Ken Jones deals with a new challenge every day in the construction industry.
It’s highly competitive and relatively easy for new companies to
enter into, and his company constructs buildings pretty much the
same way it has done for years.
As the head of the Cincinnati Division of Turner Construction
Co., Jones has to deal with things ranging from individual projects
where there could be tight schedules or budgets to the economy
pinch that could bring rising costs to clients who employ the company to solve their individual construction challenges.
“It’s juggling all those balls to try to not make short-term mistakes that would affect us long term,” Jones says.
And if those challenges are not enough to deal with, he also
faces the challenge of leveraging the organization, which
reached 2007 revenue of $263.7 million, and getting everyone to
work together on a common goal.
“I can have all the ideas I want, but if they can’t be implemented
or executed at the front-line level, then they’re of no value,” he
says. “Or if they’re not viewed as important by those people, they
are of no value. Or if I’m not getting the creativity and energy from
those people on the front lines to trickle up to me, then they’re of
Here’s how Jones faces these challenges head on to leverage
the company and make the best decisions possible.
Break down barriers
Jones and Mark Terhar, Turner’s operations manager, have
been conducting round-table discussions for the past three
years as a way to give their 200 employees a better understanding of what others in the organization are doing and give them
insight into projects they may be working on.
“The more that you can educate or give insight to some of the
folks who work for you, then the ideas take off,” he says.
The sessions are conducted once or twice a week during lunch
with eight to 10 employees from different levels within the
organization. The sessions were initially for new employees but
were so successful that they were opened up to the entire organization.
Listening is one of the most important keys to making these
discussions effective. You have to remind yourself that you are
there to listen to employees and not dominate the conversation.
“As Mark and I conducted more and more of these, we learned
that if we shut up and just listen, we can learn as much as they
can,” he says.
“Now, we depend on these round tables to inform us about a
host of items including productivity ideas, morale, the market
and anything else they want to talk about. I look up to the people who work for me. And I try hard not to lose sight of that.”
Creating a comfort level where employees feel free to say anything is also important. Build trust with employees so they know they can share things and won’t be punished for doing so. Jones
says the first time somebody is punished for something that’s
said in the round tables will be the end of those discussions.
“We love when they share rumors with us,” he says. “More
often than not, we hear some good rumors — some are factual,
some are fiction — and we’re able to explain the factual ones
and dismiss the fictional ones, which goes a long way.
“If there’s a rumor, more often than that they already know the
answer ... sometimes they may just be testing to see how we
answer a question, and the more honest we can answer the question, that develops the trust with them. If they already know the
answer and we answer wrong, they’ll call us on it.”
To conduct an effective round table, you need to start with a
general idea of what you are going to talk about.
“You do have to bring a loose agenda with you,” he says. “When
we started them, we’d say, ‘What do you guys want to talk
about?’ and everybody would look at you in silence, all being
afraid to be the first one to speak.
“You do have to seed the round tables with some information
about how the business is doing and maybe some provocative
information about ideas you have that you want to test with
them,” he says. “That will often get you a reaction.”
Following up on ideas that come out of the meetings also
builds trust. Jones says there are a lot of great ideas, but every
one that you actually follow up on gives you more credibility as
a leader and lets employees know you are listening to them.
The round-table discussions have brought about significant
change for the organization. For example, one of Jones’ project
managers mentioned how he was staying at the job site until 9
each evening entering data. This led to centralizing the data
input and engineering functions and utilizing the administrative staff who wanted to get involved in new tasks, and in turn,
gave the project managers more time to focus on the jobs.
But the overall effect of the discussions is creating an environment where people feel comfortable talking about problems with senior management.
“The more comfortable the staff feels with us, feels with me,
feels comfortable walking in my office, and sharing a concern
or an issue or bringing an idea, then we will be leveraging the
organization better,” Jones says.
Develop clear goals
Connecting people helps them understand each other and
the business, but employees also need tangible goals they can
work toward achieving.
“If everyone knows where you’re headed, then they can help
you get there,” Jones says. “If they don’t know that, then you’re
going to have a lot of people running where they think they
need to go.”
Jones works with his leadership team at an annual meeting to develop the goals. They spend time
talking about what’s working and what’s
not, what competitors are doing and
where they want to head in the future.
Jones also presents a history of the company’s numbers from 10 years back and
a five-year forecast.
Each department head presents their
own ideas and vision for the department
and business as a whole. These are discussed before a group of common
themes are decided upon to serve as the
goals for the year.
By including the management team in
the process, you get better buy-in.
