Jim Warmington Jr. represents the fourth generation of his family to lead The Warmington Group, whose homebuilding division, Warmington Homes, made a name for itself building classic estate homes for Bing Crosby, Henry Fonda and other legends of the silver screen.
But while Warmington carries on the legacy, the $560 million company itself hasn’t always had such consistency. During the housing boom from 1998 to 2002, Warmington nearly doubled the number of homes it was building in California and Nevada. While the company was enjoying the unprecedented growth, little problems kept creeping up. When Warmington asked the leaders of each of his six divisions to send him the documents they used to make contracts with homebuyers, it became clear that something had to be done.
“We had these six stacks, and every one of them was different,” he says. “Not only were they different, some of the documents were from the 1980s, some were brand-new and recent. Some had been copied so many times that they had that fuzzy, ‘I’ve been copied 20 times’ look to them.”
Warmington showed the whole mess to his in-house risk management counsel, whose professional opinion was, “I can’t even believe we’re having people sign this.”
As Warmington saw it, the sad state of the contracts was just the most egregious example of an ongoing problem. As the company grew, each division had gone off on its own tangent. The informal culture of high ethics and integrity that worked so well when the company was smaller needed an adjustment to work at its new size.
“Everyone thought they were doing the right thing,” Warmington says. “But in reality, we had grown so fast, we had lost control of some of these important things, like the documents.”
At the height of the boom, Warmington set out to fix the developing disconnect between the company’s offices. He wanted to set a cohesive, overarching mission statement of sorts, which once agreed upon, it would get the formal corporate stamp of approval.
Bring everyone together
Just because different offices were doing things differently didn’t mean they were all doing a bad job. In fact, when Warmington was thinking about how to get everyone on the same page, employees in Warmington’s Northern California office were working on a best practices program, and one of the Southern California offices was working on a similar project.
Developing a best practices program was a great idea. The problem was that the offices weren’t working together. Despite having the best of intentions, they were working in silos, without considering that they were part of a larger company. This was the mentality that had caused the company to drift apart as it grew.
Warmington noticed similarities in the two offices’ programs but noticed a few differences, as well. The Northern California office had taken to calling its program “The Warmington Way.”
“They came up with the name,” Warmington says. “People would ask them, ‘Why do you do it this way?’ and they’d say, ‘It’s just the Warmington Way. That’s how we do it.’”
The name stuck. Warmington decided that the leaders of each of the company’s divisions should get together to create one all-encompassing best practices and more program that would be used by the entire company. The Warmington Way became shorthand for how the company does business — an umbrella that covers its mission, vision, values and culture.
The first step was setting up a meeting with all of his department heads. After a day of conversation, Warmington typed up a summary of the meeting and e-mailed it to everyone. He says putting your notes from a meeting in writing is something executives should always do. It will help ensure that your communication gets through clearly.
“Even though you say something, not everyone hears the same thing,” Warmington says. “About one-third of the people said, ‘Well, that’s not what we talked about,’ and two-thirds said, ‘That’s exactly what we talked about.’”
If you’re trying to drive a companywide initiative, everyone needs to be aware of what you’re driving at. Warmington made sure every employee knew about The Warmington Way. At the beginning, employees weren’t sure what it meant or why all the department heads were meeting at the corporate office. But after the first meeting, the department heads were tasked with going back to their offices and gathering input from their own teams. Warmington sent out companywide e-mails to let everyone know what was happening and encouraging all of the employees to talk about their ideas with their bosses.
“I say, ‘Take this out and go out and talk to your field guys; see what they have to say,’” Warmington says. “So they took it out and spent a couple weeks talking to the field people, the salespeople and the office people, really all of their subordinates. Then we got together again.”
Deal with dissension
At the first few Warmington Way meetings, everyone came in totally committed to making the company better. Warmington says the department heads and vice presidents had no reservations and were all really excited about taking the best ideas and practices and consolidating them into a formal companywide philosophy. But there was one issue that quickly rose to the surface as the discussions progressed. Every person at the meeting thought his or her ideas were the best.
