The value of hard work Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008

When John S. Yi came to the U.S. from Korea as a teen, no one gave him a free ride, and he had to work hard for everything. Yi even spent 10 weeks while a student at the University of California San Diego living out of his car because he didn’t have enough money to pay for both tuition and room and board.

That experience ingrained in Yi the importance of hard work, and he has instilled this value in his nearly 200 employees at Koam Engineering Systems Inc., a defense contractor company that provides information technology and logistics services to government and commercial customers.

“I want to make sure that when people work hard and try to do better, they are rewarded and appreciated,” says the founder, president and CEO of KES, an $18 million company.

Smart Business spoke about how to get the right team and provide a good environment that encourages them to work hard.

Q. What are the keys to growing a company?

It’s all about people. Making sure that you provide an environment for people to try to reach their best level professionally as well as creating a culture where you are challenging them to reach that highest level of their capabilities and not try to penalize them when they do make mistakes.

When you do that, you attract people who are aligned with what the company feels is absolutely needed to grow the business by growing themselves personally; by doing that, they’ll be able to grow the company, as well.

Q. How do you create a good environment for your employees?

It’s leading by example. It starts with me and the fact that I always don’t do the right things or say the right things. Having enough confidence to recognize that what you’re doing may not be the best for the company and trying to listen and be an active listener. By showing that I think they know that I’m not sitting on some kind of pedestal or soapbox and trying to tell them something I won’t and can’t do for myself.

You need have the patience and always seek the speaker’s perspective when you are having a conversation. Demonstrate your appreciation and respect for the speaker’s perspective, even if you disagree.

I tell my staff that little disagreements are healthy and productive as long as it allows us to fully understand what we are trying to address.

Your job is to create those environments and make sure that it’s OK to make small mistakes as long as it’s not catastrophic failures. It’s kind of like rearing a kid — you would not give a sharp knife to a small child.

As the child grows, you want to constantly challenge them to learn new things. They’re going to fall, and you want to make sure to pick them up and say, ‘Hey, you tried something; it didn’t work, try it again.’ The value of having that kind of attitude is that they feel like they can try things and be entrepreneurial, they can think a little bit outside the box and won’t be penalized.

Q. How do you lead by example?

Set up an environment where they feel comfortable asking questions. If I don’t know the answer, I will tell them I don’t.

You can lead by treating people with respect or can look at people as just another resource, and that’s the important differentiator. Really looking at people and giving them an understanding that what they’re doing is critical to the success of overall company’s performance in terms of not just creating opportunities for people and creating value for customers but for the company.

You must talk the talk and walk the walk. Do simple things first, like showing up to work before anyone else. Always be sincere in what you say, and deliver more than what you say. Don’t compromise your ethics and value for a quick return.

Q. What qualities do you look for in employees to fit into that culture?

Teamwork, the ability to work in a group. I would rather have above-average individuals working well in a group than one or two prima donnas who could part seas and walk on water. Teamwork is critical because no one can do everything.

More importantly is their attitude toward what their responsibilities would be. They may be incredibly brilliant, but if they have a wrong attitude, if they have a negative attitude toward what they’re asked to do, then you’re obviously not going to be able to fit.

Q. What are the benefits of having a good team and environment in place?

The fact that you have a good group of people creates a good environment where you want to come to work and you feel important. The importance of having a culture is that people are generally happy to come to work, and happy employees are productive. And happy employees, productive employees are ultimately great for top line and bottom line. ... I want them to have buy-in and to be successful.

HOW TO REACH: Koam Engineering Systems Inc., (858) 292-0922 or