We had traded emails for several months; weeks sometimes passing between each.
The laborious prospecting for clients of my newly established coaching practice had finally yielded a coffee time with a reasonably interested candidate.
Greeting Jim Wakefield and shaking his hand was enough to realize he was no stranger to hard work. His rough calloused hands firmly grasped his new acquaintance with unwavering engagement yet no unnecessary show of strength. His face testified fully to nearly 70 years of life, yet held the handsome features of mindful resolve and sincere regard that never fade.
From the start I sensed this was a man who could be gentle yet firm, intense yet involved. He was direct and to the point. Yet he also let himself be impacted by the words and ideas of others.
That is a very rare combination. Together they meant very little neutral zone for Jim. Everything he did was purposeful. Everything he learned and listened to was meaningful. Else his attentions would be elsewhere.
So on this spring morning in 2014 I sat across a bistro table from Jim at a local Panera as he began to tell me about business and life with sincere reflection and transparency.
Along the way Jim shared a brief history of The Wakefield Corporation, his commercial drywall construction business of nearly 30 years. One doesn’t have to drive far in the Knoxville area before a Wakefield building is within sight, though one would never know it. Their many works have few inscriptions on them that would allude to the integrity of the walls within.
But they are there.
In the local construction industry, TWC is known for both the quality of their work and their involvement within their community. They care about both people and projects, understanding you can never have one without the other.
Jim had earned a peculiar fame some years back in this town when a local labor union launched a public shaming campaign involving protest banners outside project sites where their union labor was not involved. The banners read “Shame on Jim Wakefield” and for a while were ubiquitous around the city. It was a misguided vendetta played out in the public square.
For Jim, it was a stressful time. But it didn’t derail him, distract him, nor cause his purpose and values to change in order to appease a public nuisance. He would not be bullied into submission. One groups nefarious mandate would not dictate the conduct of his business.
Jim held firm to his values and continued his work anchored by principles over pride, and faith over fiction.
That morning in Panera it was obvious his passion was for the future of his business.
Jim and his team had made some important structural changes the previous year. But he was smart enough to realize that legal structures do not guarantee functional success, any more than a marriage license guarantees marriage success.
What Jim wanted to talk about was what needed to be done to set the future company leadership up for success when he was gone.
His leadership team was anchored by Grant Bryant, his long time business associate and Erin Wakefield, his daughter and protege in the business.
Succession planning is one of the most seriously neglected activities in family businesses today. So many presumptions are made about intentions, competence and readiness for generational transfers that the hard work of setting those transfers in motion become an after thought. But the reality is, if you are going to create a new generation of anything, it is wise to prepare for the birthing and raising of that new generation well in advance. This goes for leaders as well as babies. Businesses as well as families.
Jim was thinking about that well ahead of the time it would be necessary. But as the events of this week with Jim’s passing show, one never knows in reality when that day will come.
Jim worked faithfully in the business up until his last reserves of strength gave out. But his involvement in the business had already yielded over time to the new generation of leadership. One that his team had referred to on occasion as Wakefield 2.0. Built on the foundation Jim laid, the business is poised for a future that Jim conceived in his heart and mind and fostered to the very end.
Strictly from the unique perspective I’ve had as I’ve coached them through these transitional years, and with permission from the family, I wanted to offer three principles that Jim embodied through his business now employing over 200 people.
Work in Itself is Meaningful
Jim saw his business as building the community not just putting up drywall. He was masterful in getting things done, but that was not his main purpose. Rather he wanted the things that were done, to mean something.
He felt how things were done mattered as much, if not more, than the end result. Jim knew that one led to the other. That outcomes are the result of the right things done at the right times in the right ways. Never would shortcuts, hacks, or appearances be acceptable.
Work was intended to have purposeful meaning. Value in itself. It is meaningful and purposeful in that it is what brings benefit and value to others. It is how we give, serve and make things better in our world.
So let our work be about more than just getting things done.
If you let it stand for something, it will stand a long time even after you are gone.
Meaningful Work is Never Conflict Free
It’s never if, but when, that conflict will occur. Conflicts happen whenever people set out to do something meaningful.
If you want a conflict free world, then pursue a meaningless life.
In any arena where integrity and excellence stand in the balance, there will be conflict. But conflict is never the demon. Demons are never that visible. They are too busy hiding behind accusations and lies.
Conflict in meaningful work leads to health in the final outcomes. All of us in life will have our detractors. Jim taught us to let the detractors stay outside with their cheap words. Then keep yourself focused on the work of your hands. Nothing of value is ever done free of conflict. It’s how you face it that matters in the end.
Future Leadership Depends Upon Excellence Not Perfection
I knew from the first conversation that Jim did not have a perfect way in mind that the business should be run without him. While he was intensely committed to his ways of running the business, he also realized that his successors would have to lead on without him.
Right before I started coaching with TWC, Jim and I had one more coffee time. He was even more transparent with me that time, sharing things in confidence that are a part of what I hold in honor as a business life coach. But the theme he embraced for the future leadership of the business was this.
Perfection wasn’t the end game. It was simply excellence. They are relatives of the same family of quality concepts. But perfection is the idealist of the family. Excellence is the realist.
Jim was not one to waste time on perfection that would give him mastery and control, but rather he was relentless in the pursuit of excellence that would deliver value to the client. Perfection is a task beyond our pay grade. But excellence is something that can be sought day in and day out by mere mortals.
Let the next generation learn from it’s own mistakes…don’t shield them from it. Yet don’t disappear while they learn. They will need the benefit of your wisdom and understanding without having the helm pulled away from them when things get tough.
If These Walls Could Talk
In just a few short years I’ve seen these principles alive and well at Wakefield 2.0. No doubt they will make it through to even future generations where these values will never lose fashion nor grow stale.
In this town it is true that if “these walls could talk”, they would no doubt have something to say of the lasting legacy of Jim Wakefield. The courage, perseverance and commitment he gave to them are the same that have made our community stronger in so many ways.
That is part of the legacy he leaves our town through the work of his hands, the integrity of his mind, and the genuine concerns of his heart.
And that my friends is a legacy that will last for a very long time.