It’s not the metaphor you’d expect to hear from Jim R. Miller. You’d anticipate some building terms from the president of the South Central region of JE Dunn Construction Co.
But no — Miller looks to music to illustrate leadership.
“We’re kind of like an orchestra,” Miller says. “We have a conductor — that’s our leadership team — and our job is to lead this whole team. The leaders [are] those that can put a team of a bunch of different people together with a bunch of different agendas, those that can get everybody on the same page and get all the pieces of the band playing the same music.”
With about 30 years of experience in the industry — all at JE Dunn — Miller has seen plenty of tempo changes. He now oversees Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas from the region’s Houston headquarters, and the recent recession has been the first dip many employees there have experienced. So maintaining their focus is a fresh challenge.
“It’s keeping all the employees moving in the same direction where there is friction due to the economy,” he says. “Communicating with that leadership team and making sure that those leaders communicate with the entire staff is very important. Today, more than ever, communication is very important to make sure that everyone feels like they know what’s going on and what direction the company is proceeding.”
Miller knows that keeping employees headed toward — and achieving — goals is a continuous and collaborative process of communication.
“If we can create the vision or the process or the game plan, then it’s identifying assignments and making sure everybody understands their role and then providing a check, an oversight to make sure that it’s happening the way it needs to happen,” Miller says.
Get goal-setting consensus
If you wait until your goals are set to start communicating, it’s too late. At least bring in your leadership team to collaboratively develop a path.
Miller gets his team together annually to set goals. JE Dunn uses a balanced scorecard focused on four areas: customer satisfaction, financial metrics, standard operating procedures, and employee growth and learning. By relying on corporate parameters, they begin the goal-setting process on common ground.
Even then, landing on the same page can be a struggle.
The first step is creating an open environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing.
“You have to prove that everybody has a say in it,” Miller says. “You have to demonstrate that, and people will eventually follow because it works.”
Do that by providing examples of other people’s ideas you’ve implemented.
“Everybody on our team has come up with ideas that we have incorporated,” Miller says.
“When we take those ideas and we turn them into reality, everybody sees it and says, ‘Gosh, it really does work. I can provide an idea and we’ll really do something about it.’ That’s what I mean by demonstrating that it works: You make sure people know where the idea came from. It’s not my idea; I was just smart enough to incorporate it.”
Once ideas start flowing, keep debate healthy. Miller has a systematic way for doing that.
“You’ve got to have a time limit,” he says. “We try to limit our meetings to an hour. If an item gets out of hand, you just have to step in and stop it and regroup later. If you see there’s progress being made, you keep it going. If you see you’re just beating up on the same issue and you’re not making any progress, then you’ve got to cut it off. You’ve got to think about it; you’ve got to come back in a smaller group or you’ve got to come back with a better idea.”
For example, because JE Dunn does diverse types of work, a common debate with Miller’s team is deciding which projects will best utilize available resources. When he realized they were going back and forth unproductively, he decided to develop a more black-and-white process of matching their strengths to a project’s needs.
“As opposed to just having one of these ferocious debates, we put that into some positive energy and made people more accountable to identify the real facts of the project so we could make an intelligent decision based on our strengths,” he says.
If you openly welcome ideas from everyone and keep debate healthy, Miller has found that the rest usually falls into place. But to assist that, he set an expectation that once most people agree, the rest will get on board.
“That’s what building a team is all about,” he says. “So even if one person may not totally agree and he may have another idea, at some point, you just have to say, ‘That’s it. Everybody [else] is on board. Let’s go.’
“Having a true team, that’s what you do … is express your opinion, we’ll debate it, we’ll (discuss) it, we’ll do our best to figure out the right solution. After going through a healthy discussion, you end up with the best idea. Once you have a general consensus in it, then you all agree to move forward.”
It may take individual meetings with resisters to ask for support, explaining that the team believes it’s the best solution for the company.
“You have one or two that are going another way, then you fall apart,” Miller says.
Break down goals
After building consensus on his leadership team, Miller still has to bring the rest of his 390 employees on board.
“I like to break it down into bite-size pieces, creating a vision that people can really understand,” he says.
His leadership team clearly assigns individual roles while setting goals.
“We try to make it as clear as possible where one role stops and another starts,” he says. “We sit down and identify specifically on a project: ‘Somebody’s handling that component, somebody else is handling that component, somebody else’s job is to focus on another.’”
Those roles may shift as you get into a project and watch it play out, but the key is clearly communicating what you expect up front as well as any changes in that along the way.
