How To Lead: One Longtime CEO’s Letter To His Children

John Williams, CEO of Jamison Door
John Williams, CEO of Jamison Door

Editors’ Note: After 50 years leading in three different industries (newspapers, broadcasting and manufacturing) John T. Williams, CEO of Hagerstown, MD-based Jamison Door Company, decided to write down what he’d learned from his experiences to help his adult children make their way in business—and the world.

 “They are both wonderful people, successful in their careers,” he explains, “and I thought maybe they would enjoy reading some ideas I had. Decency and good values need to be emphasized often.”

When I read Williams’ letter, I found it plainspoken, moving and profoundly useful, encapsulating the best in what it means to be a business leader, so I asked him if Chief Executive might republish it this holiday season. I hope you get as much out of it as I did—and give it to someone you want to see succeed. — Dan Bigman, Editor

Introduction

It would be difficult to count all the books written on the subject of management. I found that the ones I have read could generally be summarized in the title of the book, and that it was not really necessary to go to the trouble of reading the entire treatise. One book I read was “Execution (The Discipline of Getting Things Done).” It took the author a couple hundred pages to say that it’s important to actually do what you say you are going to and to take action. So I’m a bit cynical about the value of many business books, especially those written by people who haven’t had to run an organization and dealt with the issues first hand.

The ideas I outline are those which have guided me through the years and which may or may not have value to anyone else. Most of us have to learn from our own experiences, rather than learning from what others have been through. But here goes…

Surround Yourself With Really, Really Good People

When I went to work with Ernst & Ernst in San Antonio in 1971, I often heard about Walter Beran, a Baylor graduate who had started out years before in that office and had progressed to be in charge of the firm’s Los Angeles office and was on the governing board of E&E. In the early 70’s San Antonio was a sleepy town and not a business hotspot, even in Texas. I had chosen to stay in San Antonio for personal reasons and felt I had probably compromised my career to some degree. Walter Beran was an inspiration of sorts because he had started there but had risen to the top of his profession. I asked people in the office who knew him what made him so good. Was he a technical genius or what? The answer I always received was that while he was certainly technically competent, he just seemed to always surround himself with excellent people. By doing so he always produced good results and so he, himself, always looked good.

The lesson I learned was to try to hire the best and brightest, build a team, and work to facilitate their performing at the highest levels.

Many years later I went with President Jimmy Carter and about 70 others to Guyana to observe their election of a President. Walter Beran happened to be in the group and I got to visit with him for the first time and tell him and of the influence he had been on my career even though we had never previously met. He was most gracious and seemed to appreciate hearing my story.

If You Believe in Yourself Seek a High-Risk, High-Reward Position

Larry Franklin rose from being a sharecropper’s son to being president of an NYSE corporation, Harte-Hanks. I worked for him for my four years in the corporate office of Harte-Hanks and then reported directly to him for a period when I was in Dallas. Like all of us he certainly had his shortcomings but he did offer some sage advice along the way. One nugget was that if a person is ambitious and believes in himself, he should always be willing to accept a high risk, high reward position.

High risk necessarily involves the potential for failure as well as success but one can assess the situation and decide if his talents offer a good chance of succeeding. The other part is that one should not take the risk if the reward for doing well is not quite large. This obviously means that a spotlight will shine on one who has succeeded on a very challenging assignment, and the rewards in terms of money and/or advancement will follow.

Let’s Get Moving on This

The single biggest takeaway from my Wharton education came from an off-hand remark by Don Regan. At the time Regan was head of Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith, and he was speaking to our investment banking seminar attended by about 15 students and led by Wharton’s dean, Willis J. Winn. Winn also served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia at the time. Regan later served as Secretary of the Treasury and then as President Reagan’s chief of staff. While I don’t recall the subject, I do remember that he and Dean Winn were talking about some issue that needed to be acted upon. And I remember distinctly Regan’s saying in rather sharp tones, “Let’s get moving on this.” What impressed me was that this man who was at the pinnacle of Wall Street at the time was clearly a man of action and not one who would tolerate studying a problem to death. What I learned was that there is a time to act, to get things done, and to move on solving a problem or taking advantage of an opportunity. His remark that day had a major influence on my business career.

Next page: John shares the two keys to a successful turnaround and why he’s a human chemist.