Jim O’Neil turned 17,000 employees into entrepreneurs to take Quanta Services to the next level

Jim O'Neil, CEO, Quanta Services Inc.

Jim O’Neil learned an important lesson some years ago when he was a 23-year-old engineer who sometimes found himself under the gun to make million-dollar decisions.

In one instance, he had a client impatiently cooling his heels, waiting for a resolution.

O’Neil knew he was on the hot seat ― and there was no one available to call for help.

“When you are on the line like that, you need to make decisions, and you made them,” he says. “They didn’t have cell phones then, the boss might be gone, and you had to make a decision. There was nobody else around. It might have made you uncomfortable, but you did it. You made it.

The firsthand experience of being in control left a lasting impression.

“It’s amazing how much you learn versus letting somebody else make the decisions all the time. And today, everybody is so accessible, if you are in an organization where people don’t want to make decisions, then you’re not empowering your organization,” says O’Neil, CEO of Quanta Services Inc., a company that supplies infrastructure solutions for the electric power, natural gas and pipeline and telecommunication industries.

He knew that empowering people to make decisions was the direction to go.

“I don’t need 1,000 cell calls a day asking me if they can make decisions that are well within their authority and responsibility. In the technological world that we live in today, it’s easy for people to not be accountable and to not want to be empowered.”

Once O’Neil became CEO, he drew up the boundaries employees needed and then encouraged them to adopt an entrepreneurial mind-set to drive business and customer relationships.

“If I could bottle that up and train that to others, you know ― and just move it up through an organization; I think that’s one of the biggest challenges ― to give people the latitude to make decisions.”

Here’s how O’Neil brews up the kind of empowerment at Quanta Services he wants to bottle and serve to employees.

Use collective approaches

When O’Neil arrived on the Quanta Services scene, he had been employed 20 years outside the specialized industry of infrastructure. His employment at Halliburton in oil and gas service had impressed senior management at Quanta Services, as did his record of holding several positions after joining Quanta in 1999. He was named CEO in 2008. Most of the people who had moved up the ladder in the organization were either former owners of companies that were acquired or people who the management put in place to succeed former owners when they decided to retire or leave.

But that only encouraged O’Neil to instill the collective approaches to solving complex problems he desired. He realized it was his role to discourage complacency, to push the organization, be flexible and change with the customers and markets, to be creative and to seize new and/or different opportunities.

In short, he was back in the situation he was earlier ― there was nobody else around to drive employee empowerment, and he had to decide how to formulate and institute a spirit that would persuade employees to feel sovereignty over their jobs.

To O’Neil, empowerment meant a lot of things.

“It’s not only decision-making; it’s go out and develop that relationship, go out and sell services and don’t be afraid to go sell services or sell the company’s total capabilities,” he says.

“You have to empower your employees to make decisions,” O’Neil says. “You set policies and procedures and clearly define a broad range of operating boundaries, and let the employees work within these boundaries. Employees who are properly trained for that position know when and where they need to seek approval authority.

“Employee empowerment is one of the most important aspects of being a successful service company. Once you clearly state the employees’ boundaries to operate, they then are empowered to make decisions to take risks.”

Even though it sounds like a potential Camp Runamuck, part of an effective empowerment plan needs to include the structure that says where decision hand-offs are to be made.

“I think structure within some organizations is good when you set policies and procedures and somebody needs to make a decision,” O’Neil says. “Empowerment is that the people who report to the CEO clearly understand what their roles and responsibilities are and what decisions they can make.

“Through the relationship that you have with them, the working relationship, they know when to come to you and when not to come to you ― even if they have the authority to make certain decisions, they know when to at least bounce an idea off you if they’re not comfortable.”

Direct reports should feel the same way and have that same relationship. The empowerment should probably go down to one or two levels below that.

Another important goal is collaboration, and when you collaborate, everyone is on the same level.

“There is no intimidation by position, you all roll up your sleeves and make the decision,” O’Neil says. “If I need to be involved, I’ll roll up my sleeves and work with the presidents of our operating units out in the field or with some of the leadership in the corporate office.

“It depends upon what the situation is if you want to make sure everybody understands that you are all in this together. We are out for a common goal. There is no stupid question; let’s just work through it together.”

Look at it fairly

While employee-empowerment programs can be elaborate or simple, O’Neil found that simple is best, and he made it easy to commit to memory by using an acronym.

“I call it the FAIR model,” he says, with each letter of the word denoting an action that in effect serves as a type of empowerment mission statement.

“F stands for focusing everyone in the organization on the overall vision and strategy of the company,” O’Neil says.

This takes into account that you have company vision and mission statements already in place. If you don’t have them, it’s time to write them.

“No matter what job position you are in with an organization, you work as hard as you can to make a difference,” he says. “You listen and you learn from those around you. “You contribute where you can contribute thoughtfully to a discussion or a situation and good things will happen to you in the way of advancement and more responsibility.”

“A” stands for holding employees Accountable for their performance.

“You have to hold people accountable and watch for complacency,” O’Neil says. “How do you know whether people are complacent or not? One of the main ways is to set financial targets.

“Also set employee development targets for them to develop talent within their organization. Your customers are a good source to find out complacency issues within your organization. And certainly if you have open dialogue throughout your employee rank, you can get feedback from that way as well.”

“I” is for involving every employee in the mission of the company

“A CEO must always remember that employees are his internal customers,” he says.

“You have to be a good listener. More than 95 percent of all problems brought to my attention deal with the need for better communication. People often require a sounding board to talk it out. Some problems are complex and require a collective approach to a solution.”

If you have employees involved in establishing the vision, it will bring a sense of ownership and stewardship.

