As the CEO of David Weekley Homes, a $1.5 billion multistate homebuilder, Johnson leads with the belief that the company will only go as far as its people will carry it. If the company’s employees aren’t put in the best position to succeed, the company won’t be put in the best position to succeed.
“It’s critical that we find the leaders we need to run the business,” he says. “We develop and grow our own leaders for the most part. Over 80 percent of our leaders have come up through the company rather than from the outside.”
Cultivating leaders that embrace the company’s vision and values is extremely important to long-term success.
With that in mind, Johnson has helped construct programs aimed at identifying and cultivating the best managerial minds in the company. He says the earlier you can find the next generation of star performers, the better your company is going to be in the long run.
As the leader, your job is to make sure the talent pipeline isn’t just full but trained and prepared for the coming challenges that will face your business.
The right match
When forming a company culture, the people you bring in to perpetuate the culture are as important as the culture itself. Without the right people in the right places, particularly in management, the culture will never grow.
“The owner or the CEO creates the culture of a company,” Johnson says. “After that, the management team either reinforces it or destroys it. I believe that leaders must walk the talk, they have to be good role models, they must live it every day, always be diligent and passionate about preserving the culture.”
With that as a guiding principle, Johnson and his staff are meticulous about interviewing potential management candidates, including a series of lengthy interviews, screenings and evaluations.
By the end of the process, Johnson and his staff should have been able to get a real picture of how the candidate thinks and performs in a variety of situations.
“One step in the process is a three-to-five hour interview,” he says. “Usually after three to five hours, people will get tired, and they’ll pretty much tell you how they feel. We invest a lot of time and energy in that since it’s so critical that you hire the right people the first time.”
It’s especially critical in management positions because an employee’s boss is usually the one who sets the tone for the culture.
“To our 1,400-some team members, their boss is the most significant person,” Johnson says. “That’s who they report to and communicate with daily. That person has to be walking the talk, they have to be representing the culture of the company. They are the eyes and ears for me out in the field.”
Johnson says high integrity and a strong will to succeed and well-developed communication skills are three of the most important characteristics any manager should have, and that factors heavily into the interviewing and screening process at David Weekley Homes.
For current employees, even before they develop an interest in pursuing a management-level job, Johnson’s staff is evaluating that person as potential management material.
“We look for folks who exhibit those (management) traits and sometimes give them leadership opportunities while they’re in that job to see if they really want to do it before we put them into a training program,” Johnson says.
Once a managerial candidate has been selected, the next step is to train him or her. To make sure the same values and culture are passed on to the new managers, Johnson has helped set up a mentoring program that allows experienced managers to interact one on one with incoming managers. It’s called a leadership pipeline program, and it exists in each of the 18 cities where David Weekley Homes does business. The program emphasizes training across various disciplines, so the new manager receives lessons not only in the area in which he or she will be working but also in other areas of the company.
“We typically set them up with a mentor to help further their skills,” Johnson says. “Once that is over, we’ll typically take the people we feel have the most potential and put them in cross-training functions. For instance, we might put a builder in the sales office or put a salesperson out building homes, so that gives them a better understanding of our business.”
Johnson says managers need to know as much as possible about the jobs of the people they will be managing, either directly or indirectly. It’s the only way they’ll be able to build any long-term rapport with their subordinates. In a larger company, it is likely impossible to give an incoming manager a slice of every job performed under your company’s umbrella, but the wider the perspective you can give your employees, the better.
“We might not expose them to all areas, but we give them as much exposure as we can because they’re going to be managing all those different functions,” Johnson says. “So you at least have to have some understanding of the skill sets and the challenges that the team members have. We try to make it as well based as possible, so at least they’ll have some understanding of the jobs of the people they’re managing.”
Having a formalized training process for new managers is important, but it will only work properly if you set the ground rules in the first place.
It goes back to Johnson’s belief that the leader of a company sets the tone for the culture. Your managers can carry the torch, but you have to light it and keep it lit. The way you do that is through good communication.
Johnson places a priority on in-person communication, which requires diligence and a willingness to amass frequent flyer miles if your business has locations in many cities.
“I get out to each of our cities at least once a quarter, visit every one of our divisions every quarter, and when I’m out, I get around to almost all of our sales offices, construction offices and division offices. I spend a lot of time out in the field, face to face with our team members. That is by far the most effective way.”
Johnson is a proponent of face-to-face communication, but he recognizes that it can be a time-consuming method of getting your messages across. If you want to engage your employees in person, there is no magic formula. You must make it a priority, even with all the other tasks, projects and items that beg for your attention on a daily basis.
“Every quarter, my assistant and I set up my travel schedule, and we make it a point to make sure I get around to see every city,” he says. “If we have to give something else up, we give something else up. It’s not difficult to do if you understand and appreciate the importance of doing it.”
Face-to-face communication is important because it gives you a front-row seat as to what is going on in the field. It also allows you to really listen to what your front-line employees and managers are saying.
Johnson says listening is a major key to becoming a good communicator. You develop listening skills through practice and through interacting with your team. After meetings, Johnson asks his managers to grade him and offer advice on his listening and communication skills.
“The only way to determine if you are effectively communicating is to ask questions and listen to the responses,” he says. “A good communicator should properly identify who his audience is and adjust his style to best fit their needs. I usually find that the simpler the communication, the better.
“You should also remember that communication is more than just verbal. You should keep in mind body language when communicating and use all forms of communication.”
Keeping it simple allows your messages to stay consistent. Messages that need to reach a companywide audience can’t get bogged down in jargon or unnecessary wordiness or you run the risk of it getting lost in translation. Johnson uses every opportunity he can get to sand and polish his messages for simplicity’s sake.
“It’s through the training programs and quarterly meetings, so all our management team hears the same messages,” Johnson says. “We pray from the same hymn book, so to speak, and it’s through consistency of training, consistency of measurements and communication. We work very hard at that.”
A leader that delivers messages that are hard to follow or messages that seem ambiguous or noncommittal is a leader that will lose credibility. That is a dangerous area for anyone to tread.
“People can spot a phony from a long way off,” Johnson says. “One of the first things people lose respect for is someone who doesn’t speak the truth. That’s one of the most grievous sins you can make not walking the talk, not being consistent and being a phony.
“You build credibility by walking the talk over time. I can talk and talk, but until someone sees what this company is about, there are going to be some doubts.”
Even after you’ve selected, trained and established communication with the future leaders of your company, your job isn’t done. Enabling employees to succeed is a process that requires constant maintenance.
If you have placed authority in someone’s hands, there is a large trust factor involved. You must trust employees to do their jobs on their own unless they prove they can’t.
Johnson says trust is a form of respect a superior shows to his or her subordinates. If you don’t trust the people you have chosen, they won’t feel respected, and your company will suffer the consequences of poor leadership.
“To show respect, there are three ways to do that. One is you show trust to someone. Showing trust to someone is showing you respect them, and part of that trust is the freedom to do their jobs without interference. The second way of showing respect is care. Showing them that you care about them and are going to treat them fairly. The third way is recognition. That’s when you tell them they’re doing a good job, and here, we love to celebrate success.”
At all of the David Weekley Homes offices, there are scoreboards displayed. Employee performance and team performance are measured through many different criteria and the leaders are rewarded.
“Recognizing someone is a reaffirmation for them,” he says. “It shows them that the company or their boss recognizes that they did a great job and really appreciates it. Giving out money or a trip is also nice, but it doesn’t have to be money or a trip or an award. It’s just acknowledging that they did something. It’s something human beings crave respect and recognition.”
HOW TO REACH: David Weekley Homes, www.dwhomes.com