Defined leadership Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2008

David E. Sessions encourages his approximately 50 employees to be involved in the community, so he often has trouble turning down requests when organizations approach the company for help.

That’s why Willis A. Smith Construction Inc. sticks predominately to helping not-for-profit organizations associated with public education and arts and culture. The president and CEO says it’s important to stick to your plan, not only in what charities you help but also in business.

And yet, he maintains some flexibility and will make an exception if an employee is passionate about a certain cause because doing so, he says, creates loyalty and helps with retention at the company, which posted 2006 revenue of more than $50 million.

While community involvement is rewarding for the employee, the company also sees a tangible benefit by helping the community.

It becomes a winning formula for everyone, Sessions says.

Smart Business spoke with Sessions about how to stick to a plan and how to empower employees.

Don’t get greedy. One of the hardest things to do is potentially say no to an opportunity when it might not be, in the long term, in the best interest of your company.

Many years ago, I put together a strategic plan, which really defines all different aspects of how we do business, and one of those components is a marketing plan.

With any prospect, you need to have as part of that strategic plan — you need to step back for a minute and not just look at the excitement of a single opportunity, but you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Does this opportunity fit within the parameters of that strategic plan?’ Is it in your best interests as a component of that plan when you look at where you potentially want to be one year, two years or five years down the road?

That makes you look at that opportunity maybe a little different. You’re looking at it from a much longer-term perspective.

What we have learned is that sometimes it’s best to say no to those opportunities that don’t fit within that plan, especially if those opportunities fall outside of your comfort zone or what you are good at.

Learn from your failures. I’ve always been of the belief that the only time you truly fail is when you quit or just give up. Maybe just perseverance is the key factor.

We’re human, and we’re all going to make mistakes, or we’re all going to have failure, some larger, some smaller, from time to time. The trick is really not to become discouraged but rather you made an investment in a decision that perhaps led to something not going perfectly.

You’ve got to learn exactly why it happened, what contributed to it, and ultimately, every failure is an opportunity. If you can take that and convert that into an opportunity by learning all the parameters that led to that decision that maybe you didn’t like then, ultimately, you are turning that failure or that error into a strength going forward; learning from your mistakes.

We, with our managers, with our people, one of the things we always say in here is that, ‘If you make a bad decision or if you make a mistake, you are never going to put your job at risk.’ The bottom line is, if there is a decision to be made, make the decision in your best judgment that you think is the right decision. Right or wrong, making that decision is better than not making one at all.

Empower your employees. You get the best effort from others, perhaps not by lighting a fire under them but by building a fire within them. That goes to empowering them and encouraging them to excel, to be creative, to make their own mistakes and to make their own decisions.

You have to lead by an example. Just because I own this company doesn’t mean I can sit back and go play golf and let others do the work. I’m in here working as hard, if not harder, than anybody in this company, and I am establishing what those parameters are. I’m leading by my own example. If they see the boss in there working as hard or harder than everybody, that sets a pretty good example.

When you work directly with people, you get a better response, better loyalty, better companionship. Overall, if you work directly with people one on one, your beliefs, your values tend to rub off on people better than if you are not here.

I’ve developed a certain way that I like to do things, and I want our managers and our people to share. I want them to be creative enough to do things on their own, but also get some fundamental beliefs and values entrenched into the way that they do things. You can’t do that remotely.

We really have a business structure in here that defines what roles are and how we do things. That structure isn’t what I would call a rigid structure that absolutely says, ‘This happens. You do this, you do this, you do this.’

But it provides enough of a blueprint or a guideline for people than to perhaps use their own style. That is very, very important when you can put your own name or your own spin on a task.

HOW TO REACH: Willis A. Smith Construction Inc., (941) 366-3116 or