Joe Williams Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007
At a previous career, Joe Williams was on his way out the door for the weekend, and as he passed his boss’s door, the boss told Williams that he needed to see him first thing Monday morning. Williams, now president and CEO of $68 million Kimmins Contracting Corp., asked if they could talk immediately, but the boss said no. Williams went home and was in a lousy mood all weekend, only to come in on Monday to talk to a boss who couldn’t even remember why he wanted to talk. The lesson stuck: If there is an issue, don’t leave it hanging over your employees’ heads; deal with it immediately. Smart Business spoke with Williams about how to get honest feedback from employees.

Build trust. I just completed sitting down with most of the salaried staff and just ran through six questions. One was some personal things. I wanted to know what their goals are going to be, both personally and in business. I asked them if they liked working here, what they liked and disliked working with us, and what they wanted to do. What new things do you want to try? Where would you like to be in this organization in a year or two or three?

I was looking for what they were looking for to be challenged. I asked them about compensation and whether or not they thought we were fair. I asked them what they liked and disliked about our benefit programs. This is the first time I’ve done this.

Do I think I got totally honest answers? No. On a scale of one to 10, I got a seven. But, if I do this every year and put out, ‘In my conversations, these are the five things I came up with that people told me they disliked. Here is what we are doing about them,’ then they can look and say, ‘I don’t have to like the fact that he didn’t agree with me, but at least he listened to me, thought about it and gave me an answer.’

As I get into years two and three, I think those people will be way more honest.

People develop trust in you. I didn’t talk to the people who directly reported to me. I talked to everyone below them and some were two levels below them. My hope is that, over a couple of years of doing these conversations, I can build a level of trust that if something is eating at them, they are going to tell me.

Be open to ideas. I’d have a staff meeting and wanted to do a brainstorming session on a project. I was running our garbage company at the time. I had two guys in the group that every time someone would try to put an idea on the table, they would look up and say, ‘Tried it, doesn’t work and forget it.’ Literally, every time someone put an idea on the table.

One day, I came in with a box of sugar packets. I put 10 sugar packets in front of the five or seven people at the table. I said, ‘We are going to have a brainstorming session, and by the way, I want no negative comments. No matter what anyone says or how stupid the idea is, we are going to hash out whatever it is. In the event that you are negative, I want everyone at the table to throw one packet of sugar at whomever it is that makes a negative comment.’

By the end of the meeting, those two guys had a box of sugar packets in their lap. But, they got my point. After that, our brainstorming sessions were better. A lot of the things we tried that, in the past didn’t work, this time worked.

So, looking at something you did in the past that didn’t work doesn’t mean the next time around it will be unsuccessful.

Be upfront without disrespecting employees. If you are treating the people with respect and dealing with what the issue is and keeping it from being personal, you can’t be too direct. If a guy screws up, you deal with it, and let’s move on.

I’m sure everyone has had bosses that were just screamers, and the world ended every time you did something wrong, and it became really personal to you that he was screaming at you. Where if whatever it was you screwed up on, it was, ‘How do we fix it, and how do we not have it happen again?’ you wouldn’t have cared how direct he was because he wasn’t focused on the fact you screwed up. He was focused on where do we go from here.

If someone is incapable of doing the task and consistently screws up, then you replace him. But, you still don’t have to change the means by which you deal with the person.

Don’t quit. Everyone has bad days. But, I can do my best to never let anyone in my place ever see me down, no matter how bad the situation is. Do I accomplish that? Absolutely not.

Winston Churchill said, ‘Never give up.’ It doesn’t matter how bad something is. If you aren’t going to give up on it, you have a passion and attitude about getting it done and winning. Winning might be losing a million dollars because I was going to lose two if I didn’t do a good job. Even though it’s a negative, it doesn’t mean you still don’t have to finish.

Passion is your love for what you are doing, but attitude is a different thing. In my mind, your attitude is how you approach those problems; being focused. Passion is going at it. Attitude is your approach to winning. They say success is 1 percent talent and 99 percent attitude. It absolutely is. If you believe you are going to win, you are going to win more times than you will lose.

No matter how bad it is or what it is, never give up.

It’s going to beat you down, and you are going to go home at night exhausted some days because it took every ounce of energy you had to be focused on not giving up. There’s no question it will wear you out.

HOW TO REACH: Kimmins Contracting Corp., (813) 248-3878 or