Java with Jon

Jon Vaughan

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How do you know what your employees want? Where do they see their career going? If they could change one thing within the company, what would it be? And in a fast-growing company with employees in several different locations, how do you go about finding out this information? For Brand Vaughan Lumber President, Jon Vaughan, the solution was simple: He asked. In 2016, Brand Vaughan submitted itself for consideration to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Top Workplaces list. The nomination included a detailed survey sent to all of Brand Vaughan’s employees. The results that came back were not what a company president might hope for. Jon admits that, since the downturn, company culture wasn’t the priority it needed to be. But coming out of the 2008 economic downturn and the expansion to five locations, coupled with Atlanta’s labor shortage, he knew that prioritizing culture and employee growth was the only way to attract and retain new staff. And so Java with Jon was born.
Group of people looking at camera and smiling
It started out as a professional development program for younger staff. Older employees lovingly referred to it as ‘the millennial meetings.’ With its tighter focus, the initial sessions were working lunches, where staff under 35 met in small groups with Jon and other senior leaders. The format of the lunches included:
  • A summary of the company’s collective vision and mission
  • A business update from Jon
  • A presentation from a senior staff member about their career path in the industry and with Brand Vaughan Lumber
  • A discussion on a particular topic related to business acumen, like managing cash flow or how to quantify the cost of a mistake
Once the presentations were done, the floor was turned over to the employees for what became the most popular segment of the meeting: I Like, I Wish, I Wonder. In I Like, I Wish, I Wonder, employees were asked to write on Post-It notes things they liked about the company, things they wished were different, and things they wondered about or changes that could be made if money were no object. These ideas were then stuck to the wall or bulletin board. Jon stepped out of the room while the notes are written, so no one feels like he’s watching to see who contributes.
Workers around a conference table that seems very busy looking at the camera and smiling
The results of the exercise were sometimes surprising and often insightful. They gave employees an opportunity to feel like they were being heard and a sense of ownership regarding the company’s future directions. So it wasn’t unexpected the older employees started asking when they’d get their chance to provide input too. With so many more employees to see and hear from, the meeting format was changed to run as a morning meeting and changed to group departments together, instead of grouped by age. Jon brings the coffee and donuts (once he brought bagels; he admits that was a mistake), and the employees bring their questions and ideas. “The response has been so tremendous,” Jon says. “I thought people were going to walk in like it was a jail sentence. But they get there, and they’re excited. They’ve got notebooks full of ideas they want to contribute.” Even more than their engagement, Jon was incredibly encouraged about how many good ideas employees had for operations and departments other than their own. Non-sales staff offered suggestions on how to eliminate roadblocks for the sales team. The finance department asked about building a truss shop, something many of Brand Vaughan’s competitors have done. But not every suggestion is an expensive one. While there was a lot of talk about benefits and compensation, Jon found that sometimes small cost-effective changes like updating office furniture were just as important to his teams. The key, according to Jon, is accountability and recognition. After each Java with Jon session, the suggestions from I Like, I Wish, I Wonder, are compiled and put on the wall in what Jon calls “the war room.” Employees are able to see which suggestions are implemented, and departments are given credit when their ideas are put into action.
Group of people smiling
The results speak for themselves. This year, only two years after first applying, Brand Vaughan Lumber was named the 27th Top Midsized Workplace by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “When they called to say ‘hey you made it,’ it was great because we’ve worked so hard. Working hard on sales, you see the impact of changes almost instantly. But culture is tough to gauge and easy to lose sight of. We’re really excited to be on the list.” And what’s next for Java with Jon? The program continues to improve and evolve. In a few more months, Jon will have met with everyone in the company. And then he plans to start the cycle all over again. He’s hoping to get to see every employee twice this year, once to seek input and feedback, and a second time to check in and provide updates on how the initiatives that come out of Java with Jon are going. In only two years, Brand Vaughan Lumber has gone from having a struggling company culture to being recognized as one of Atlanta’s Top Workplaces. As Jon has found out, sometimes the best way to find out what your employees need is simply to ask.