Delivering Net Benefit for Business, Employees and Community￼
Early this year, goBeyondProfit Champion and CEO of Better Communities Collaborative Jon Williams co-hosted a CEO Forum in Athens, Georgia. The conversation between the panelists and the attendees offered a glimpse into the mindset of the entrepreneur and small business owner today. We wrestled with the pressures business leaders face today and the role of small business in helping navigate the mental health crisis and the cry for business to solve societal issues.
This excerpt from the conversation focuses on how Jon Williams has evolved his business and leadership style from the days of a bootstraps start-up to a thriving enterprise. And how he stays focused on delivering better benefits for his employees and communities.
What does this notion of business generosity mean to you as a CEO, what motivates your generosity?
At the end of the day, we have to make money to be able to be generous. The making money comes first. We have to be good at what we do. When you first start a company, you don’t have a lot of time to think about your giving strategy or how you will help others. You’re worried about putting food on the table and simply getting to the next day. Those first five years of any business are tough. For me, it wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that I was able to take a breath and think about what I really want my company to do.
I went back and started soul searching and looking at how I grew up, my upbringing working at the grocery store and really thought about what I wanted for our employees. That’s where our values come from.
Once I figured that piece out for myself and really started talking about it and telling people about it and sharing it I think our employees appreciate it and gravitated towards it. Our employees get to figure out for themselves exactly where they want to fit into that mission.
How has COVID upended the traditional workplace for you as an engineering firm?
I’m grateful because it turns out we were ahead of the curve when we started really thinking about employee-care back in 2018. What we see now, more of than the “Great Resignation,” is people stuck in the mindset that an engineering company must operate a certain way.
For many people, you come out of college and work 60 hours a week. You don’t ask any questions; you just do your job and then maybe you get to be promoted to the next level and then the next level. It’s possible that way of business may have lasted another four or five years without COVID, but the impacts of COVID have been dramatic and intense on the workplace. Whether it was young people, middle age people, or middle management everyone realized that there’s an opportunity to do things a different way.
For us, it’s all about talent acquisition. How do we attract the most talented and trusted individuals to come work for us? We are upfront about our flexible hours, our company values, and the work we do in the community. Our transparency helps us compete with the larger companies that may be able to offer more financial benefits.
For us, it’s less of a great resignation and more of the great realization. Times are changing, they just happen to be changing a little quicker than what anybody was expecting.
One of the many things to come out of the last two years was increased attention to employee’s mental health concerns. How has that manifested in your work?
The pandemic exacerbated mental health to a degree that we have probably never seen, certainly I have never seen in my lifetime. I was a witness to it in my own household. My wife and I were taking care of our two youngest kids, trying to homeschool them effectively all while maintaining our jobs. Add to that the stresses that we already put on people at the workplace to do their job and everything was taken to another level.
I have multiple family members that have depression, and so I’ve been around it, I’ve seen it. I’ve watched it. I think we’re talking about it more today than we ever have in the past. People are more comfortable talking about it today than we ever have been. If you asked me this same question in 2009, during the middle of the great recession, where everybody was losing their jobs, I don’t think I would have said mental health was as important at the time. I really think it’s been in the last 10 years or so that we have highlighted mental health as something that we’re willing to have a conversation about.
People are under constant stresses, whether it’s a mass shooting, a global pandemic, or other societal tensions. Whatever reason created unique circumstances we find ourselves in, now is the time to discuss this and to not turn away from it.
I have to mention a recent Accenture study that I heard about from fellow goBeyondProfit member Chloe Barzey. Accenture found that there are six things that cause an employee to be net better off. One of them is mental health. Other things like physical health, knowing you have a path to success, greater flexibility, etc. But what I found most interesting is that if you look at the pie chart they created, each of the six pieces are the same size. It doesn’t matter if you know your work path and have flexibility if your mental health is bad. It takes all of these components for an employee to be net better off, which is what we want at the end of the day. We want to give them the ability to be the happiest at work, the happiest at home, and to stay for the long term.
How do you make the decision to respond to specific social issues?
I had to learn early on how to handle situations like this. I started my company when I was 26 years old, and for folks who know me, I was probably more direct back then than I am now. I didn’t hold back on my opinions. When you’re 26 you think you can say whatever you want, whenever you want. The biggest evolution for me as a leader was learning to be a little more diplomatic. Taking a breath, to think about what you’re going to say before you say it. I realized that every action I take is looked at by my employees as an example.
Once the company started building a group of employees and I was trying to create a culture of inclusivity I realized that while I may have my own political views, I may vote one way, but I can’t carry that to work with me.
When we hit about 25 or 30 employees we had an incident in which someone was upset about others in the office were treating them based on how they voting in a recent election. This person felt awkward and harassed by their coworkers. That’s when I realized we simply can’t bring those political beliefs into the workplace, that’s not what the workplace is for.
Instead, our company responds by focusing on giving back to causes that everyone can get behind. Last year we polled our employees to find out what causes where near and dear to them in order to direct our corporate giving. We ended up supporting causes that everyone could get behind like housing, diversity, equity and inclusion, and education. If you can’t find one of those three things to get behind, then you probably aren’t the right person for our company at the end of the day.
In addition to our charitable contributions, we also support our employees by giving them time off to support causes that they want to support. For instance, we may have an organized event around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but we also give employees time off so that they can volunteer wherever they want to and spend their time and their efforts wherever they want to.