Ralph Hawkins knew it was important that his company, HKS Inc., have a clearly defined set of values. But instead of just imposing them, he enlisted the company’s employees to help document what the values should be. Doing so not only established the 10 values that employees felt had always been present but never formalized, it also gained grassroots support for the values. Once the core values were defined and communicated, Hawkins and management slowly weeded out those employees that didn’t reflect those values. As a result, the firm went from $1 billion in construction five years ago to more than $14 billion in construction last year. Smart Business spoke with the president and CEO of HKS about how he works as a servant leader to his employees.
Let values guide you. Allow individuals to contribute to the company. The way they learn to contribute is through our values, but they have to have access and support to make sure they’re out there building our business up.
We are a firm that has strong values. We support those values, and we hire and we fire on those values. We create a feeling of support and collaboration. We’re always competitive, but internally, we’re very collaborative.
It’s much like a family. If you all have the same values, you tend to strengthen each other... The values are the rules of the game. If the values reflect poor ethics, most likely you’re going to hire a bunch of people with poor ethics.
But if you have high ethical standards and you promote that as a value, you find that everybody has high ethics.
Get people pumped. What motivates people is exciting projects and a great, supportive atmosphere. You don’t have to do a lot of things to motivate a staff internally.
If you’re not doing great projects and you’re not making a lot of money and not doing a lot of the things that make a successful business, people tend to lose their morale. But if you stay focused on your business so the business is successful, and you’re bringing in exciting projects, it almost takes care of itself.
Recruit and nurture young people. Our biggest challenge is getting the very best people. The way we’ve addressed that is we actively recruit students. That provides a lot of energy and excitement to bring that young blood into the firm.
It wouldn’t be a smart thing to be exclusive. Be inclusive with the new generations coming up, and it’s important that you set the stage for them to enjoy and grow in their careers.
Keep them and support them. Our competitors have said, ‘The best people we can get are the ones that we can recruit from HKS after a year or year-anda-half.’ The reason is because they’ve had a lot of training. We probably spend $15,000 to $30,000 a person on training the first couple years, so it’s important that we retain them.
You have to be competitive salary- and benefits-wise, but go a step further. People stay at firms because they’ve built relationships at the firm. We do a lot of celebrating among our staff.
Every few months, we stop work and talk about everything we’ve accomplished over the last few months. We celebrate it, and we have a lot of fun. It bonds us together.
Communicate. If you ask anybody, communication is probably the No. 1 problem at any company. We try to be as interactive as we can with our communication.
We tell them what’s going on, but we also have focus groups. I sit down with 20 staff members and we talk about different issues that have come up, and I get their response. It’s tremendously helpful to feel the pulse of our company.
We also had a full-day retreat. We went through the employee survey, and we talked about the top challenges and the top attributes of HKS, and we got feedback on how we could improve the challenges.
When you ask these young people, they’ll tell you exactly what they think you should do and what they’ve heard works at other companies. It’s a great resource to make us the absolute best place to work. You can’t overcommunicate.
Know how to beat the economy. If the economy downturned, we’re prepared to have an exit strategy. We maintain a very close check on the go/no-go process of what jobs we should pursue and what jobs we shouldn’t pursue. There are jobs that are in a gray area that we choose not to go after because we think it’s not the best use of our staff.
Second, we’re collaborative, and we’ve been able to work with a number of minority firms by outsourcing some of our work. It gives them a great opportunity to learn how they can conduct their own business even better and, as a result, we’re able to do more work without hiring (more) people.
If workload did drop, we have about 10 percent of our staff on a contract basis that we could drop, so we would never have to lay off our staff.
If one building market is up and one is down, we balance it out. If oil prices are down in Texas, and Texas economy is a little slow, it might be up in Florida, or vice versa, so that geographic diversification is important, too. Diversification is our greatest strength.
Enable your staff. Being a servant leader is key in making sure your staff has the tools and resources.
If you give these people the tools and resources and education and training, they’re going to do great things. To sit back and watch it is phenomenal.
Be prepared to go global. Look at what services you’re providing and what your strategy is. If they’re in a growth strategy, which is a successful strategy, consider going global at some point and working international.
Our clients are beginning to take us globally. We did the Fidelity headquarters here locally, and they called us and said, ‘We need to do a facility in Bangalore,’ so we took off and we went to Bangalore.
Even if you’re not interested in working globally, you may have certain clients that take you globally before you know it, so you better be prepared.
HOW TO REACH: HKS Inc., www.hksinc.com