John Sykes’ lessons on building JHS Capital Holdings through the years Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2010

John Sykes is a self-made businessman. And he has a career’s worth of knowledge to prove it.

Sykes grew up on the self-termed “other side of the tracks” in North Carolina, where he was raised in a family that was short on money but long on business sense.

“My grandmother raised chrysanthemums and I had aunts and uncles that worked in the cotton mill,” Sykes says. “They’d bring fabric scraps home, and my grandmother and I would make patterns out of them for aprons and quilts. I’d take a wagon, put flowers, quilts and blankets in it and go door to door selling them. She’d take inventory when I got back, count up the money. And she’d make me go back and give correct change if I was over.

“Half of what I made was put into flowers, 25 percent went to me as salary and 25 percent went into a lockbox as a savings account. That’s what taught me about business.”

From threadbare beginnings, Sykes climbed the business ladder and started Sykes Enterprises Inc. in 1977. As founder, chairman and CEO, he built the outsourcing services firm into an international business before stepping down in 2004 with his reputation cemented as a pillar of the Florida business community.

The company has continued to flourish after his departure, generating $846 million in revenue last year.

At the start of this year, Sykes undertook a new business venture as a founder and the chairman of JHS Capital Holdings, the parent company of JHS Capital Advisors Inc. The privately held company currently has about 150 employees and does not disclose revenue.

Sykes has amassed a wealth of experience since starting Sykes Enterprises with two employees and $10,000 in savings. What follows are some of the most crucial business and leadership lessons he has learned and how you can implement them in your business.

Connect with your employees

Above all else, you need to win and maintain the respect of your employees. If your employees don’t respect you or the decisions you make, you are going to have a difficult time accomplishing anything in your role.

Don’t confuse being liked with being respected. You want to be liked, but you need to be respected — by employees, clients, vendors, stakeholders and anyone else you come into contact with each day.

“Your greatest quality is your character and your ability to build respect,” Sykes says. “My father once told me, ‘Son, you don’t have to love me; I just want you to respect me.’ It took a long time for me to understand that. But I learned that in business, you’re really not in business to be loved but to be respected. We need to make sure we maintain who we are and what our character is. What other people believe is what your reputation is, but you have to be true to yourself, both in the good times and the bad.”

The primary way you gain respect is with honesty and disclosure in your communication. In his career, Sykes has taken it a step further, putting his employees, particularly on the management level, in the driver’s seat with regard to formulating and implementing the company’s vision.

Sykes starts out by telling his employees the straight story on where the company stands and where it needs to go based on the conditions of the market. He then lets the people on the levels beneath him figure out the best way to answer the challenge from a regional or departmental level.

“I have met with many of our people face to face over the years, and it’s just all about being open with them as to what is occurring, just to be honest and straightforward,” Sykes says. “If you do that, people will have a tendency to believe in you and stick with you.

“You have to start out by being able to articulate what your vision is, and do that in a way that everybody captures and believes in. After you articulate your vision and what your goals are, you allow your team to go and develop the strategy as to how we’re going to get there. You give it to them at the so-called 30,000-foot level and have them accept it, and as they build the plan, make sure that they’re realistic. And when you come back and put it all together, that is the finished plan.”

The ownership element is critical to achieve with your employees. If you don’t give them an ongoing opportunity to have input on the company’s direction and the knowledge that management is going to review and consider what they have to say, employees will take it as a vote of “no confidence” from management, whether you mean it that way or not. And the trust bond between you and your work force will suffer.

“I don’t believe in going in and telling everyone, ‘This is what you’re going to do’ and dictate it, because then it isn’t their plan,” he says. ‘They will still do it, but I just don’t think that you can hold somebody accountable for something that they haven’t created or that they didn’t at least participate in creating.”

Achieve boardroom balance

You need to send the right messages to your people, and you need to give them the opportunity to deliver feedback to you. But as important as how you communicate, you need to have the right people in place to turn your strategic plan into a reality.

“You need to be very selective with the people that you know,” Sykes says. “I’ve had the benefit of knowing people who have the same beliefs and aspirations as I do, so I was able to recruit them. The recruits I didn’t know all that well, I was able to find out about them, whether they had a reputation for the same belief system.

“Each individual came at it not from an individual point of view but as a team. That is what we are building here at JHS. There is a team environment. You need to bring people together and make them believe in a common cause, while allowing them to voice their feelings and opinions. You’re going to have disagreements, but you don’t want to become disagreeable.”

A key part of managing disagreements is managing personalities. You’re going to find strong personalities on just about any management team. It’s one of the reasons your managers rose to management positions in the first place. But with strong-willed people comes the potential for disagreements and clashing, which can lead to full-on powder keg situations if not managed correctly by the executives on the team.

As the leader, you need to dig down on the personalities of each person you directly manage and find out what makes him or her tick. You need to find out what motivates your employees, what irritates them and how you can best prod each person to deliver the best results.

“I remember I had two guys at Sykes who were pretty much mercenaries,” Sykes says. “They were just flat-out mercenaries in how they conducted their business. They were interested in what they could do to benefit themselves. A lot of people asked me why I had them on my team, and you keep them around because they’re successful. Consequently, I knew what drove them. When I would set up incentive programs, I set up programs that would drive them. That’s what you have to do all over your team — find out what fuels them.”

Always remember that every person on your team has a different personality, different needs, and each might approach a problem in an entirely unique way.

“Once, someone asked General Omar Bradley, ‘Why do you give General Patton so many headlines?’” Sykes says. “And he said, ‘A headline a day gets him a mile a day with the tanks.’ What that says to me is that all of us run on different fuel, and we as leaders and managers have to determine what the different personalities are and what fuel they run on. All of us don’t have the same DNA, so this is where we really have to shine as leaders. We have to be able to put together people with different opinions, different approaches and different needs, and be able to know how to fuel those needs in a way that accomplishes a common cause.”

Stay flexible

Focusing your employees and managers on a common goal is a critical part of keeping your business flexible, able to adapt to changing market and economic conditions, and able to seize the growth and expansion opportunities that come your way.

“Things change in a business, and there are external changes, like the economy, over which you have no control,” Sykes says. “But you have to be able to adjust. You can’t just be headstrong. You have to do whatever is needed to stay on track.”

To maintain flexibility, you need to maintain a well-defined business plan that explains what your business is and wants to be and, by extension, how far you should be willing to stretch. Like a lot of leaders, Sykes has worked with five-year strategic plans and conducted monthly updates to gauge whether his business is achieving the goals laid out in the plan or needed to branch off in another direction.

“We have our plan, and we’re either on plan or off plan,” he says. “We get monthly reports, whether it is from a quantitative or qualitative point of view, and we find out if we did what we said we were going to do. Did we get the system in place or did we not? At that point in time, I’ll call in the person in charge of the project to talk about where we are, and if we’re off, why we’re off.

“As a leader or manager, it’s our responsibility to serve as a coach or mentor but not to do the job for them. The moment that we step in, take over and start directing, that is the time that we relieve them of their responsibilities. So you have to be very careful of that, you have to work together as to how you’re going to make a correction.”

To determine if a growth opportunity is the right opportunity for your business, you need to ask some questions of yourself and your team — specifically, who is going to benefit from the change and who or what possesses the potential to be adversely affected by the change.

“You have to be able to determine that, if you make this adjustment, what impact is it going to have on the company?” he says. “Not only from a morale point of view but financial. Can you get the right return with shareholders? Change occurs, but you don’t want to just change for change’s sake. You have to ask yourself if the change is in the best interest of the customers, shareholders and employees.”

HOW TO REACH: JHS Capital Holdings Inc., (813) 202-7960 or