’s customers with vital services. He has enjoyed watching his company add value to the Gray name, as well as receiving the professional support that comes from a larger corporate structure. “I’m not on an island anymore; I have strong peers at all levels of the various companies, and our people see that. That’s enticing from the standpoint of a leader as well as a new hire.”
To learn more about Gray Solutions and the services it provides, click here.