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

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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. He was kind enough to share the letter with us.

Set the Goal, Then Solve the Problem

Many human interactions involve problem solving in some form. The higher the degree of potential for real conflict the more important it is to agree on what the goal is. Often in a contentious exchange people will have different goals making agreement far more difficult. Political players excel at this because their goal is frequently to win an election or embarrass the other guy rather than solve a problem. If people can agree on the goals at the outset of any discussion, obtaining resolution will be easier.

A Business Must Choose Good Suppliers of all Types

There’s not room for me to list all the mistakes I’ve made along the way but several relate to this topic. Upon arrival at Jamison I attempted to establish a relationship with the company’s long term banker but didn’t develop a backup banking relationship. When we were negotiating to buy HCR, the air door company, I provided the banker with every bit of information I had about that company and he seemed both satisfied and impressed. I went over the terms of our proposed purchase agreement with him. He assured me there was no problem with their financing the deal.

However, 12 days before the expiration of our purchase agreement he told me his bank couldn’t do the deal after all. Matt Wyskiel, my son-in-law and major Jamison stockholder, who was still working at the Mercantile Bank at the time, put me in touch with their affiliate bank in Hagerstown, who ended up financing the transaction. The lesson to be learned is have a relationship with more than one bank and keep all informed on a regular basis.

At Gray we lacked a good litigator for an attorney so we suffered on several occasions because of that. At Jamison, before Boyce Martin agreed to become our general counsel, we lacked an attorney who had the combination of common sense, good judgment, a good understanding of the law and an emotional involvement with the company. Boyce was a member of the Jamison family, a major stockholder and an excellent attorney who has been invaluable.

Also at Jamison, we initially were held up by a workers compensation insurance company that changed their quote at literally the eleventh hour. We now have a great relationship with an agent who cares about our company, does an excellent job of getting competitive quotes and even comes to our monthly safety committee meetings.

A person who has been uniquely important to me over many years starting at Harte-Hanks is Bill Schneider, a corporate psychologist and author of books about the importance of corporate cultures. Bill has been involved in almost every important hire I’ve made during and after my time with Harte-Hanks. He has a special gift to be able to predict whether a person will succeed or fail in a particular role. I can’t recall a single time he’s been wrong.

Look for Clues

During the four years I worked in the Harte-Hanks corporate office, the atmosphere was electric. The company was in a growth mode, and under President Bob Marbut’s leadership there was a clear vision of where we wanted to go. Bob had periodic meetings of the Planning Task Group, a combination of key corporate staff and operating group presidents. He would bring in speakers on a variety of topics in an attempt to stretch our thinking. One speaker, whose name I don’t recall, had been chief planner at both Xerox and IBM. His simple, but important, message was look for clues about the future and plan accordingly. What is happening today that will impact your people, company, industry, and country tomorrow? His statement is analogous to Wayne Gretzky’s admonition to look at where the puck is going to be, not where it is.

An example of this idea is CNN, which was launched June 1, 1980. I remember thinking at the time that I just didn’t see how a 24 hours newscast could be successful. A few years later [my wife] Carol and I were at a small dinner party at Atlanta developer Tom Cousins’ plantation house near Albany. Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, then newlyweds, were there.

I asked Turner how he had the idea for CNN and what made him think it would be successful. With a wave of the hand he answered brusquely, saying, “Oh, I knew it would be successful. I was just afraid that ABC, NBC, or CBS would do it first.” I remember thinking what incredible vision he had to see what others didn’t and to act so decisively on his instincts.

Leaders of organizations have to look for clues, and keep their headlights on bright. Just as doing today’s jobs well is important, so is positioning a company or organization for the future.

Don’t Be Afraid of a Seemingly Unconventional Answer

The name given to a product often determines its success or failure. Part of the reason given for the Edsel’s inability to survive was that its name was awful.

When Harte-Hanks bought the newspapers in the Dallas suburbs there were six different titles, making promotion of the group very difficult. Because we really didn’t have a good understanding of the loyalty, if any, of a particular community to its newspaper we were hesitant to change the names of the papers. One long night several of us spent a few hours trying to find one name that maybe we could use for all the papers. We found that we were precluded from most common newspaper names because competitors in one or more markets always spoiled our opportunities. We ended up not changing the names but doing all group promotion under the banner of Harte-Hanks Community Newspapers.

Many, many times I have regretted that decision because one of the names proposed was Champion. So we would have had the Plano Champion, Mesquite Champion, Lewisville Champion, Allen Champion etc. The promotion possibilities were endless: “Your Community has a Champion!” Even though that name was suggested we felt like it was not a typical-enough newspaper name. Nobody had ever named a newspaper Champion before so let’s just stick with what we’ve got. Really bad call! And largely because we would have been the first to use an untraditional name, we failed to see what a great job we could have done promoting a group of Champion newspapers.

Next page: The business lessons of Gene Mauch, former baseball player and manager.


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