“Everyone was fighting for their ideas,” Warmington says. “As soon as we started questioning their ideas and saying, ‘Maybe we’ll go in another direction,’ you started to get a little bit of pushback. But we just kept talking about it and going through it. All the VPs would get together and go through it, and they would talk it through and come up with the best idea.”
Warmington says you should resist the impulse to be too delicate in a discussion like this one, because if you just dance around an issue without confronting it, you may not end up with the best solution for the company. You have to set the tone early if you want a fruitful discussion, he says.
“Even though no one is attacking anyone in a mean way, people take their work very personally, and when someone starts questioning it in a pretty serious way, it can seem like a personal attack unless you’re used to it,” he says.
Make sure your staff members understand that you are not criticizing their ability to do their job, you are just trying to dig down for a deeper understanding of the issue being discussed. Once that understanding is established, you can have a civil discussion about what’s best for the company — without emotions getting in the way.
During the meetings, Warmington would go around the table and let each person defend his or her idea. He asked questions like, “What do you like about your idea?” and “Why is your idea better than his idea?” He says you have to continue to ask questions until you can determine the reasoning behind the action the employee wants to take. Having a group of other executives or department heads involved in the discussion is a good idea, because it gives you more viewpoints and can eventually help you reach a consensus on which ideas would take the company closest to its goals.
Of course, even after all that discussion and after a near consensus is reached, some people will still think their ideas are better.
“At the end of the day, if we got five out of six of the VPs of construction to agree to a certain way, the sixth guy would basically say, ‘I trust all of you guys; you’re all really good at this, and if five of you think this is the best way, then I’m going to go along with it and we’ll try it for six weeks,’” Warmington says. “Because they had gone through the process, they totally bought in to it. Even if they didn’t agree 100 percent, they were willing to give it a shot because they knew it was better than what we’re doing now.
Sift through input
If you just talk to your department heads or your executive team, you’re not getting the whole picture. To get more good ideas, you need to go straight to the source.
After the first few meetings with his department heads, Warmington sent out an e-mail soliciting ideas. It went to all 550 employees the company had at the time.
“We said, ‘Send us your ideas; we’re going to categorize and work through them and start looking at the biggest and the best ideas — the things that would save the company the most money, make things operate better, improve who we are as a company the most,’” Warmington says. “People were really excited about it because they were finally getting contact, and they all had ideas.”
Warmington worked with his vice presidents and departmental leaders to sort through all the ideas. As an added incentive, whoever submitted what was judged to be the best idea got a cash bonus of $1,000. There were about 50 awards total, including several other cash awards and many gift cards.
He says the awards were just another way to get everyone even more invested and involved in the process. Every person who submitted an idea got a response from Warmington, even if the idea didn’t win an award or if it hasn’t been implemented.
Telling someone his or her idea isn’t going to be used can be a tricky test of your management touch. Warmington always uses examples of the ideas the company is actually going to use when he explains why one particular idea won’t be used.
“People would say, ‘Oh, you’re right, that’s really better than my idea. I see why you’re focusing on that,’” he says. “They got it because they could see that even if their idea was good, it took a lot of time to implement for a little reward, while some of these other ones were super easy to implement for a huge reward.”
Another way Warmington handles employee input is leaving the door open to possibly revisit an idea. Just because it may not work for the company at the time doesn’t mean the idea has no value, he says.
“We started with the best ideas, and we just trickled down,” he says. “Then a year later, we got to some of the other ideas, and we’d call them back up and say, ‘Hey, just wanted to let you know we’re working on your idea again. Have you given it any more thought?’ They’d say here are a few more things and some refinements, and we’d talk about it as a group and push it through.”
Warmington says continued patience is necessary when it comes to developing an all-encompassing business plan for your organization. Getting input from everyone is essential, and while progress may be slow, the final product will be one your entire company can stand behind, not simply an edict handed down from the CEO.
It took Warmington four months just to get a basic outline and about a year before the program was finalized and was rolled out across the entire company.
Once it was finished, the results spoke for themselves, as the company once broken into six silos had one set of brochures, one set of writing materials for new employees and one training program, with minor changes for product and location differences.
HOW TO REACH: The Warmington Group, (714) 557-5511 or www.warmingtonhomesca.com