Ken Jones drives goals at Turner Construction Co Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

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

no value.”

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

meet it.

“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,”

Jones says.

Build relationships

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

their feedback.

“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