“Employee input is valuable, and they must feel like they have a meaningful role in the future of the company,” O’Neil says.

While longevity may bring different levels of comfort, learning doesn’t stop once an employee gains seniority in a company.

“That 40-year-old guy can learn something too,” he says. “Times change, markets change, customers change. The 40-year-old guy has a lot of experience to bring to a discussion, and we typically listen to that person.

“He’s probably the one you can listen to the most when you are trying to do the job or build a project but that person’s ability to listen to input from others, too, is critical because he can learn from others as well. So it’s a team effort.”

R stands for recognizing people for their results.

“It means understanding what each person brings to the table in the way of value, knowing that you may have people at the table who are new, and they are there just to learn,” O’Neil says. “But just the experience of sitting through that type of exercise is invaluable to anyone. I learn every day. It’s a continual process.”

Employees who are involved are more likely to generate ideas in the suggestion box.

“They’ll pretty much tell you if you empower them that, ‘Look, I know I am responsible for this right now, but if I was given the latitude to go out and do this over here … I’m responsible for A, if you let me go pursue B, I think I could improve value to both our organization and the customer,’” O’Neil says.

Quanta has a Chairman’s Challenge program that forms teams of rising stars from across the company to address a variety of opportunities, market dynamics and challenges. It seeks to harvest the best and brightest ideas for implementation.

“It’s really a servant leadership-type of mentality,” O’Neil says. “You’ve got to empower the employees, and they have to give you their input. It’s collaboration. I do that with my direct reports, and my direct reports do that with their direct reports.

“Every employee is your customer. You want them all to be properly trained for the roles that they are in and to understand that your job is to make sure they have those tools and that they are well-equipped to perform those services to your customers.”

Think bigger

Empowering employees to make decisions may be a break from the traditional management plan of some years ago, but a break from the usual is often what is needed to reach new levels of success.

“You may make decisions that might have not brought optimum results,” O’Neil says. “Somebody told me a long time ago that failure is the launching pad for success. You’re going to make mistakes, and you learn from them and you move on. That’s why you invest in people.”

Those who have an entrepreneurial mindset know how to take risks, they have to make decisions, they own their own companies and they grew them from nothing in many cases.
“I think that is a very important aspect of differentiating yourself from people who have an organization that’s matrix reporting ― where nobody wants to make a decision, it’s slow, and typically when you get into that situation, people are running a lot of things and they don’t make the right decisions.

“You want to be in an organization where people are empowered, they learn from their mistakes, and they become a valuable part of your organization when you need to make decisions in a very rapid format for your customers.”

A company that empowers its employees has to think bigger than just responding to calls for bids.

“But bidding is a very important part of what you do,” O’Neil says. “You are never going to get away from that. The more you can move ahead of that process, and partner with your customers to provide solutions ― that’s where you can really differentiate.”

Even if that project would go to bid and you have had discussions with your customer, the customers don’t have to take the lowest price.

“They want the best solution,” he says. “They look at value as well. I think you need to understand where your customers are going as an organization. You need to try to stay one step ahead of them. You can’t live in a rear-view mirror. You need to look at future trends and not only in the direction the market is going, the economy’s going, but the route that your customers are taking.”

Many customers are being forced to reduce costs and improve reliability and many of them aren’t looking for low-cost answers. They are looking for solutions for their problem.

“Because you have that relationship, and you have a reputation for providing services safely, execute projects on time and on budget, customers will continue to share more information with you as you build relationships to try to figure out how to get better,” O’Neal says.

“You want to be part of that solution. And that’s what I call partnering with your customer in order to provide them with a better outcome, and at the end of the day, it will provide you with a better outcome as well.”

With its 17,325 employees and $4 billion in annual revenue, Quanta Services is a Fortune 500 company ­― and has many of its projects are now larger in magnitude than the total value of the company when it went public in 1998. Its growth includes 120 acquisitions since its founding. Some 2,500 employees were hired in one quarter in 2011 alone.

O’Neil points to employee empowerment as a key factor in this success.

“The ideas and innovations of the minds in your company are an invaluable resource, and when you tap into it, employees truly feel ­― and are ― empowered.”

How to reach: Quanta Services Inc., (713) 629-7600 or www.quantaservices.com

The O’Neil File

Birthplace: New Orleans, La.

Education: Bachelor of Science in civil engineering, Tulane University, 1980

What was your very first job?

I turned 18; I worked as a laborer during the summer in a chemical refinery outside of New Orleans between college semesters. It was a great experience for me and taught me the value of hard work ― actually digging ditches and eventually running a survey group as I moved up between my junior and senior year. It was outside with 90-degree heat with 100 percent humidity. I really didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. So it was a great motivator to stay in school. We had to dig ditches by hand. I’m about 6’7” and that wasn’t easy.

What was the best business advice you ever received?

No matter what your job position is within an organization, work as hard as you can to make a difference; you need to enjoy what you are doing, listen and learn from those around you, and good things will happen for you in the way of advancement and more responsibility. I think I’m a good listener. I think that’s probably one of the most important traits that have helped me be successful.

Whom do you admire in business?

Well, I have a lot of respect for CEOs, thought leaders, and the like, but really those I admire the most in business are those I work with and for. I really admire Quanta’s employees who are on making critical operating decisions and interfacing with our customers and our communities because that’s really the face of our organization. Every one of those 17,000 employees represents our company. Without them, we don’t have a company. I myself don’t bring in a dollar of revenue for this company. Our people on the front line do.

What is your definition of business success?

Success is happy shareholders, customers who see the value in our services and employees and potential employees who believe Quanta is the preferred employer in the industries we serve, and world class safety performance is very, very important to me.

That’s my No. 1 objective.