Coach Larry's Can-Do Culture

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Larry Webb began his coaching career in 1971. His approach hasn't changed much, and the team is still winning.

December 01, 2003
Larry Webb began his coaching career in 1971. His approach hasn't changed much, and the team is still winning.
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Stroll around the headquarters of John Laing Homes in Newport Beach, Calif., and you're immediately impressed that this is no conventional home building company. The life-size cutouts of company leaders, shown as Star Trek's enterprising officers, are a sure giveaway.

If you're a prospective new employee, all the signs, posters and feel-good visual aids probably make you feel welcome and hint that this might be a fun place to work. If you know that CEO Larry Webb and Bill Probert, the executive vice president of sales and marketing, began their careers as schoolteachers, maybe you think something else: This place looks like a school, and these guys still teach.

This "work hard, have fun" approach is a Webb trademark. It seems to have worked wherever he has been, as far back as 1971, when he became a high school soccer coach. "I've given a lot of thought to how to run a home building company," says Webb, who then comes up with an idea that should work for any sports team: "Select a great team and create an environment where they can really thrive.

"I just love being a home builder," Webb says. "I'm really passionate about it. I love what we do for people. And I've discovered I'm best when I surround myself with people who are equally passionate and then create an environment that's challenging and exciting."

He argues strongly against management by intimidation. "I've coached kids for 32 years, and I've worked in environments ruled by fear, where the boss only yells and never says you're doing a good job," Webb says. "I know a positive environment brings out more in people. We have that question on our employee surveys: 'Has your manager said something nice to you in the last week?' At first we got low scores on it, and that's so stupid. Why is it that the most important people seem to be the ones we take the most for granted? We try not to do that anymore."

So if you work for John Laing Homes, you can count on having fun and getting an occasional pat on the back, but you'll also get something else - a goose to get going. Remember, this is a company run by teachers and coaches. If you're not learning and competing hard, you're letting down your teammates.

"You have to make your numbers," Webb says. "We all have to make our numbers. But I believe being happy contributes to success big-time. What we do is create a great place for people to be and then spend time with them - when they do well and when they don't. But even then, you do in it in a way that's helpful. You don't threaten them. I view my job as being an instrument of change, always pushing people to get better, never allowing them to rest on their laurels."

Remember the speech about sports being a lesson for later in life? Webb and John Laing Homes confirm it. No wonder Webb uses teams to do everything.

Hiring and Educating

Laing works hard to recruit the right players and then makes sure they understand they've been hired not just to do a job but also to grow into the next one. This is a learning organization in every way. A story Webb tells illustrates the point while probably also showing that even a kindly coach can lose his temper:

"A couple of years ago, the Los Angeles division decided it was going to become the king of Hispanic housing," he says with sarcasm, "because our research shows there's a huge demand. They were right to go after that market, but I looked around the room, and it's full of white guys. They were telling us how much they know about Hispanic buyers, and they were making it up. They hadn't done the homework, and they hadn't hired the right people. We're getting better now. We hired two smart, young Hispanic managers [Javier Mariscal, director of urban regeneration, and Abel Avalos, infill manager] to help us in urban regeneration. And Wayne [Stelmar] and I are working through a partnership with [former Housing and Urban Development secretary] Henry Cisneros. We're learning, but we still have a long way to go."

To grow JLH's next generation of senior management, Webb borrowed an idea pioneered by Bob Strudler at U.S. Home more than a decade ago: forming a class of future management stars who periodically are pulled off the firing line to go through an intensive leadership development program.

"We have 11 in the class that just graduated," Webb says. "We pick at least one from each division and from the various disciplines in the company. They go through four one-week sessions during the year, one of which is at the Center for Creative Leadership in San Diego, which is really intense. They do a lot of role playing and videotape them."

Out of Laing's first leadership class, graduated a year ago, two of seven are already division presidents.

Mentoring is also part of the program, along with reading assignments. "At the end, in November each year, we hold a black-tie graduation dinner," Webb says.

It's not only an educational program, but also a way to show future stars that their potential is recognized.

Computer-Based Learning

Training isn't limited to managers. Modular, computer-based programs are used throughout the company. "We think you train animals but educate people," Probert says. "We've been using these techniques in programs for sales and marketing for five years. What we're trying to provide is a better understanding of customers and how to relate to them. Recently, we brought the customer-care people into it. Then we started with the land-acquisition guys. Next will be the receptionists, then the superintendents. Anyone who's touching the customer, we want them to understand how to build lasting relationships with people."

During our visit to Laing, we saw some of this computer training: a humorous installment showing first the wrong way for a customer-care representative and a super to do a pre-closing home buyer orientation and then the right way. At the end of the session, the program prompts students to take a quiz that reinforces the lesson, with correct answers rewarded with cheers from the computer.

"The growth we're planning in our company is being pushed in each division by people who are growing in their jobs," Webb says. "We don't push it from corporate. More often than not, we're trying to slow them down. But this is just another example of what I truly believe: All I need to do is provide our people with a fun-based work environment, the structure of good processes and some encouragement to try new ideas, then step back and watch them go."

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