John Cannon President, John Cannon Homes Inc.
In his desk, John Cannon keeps a tattered piece of paper that he cut from a magazine 20 years ago. He isn’t sure who originally wrote the words, but he keeps it around because the wisdom still rings true today. “Never hire or promote in your own image,” the quote says. “It is foolish to replicate your strengths and idiotic to replicate your weakness. It is essential to employ, trust and reward those whose perspectives and ability and judgment are radically different from yours. It is also rare, for it requires uncommon humility, tolerance and wisdom.” That advice saved Cannon when he was struggling to expand John Cannon Homes Inc., the homebuilding business he started out of his garage in 1987, which now has 83 employees and $93 million in annual revenue.
Smart Business spoke to Cannon about how he became a better manager.
Don’t let things stagnate.
I’m a firm believer that you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. There is no status quo. If you’ve reached your goals, you have to set new goals.
You have to continually refine your process and your product. Ford and GM are good examples: You can’t keep making the same car and expect to sell them. They may be the best-seller today, but they won’t be the best-seller in five years.
You avoid stagnation by being innovative. You have to be willing to be a leader in design and be a leader in service. That’s how you assure growth. Also, you have to staff a little bit ahead. You can’t staff at your current level; you have to staff for your projected growth. That’s always tough on the bottom line, but it is a necessity if you want to grow in an orderly fashion.
We’ve grown historically about 15 percent per year on average. We’ve never really gone crazy, but that slow, steady growth over 20 years starts to add up.
The turtle wins the race. You have the people who sprint to the head of the pack and fall back just as quickly. We’re fiscally conservative, so we don’t take a lot of risks, although a lot of people would say we do. When we make a decision we’ve researched it, and we understand it.
Count to 10 before you open your mouth. As much as you want to get it done this second, sometimes it’s better to wait until the morning.
It’s so easy just to react. As a leader, if you are a true CEO, you need to disconnect yourself from the day-to-day. You need to let your people do it, and if you have things you need to communicate to your people that may not be positive feedback, you need to let it sit for a little bit to understand what the bigger picture is.
You can fix a small problem and it may create all sorts of unintended consequences. That’s one of my biggest challenges: Always think it through. I’m a knee-jerk, get-it-done, ramrod-out-in-the-field type of guy. Look at it from all perspectives.
I’m not an MBA who has had an education on how to be a CEO. I’m a homebuilder, and everything I’ve learned is by trial and error. Sometimes I wish I took the time to educate myself, but when you’re younger, sometimes you don’t take the time to learn those management and leadership techniques.
They really hold true, so pick them up and learn them as early as you can.
Be honest with your employees and be passionate about your work.
Lead by example. You need to be committed to whatever you’re doing. You need to have faith in the people you put in the position to accomplish the task, and you need to reward them.
You need to let your people know where you stand; that means at times there will be negative feedback. A lot of times, it’s what you say in those situations that is important, it has to be constructive. Try to be involved in what they’re doing, day in and day out, from an observation level. I try to be there for them to answer questions and to try to give them guidance. Let them know what they’re doing matters.
Probably the most important thing is passion. You have to have passion for what you do. People are looking to be part of something. They are looking for a leader who has the passion to create, a passion to succeed.
I love to build houses; I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I’m not a businessman who picked homebuilding, I’m a home-builder - that’s what I do. I’m not interested in jumping ship if times are tough and finding another business, whether it be selling coffee or whatever.
Encourage people with small taps, not a 2x4.
The analogy I always used to use is I (was) on the field and I played every position, then I got moved to offensive coordinator, then to head coach, then eventually I hired offensive and defensive coordinators. Then I got kicked off the sideline and into the owner’s box.
You try to surround yourself with people who are better than yourself. I came from doing it, so I probably stick my nose in people’s business more than I should, but I try to let them do their job. Am I a delegator? Yes, I delegate. Am I authoritative at times? Yes. Do I let people have a certain amount of rein? Yes, but I don’t want them to hang themselves. When you send someone to accomplish something; you give them their end goal. If you have more experience than them, then you need to tap them on the shoulder to tell them you’re going too far right or too far left. You want to do that before the only way you can get them back on track is with a 2x4 to the head. Little taps are a lot better than one big tap, but you have to let them go.
People have their own way of doing things, and I’ve learned that sometimes they are better than the way I do things. You have to at least let them try, and if it doesn’t work, then you can implement the way you want it done.