Waste Connections President and CEO Worthing Jackman sat down with National Waste & Recycling Association President and CEO Darrell Smith June 29 at WasteExpo to talk about Jackman’s philosophy on leadership, the company’s M&A aspirations and what it takes to build a culture within a waste organization.
Jackman said the company’s philosophy on servant leadership, which prioritizes management catering to the needs of its employees, was put to the test during COVID-19. Despite economic uncertainties, the company dedicated almost $40 million to employee and family wages, in addition to wellness and health support, to tamp down worker anxieties over the last year and a half.
“Our culture is one of servant leadership, which is always about being one for others and serving all your employees. … We have to prove ourselves to our employees and their families each and every day. That approach guides our decisions. … If we focus on the employees, then the employees can focus on serving their communities,” Jackman explained.
In practice, the company’s view on service leadership is non-negotiable, Jackman said. Supervisors have to complete a series of training courses to learn the tenets of service leadership. Employees are then asked to take a 12-question annual survey rating management to give a window into how staff feel about their bosses.
Jackman said this worker-focused approach yields happier, more productive employees who are able to then embody the ideals of servant leadership in their homes and communities.
“It’s just common sense, what can you do each and every day to help your employees both professionally [and in their home life]? It comes down to [addressing their] mind and heart,” Jackman said. “It’s a focus on if you care for each other, and you put the right relationships in place with the leadership and the people they have the privilege of leading, then you end up with fully empowered employees and employees who don’t have to be told what to do. … Part of it is knowing that if relationships drive results, what drives these relationships?”
Relating to M&A, Jackman noted that now “is easily one of the most active times, in quite some time, for M&A.” He pointed to the low cost of capital and debt as primary drivers behind many deals being done, in addition to strong valuations that companies are enjoying. Looking forward, he said potential tax law changes could help persuade companies thinking of selling to come to the table in the near term.
As for what Waste Connections looks for when evaluating companies to buy, Jackman said the market is the most important, followed by reputation within that market.
“For us, it has always been first and foremost the market,” he said. “The markets that we choose to operate in and a company’s asset position in that market are critical for us. But brand name is critical for us, as well. We don’t go into markets [where we’ve bought a company] and just put our name on everything. We don’t take the names off the businesses. We have a local, decentralized business that retains the family feeling and retains the decision-making locally in the community. We don’t think we can run a business better from Houston than they can in their home market. We recognize that if we do our job right, the customer doesn’t realize there has been a change in ownership—maybe there are some additional fleet assets or additional safety programs that get put in, but it should be very seamless.”
In terms of challenges, Jackman saidthe labor shortage has been an issue that Waste Connections has struggled with like many others in the industry.
“One of the biggest challenges this industry faces is just attracting labor. … This is a fantastic industry. There are high-paying jobs and people get to go home at night. There are gold-plated benefits, and great assets, great people, comradery and relationships. But labor availability and getting people to want to come into this industry, just looking ahead, is not going to get any easier,” he said.
One of the headwinds the industry faces in recruiting new talent is the dangerous nature of the job. Jackman said Waste Connections takes somewhat of an unconventional approach in working to improve the company’s safety record.
“What we’ve found is that the path to improved safety performance, and I hate to say this, is to get rid of your safety people,” he said. “Don’t have a safety department; don’t make it someone else’s responsibility; don’t tell the driver to go down the hall and talk to the safety director. It is every employee owning safety and holding up a mirror where they’re accountable for it. It’s about having tough coaching conversations. You can talk about technology all you want. … It’s not about having the technology; it’s the coaching of it. You need to have those tough conversations.”
While having these “tough conversations” can be uncomfortable, Jackman said it is vital for improving performance. Coming full circle, Jackman said Waste Connections’ view on servant leadership has helped lay the groundwork for building a safer company that also is better able to retain its workforce.
“Our view is that cultures are either accidental or purposeful. Sixteen years ago, we decided to take a purposeful journey [in pursuit of] servant leadership with a true belief that once you get your markets in place, it’s about human capital, and we are going to win on human capital. Put simply, how do you change a paradigm of high turnover and high frequency of [safety] incidents? That’s all about [touching employees’] heads and hearts. … It gets a lot easier when employees stay with you. You still have to coach; you still have to have difficult conversations—this isn’t soft leadership—but it comes down to the belief that relationships drive results.”