“Be open enough to identify if there’s a gap or if there’s a duplication,” Miller says.
While he can assign roles broadly, he lets direct reports and managers flesh those out for their teams.
Gregg Lynch, the executive vice president who oversees the southern part of the South Central region — including Houston, Austin and Louisiana, says clear communication is the key to trickling down goals.
“Delegation really only works when the responsibilities of each individual are clearly defined and communicated, not only to that individual but others down the chain,” Lynch says.
After the annual regional leadership meeting, group leaders meet quarterly to monitor goals and objectives. Monthly, each office offers further updates on their progress. In between all of those meetings, managers reiterate goals with their employees and constantly review their progress.
For example, under the broad goal of safety, one person may be responsible for administering safety talks for other employees and measured on the quality of his talks and how many people attend. The project manager may be in charge of keeping that employee on task and getting subcontractors to participate. And the superintendent may be roaming the site looking for safety adjustments to make during the project.
“So it’s the one goal: Be safe,” Lynch says. “But everybody has a different role to make sure that happens.”
The catch that comes with defining and delegating roles is that you have to stay out of the way and let employees perform.
“You have to trust your people,” Lynch says. “Their authority must be backed up by you and supported by you. So if I have a guy that makes a wrong decision, I can’t hold that decision against him. I put him in the place to make that decision and I’ll support it. I can give [him] advice, but I really can’t second-guess that decision.”
It becomes important to monitor employees along the way so you can keep them on the right path before they veer off.
JE Dunn’s mission is especially relevant when it comes to monitoring and evaluating employees’ progress toward goals.
It reads: In pursuit of building perfection.
“We’re in pursuit of building perfection, so anything that doesn’t quite meet the standards, we talk about how to improve it,” Miller says.
Beyond just tracking results, there are plenty of opportunities for Miller and other executives to see how employees are faring. Teams within each office meet weekly to share what’s going well and not so well, the offices share updates with each other monthly, employees are formally evaluated twice a year, and there’s also an assessment after each project is completed — not to mention the informal temperature-taking in between.
Simply observing presentations in those meetings can help you evaluate employees.
“Each individual is given a responsibility and they also are given the opportunity to report on how they’re progressing toward their responsibility,” Lynch says. “When those team members come in and they’re prepared, they’re anticipating our questions, you know that they’re on top of their game.”
Lynch knows they’re enthusiastic about the goal if they’ve planned for all possibilities. Beyond that, he likes to see that they’re actually excited to talk about their plans to overcome obstacles, rather than dreading potential pitfalls.
Of course, it’s not just how they present but what they present — and how you react to it.
“You really praise in public and criticize in private,” says Miller, who rewards performance with anything from recognition to plaques to money. “It’s important to … reinforce the good behavior, and it works. People say, ‘Gosh, look at what happened to him. I’m going to try to do the same thing.’ People get turned on by that.
“But on the other hand, if somebody doesn’t do a good job, it can be pretty deflating to a person to be criticized in public. So he really needs to be pulled aside and a strategy — an employment improvement program of some sort — needs to be laid out where he can try to improve whatever he’s doing wrong.”
Lynch’s approach, for example, is to start on a good note then remind employees he’s there to help with the problem — both of which can encourage them to come forward with issues next time.
“I always like to start off with a positive before I bring in the negative,” Lynch says. “But [when] things aren’t going right, then I like to be direct and very open: ‘How do we solve this together?’ I think that holds a lot more weight than carrying a big stick. You get more buy-in from them wanting to solve their problem.”
For Miller, it’s about clearly communicating the steps toward a solution.
“It’s identifying, A, what’s not occurring that should be occurring, and then B, really identifying the steps that need to be taken and providing examples of what should be occurring and leaving the employee with a time frame,” he says.
The key is tackling that as soon as you notice an issue.
“That’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve learned, is don’t procrastinate when it comes to addressing something that needs to be fixed,” Miller says. “Don’t ride dead horses. Identify whatever is broken and get into it [through] those that are involved. You need to constantly be looking for areas of improvement and then identifying the best way to improve that situation and move on.”
By constantly communicating from the goal-setting until success, Miller kept his employees aligned through the recession to achieve 2009 revenue of $244 million for his region, contributing to companywide revenue of $2.3 billion.
“The conductor of this orchestra needs to be paying attention to make sure that there’s the right number of trombones and they’re playing at the right time,” Miller says. “And if the trombone’s not there, he needs to step up and identify it.”
HOW TO REACH: JE Dunn Construction Co., South Central Region, (713) 521-4664 or www.jedunn.com