“If I develop them jointly with our leadership team, value their input, use it and
develop the goals based on what they’re
telling me, because they have expertise in
parts of the business that I don’t, then
there’s much more buy-in and passion
about delivering those goals,” Jones says.
“It’s easy to hand down numbers and say,
‘Meet these.’ That will be a fear-led motivation, but it doesn’t necessarily create
Jones says it’s important for you to put
your goals into action and discuss them
often, not create them and then ignore
them. The goals at Turner become a template for all communication during the
year, from the round-table discussions to
senior staff meetings.
The goals are also used as a guide to
make the best decisions for the organization and employees.
“It’s so easy, and particularly with my
brain — I run off in a lot of different directions sometimes, and I get excited about a
lot of different things — when I see them
and I want to run down a path,” he says.
“You need a guidepost to say, ‘You know
what, this isn’t fitting in with what we
said we’re going to do this year, so
maybe we need to put it off.’ That’s probably the most helpful thing about them.”
If a goal isn’t met, you need to revisit it
to see why you didn’t meet it. Jones says
not meeting a goal doesn’t mean that it
wasn’t worthy or important, you just didn’t meet it. It probably was important,
you just went the wrong way in trying to
“Ideally, your goals don’t want to
change often until you feel like you’ve
got one under control, but you do have
to revisit how we did do, and sometimes
that requires some changes and tweaks,”
Making the best decisions to run a successful company requires having people
who challenge leadership decisions.
People will ask you what’s supposed to
happen next and will be open and candid with you about your decisions, and
trust plays a key role in developing these
types of relationships.
Jones will turn to people ranging from
his administrative assistant to senior
officers of the larger Turner organization
to give him feedback on decisions.
The more you can invest in personal
relationships, the more trust and feedback you will get.
“If there isn’t that trust, if the person
working for you doesn’t feel like you’re
looking out for their best interest or they
can afford to tell you some truth that you
don’t want to hear and not have it come
back on them, you’ll get better feedback,”
he says. “If you don’t do that, you’re going
to have trouble.”
Having those types of relationships
makes your decision-making more personal. Jones remembers earlier in his
career at Turner that he worked with a
guy named Tim. Jones saw Tim in the
lobby one day during a down year, and
Tim asked him, ‘Ken, where am I going
next? What’s my next job?’
Jones says it struck him like a sledgehammer that Tim just wasn’t his work
friend, he was Tim who was depending on
Jones for his livelihood. It put into focus
what the business development job was
about and how it’s not just about a sales
number but about providing jobs and a
livelihood for the people who work for
The downside is that sometimes those
personal relationships make tough decisions even harder, especially when determining whether to make the best decision
for your people or the numbers.
“It’s a tough thing, but the only thing you
can do is deal with it as transparently and
openly as you possibly can,” Jones says.
To that end, he publishes employee
results so they see where they are and
there’s no question when issues are
“We’re talking the same language,
they’re seeing the same numbers I have,
what their peers have done, they know
where they fall on the scale, and it’s a
much easier conversation if we’re dealing with honest, truthful data,” he says. “It’s
much harder without a common language
to speak, without some objective measurement you can both point to to talk
about how things are going.”
Commitment to your decision, especially a tough one, is important. When you’re
faced with two options, you need to make
a decision, feel comfortable that you have
all the information and feedback available, stick with it, and not sway. If you do
sway, it doesn’t matter which side you end
up on since you’ll be going back and forth.
“It’s helpful prior to making the decision
to go back and forth, and I’ll waiver a lot,”
Jones says. “It’s a healthy conversation to
be going back and forth and make sure
you’re honestly hearing both sides of the
debate. If you make the decision quickly,
which is easy for a lot of us to do, all
you’re doing is convincing everybody to
go your way, and then you’re not going
anywhere. But if you truly have that
debate ... you’re on the right path.
“But then there’s a time when you consciously have to say, ‘I’m making this decision, and this is the direction we’re going
to go,’” he says. “You have to mentally
cross that line and say, ‘I’ve crossed the
line now; there is no going back. This is
the direction we’re going to take.’”
While Jones still faces challenges, leveraging the company makes dealing with
those a bit easier. He says you need to
focus on creating relationships, establishing trust, and developing a forum where
you can connect with employees and get
“If you’re clear on your goals and they’re
meaningful and tangible, you can leverage
that to make the best decisions for your
organization,” Jones says. “You’ll have
good information and clear goals and will
have tapped into the resources that are
largely in people’s brains and not in manuals to make it work.”
HOW TO REACH: Turner Construction Co., (513) 721-4224 or