Editor’s Note: This profile is the final installment in the Healthy Leaders Project initiated by the 2017 WorldatWork Work-Life Advisory Council (WLAC). The project, launched in the January 2018 issue of Workspan, ran profiles on healthy leaders in the magazine throughout the year.
It seems that TDIndustries would have healthy leadership figured out. After all, the employee-owned, Dallas-based mechanical construction and facilities service company has been benefiting from a half-century of servant leadership practice. (Servant leadership, which falls under the umbrella of healthy leadership, focuses on the growth and well-being of employees.)
TDIndustries has grown to 2,400 employees, has a better-than-average industry turnover rate and has been one of Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” since that list started 21 years ago.
Picking up the skills to help others grow has been the key to my success.
But living up to servant leadership standards is a continuous challenge, said Harold MacDowell, the company’s third CEO. The key is communication and feedback, which started with spaghetti dinners at founder Jack Lowe Sr.’s house and has expanded into social media and regular employee meetings with senior leaders, explained MacDowell, who’s ranked No. 7 in Inc. magazine’s “Top 10 CEOs” list.
“When the company was small, small groups were invited to the Lowe house for spaghetti dinner. If you were invited the first night, you got Harriett’s fresh spaghetti. The people on the second night got leftovers.”
Jack Sr. contracted tuberculosis in the 1950s and that health scare showed him he needed to be growing people if his business was going to survive. Jack was a natural servant leader, and so when he discovered Robert Greenleaf’s 1970 essay, he began using it to teach all leaders at TD.
After Lowe died in 1980, his son, Jack Jr., took over as CEO and servant-leader guru. As the company grew, spaghetti nights morphed into breakfasts, where Jack Jr. would meet with all employees on a three-year rotation.
MacDowell joined the company as an engineer in 1985, learning servant leadership from Jack Jr. as he worked his way up the ranks. “I had the opportunity to learn how to build buildings and you can’t do that unless you learn how to grow leaders.”
Now with 2,400 employees, regular meetings are conducted by 20 senior leaders who meet with groups of 10 employees four to eight times a year.
Plus, social media has helped immediacy. “Now, everybody gets the good news at once,” MacDowell said. “Twenty years ago, if you were in the office, you heard it before people in the field.
“No matter the format, those regular employee meetings have produced countless good business ideas over the years,” MacDowell said. “Often we find out where we are a little loose — where we need better communication or training.”
Jim Fickess writes and edits for WorldatWork.