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.

Why Hire Gene Mauch?

Gene Mauch was a professional baseball player and manager. But he was best known for managing four teams from 1960 to 1987 and was the winningest manager never to have won a league pennant. One of the teams he managed was the Philadelphia Phillies, and in 1964 his Phillies had a 6 ½ game lead in the National League with 12 games left to play and were starting a 7 game homestand. The Phillies faded, losing 10 games in a row to finish tied for second place.

When I was in graduate school at Wharton in 1967, I remember well going into a bar near the old ballpark in Philadelphia and seeing unused 1964 World Series tickets framed on the wall, obviously a painful reminder of how the team folded in the end. I’ve wondered many times the thought process of the teams that ended up hiring Mauch after the collapse in Philadelphia. I suspect the discussion went something like, “Let’s hire old Gene. He knows baseball and knows how to manage a ball club. I know he never won a pennant but old Gene has come real close.” Not much thought was given to looking for someone with a great skill set who hadn’t yet had a chance to manage a major league team.

I always felt like I was pretty good at running an organization when given the job but I wasn’t that good at getting the big jobs, often because I hadn’t run a bigger newspaper. The jobs went to the equivalent of the Gene Mauch’s of the world who had worked at bigger papers. They hadn’t necessarily done very well there, but they had worked at the bigger papers and I hadn’t.

Probably the main reason I was given the [CEO] job at Gray Communications and at Jamison Door was because both situations were desperate and nobody else wanted the jobs. When I went to Gray I never had run a public company with TV stations, newspapers, a car rental agency and fixed base operation (FBO) but I had other skills that let me be reasonably successful. I never knew anything about doors when I went to Jamison but I knew the importance of finding good people and building a team who could take the company to a much higher plane.

I believe I was successful both at Gray and Jamison even though I had not previously run identical companies. The message is to take a fresh look at how one fills key positions and make a judgement about what skill set is required for a person to be successful. It may not be necessary to have previously done the exact same job.

Be Especially Thoughtful of Job Applicants

When people apply for a job they are really making themselves vulnerable in many ways. It is important to let them know you appreciate their offering themselves for consideration and have an interest in your organization. Always treat them with great respect and seek to understand how they and the organization might fit. If you tell them you will get back with them by a certain time, then do it. That is just being thoughtful.

When I was being considered for the publisher’s job at the Dallas Times Herald they were in a struggle for their life against the increasingly dominant Dallas Morning News. The owner, Times Mirror Corporation, had previously made two bad choices for publisher and needed to get this one right. After our first meeting at a newspaper convention in Miami they told me they would be calling me the next week to set up a visit to the paper in Dallas. The call actually came about three weeks later. There were several other instances after that when a promised call never came. When they finally made a decision to hire someone else I heard about it from others days before I got a call from anyone at Times Mirror. All this was from a company with Picassos hanging in their corporate dining room, elegant tastes, great conversation, a most prestigious company with a sterling reputation. After that experience I vowed to treat applicants like customers.

Learn to Listen

So often in our personal interactions and in public discourse we talk at or past each other. Listening to what another person is saying and seeking to process that info is done all too infrequently. Good reporters develop the skill to ask questions during an interview to allow them to understand what one is saying and thinking.

Often when we disagree with another person we either avoid a discussion or we seek to convince the other of the wisdom of our viewpoint. A better approach would be to learn to listen and seek to understand the points the other person is trying to make. One trick is to relax your tongue when listening rather than always thinking about what you are going to say in response. The practice of talking at each other is particularly irritating in today’s media, both print and broadcast. With a 24 hour news cycle the emphasis is on the moment rather than putting events in perspective or focusing on the long term implications of the day’s events. Usually on any given channel people are pontificating and obfuscating rather than enlightening.

In discussions in business where alternatives are being considered, actually listening to various viewpoints and discussing the pros and cons will almost always lead to superior decisions.

On a personal level wife Carol is a master of getting others to talk. It can be a game to keep asking people about themselves and having them talk. Typically at the end of such an encounter people will leave thinking she is such an interesting person to talk to, since the whole conversation was about themselves.

Next page: Not shrinking from ethical decisions and why John’s dad didn’t just want a gold watch. 


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