As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Jaye, President and CEO of Woods & Jaye Sales. He is a new generation leader in an infrastructure industry that is critical in many invisible ways to the functioning of cities and commerce. For 60 years, the Long Island City-based Woods & Jaye has provided plumbing solutions for some of the world’s most innovative, technically-sophisticated, high-performance and energy efficient buildings built in and around the New York Metropolitan area.
Co-founded by his father, Stephen took charge of the company in 2012 following roles in digital and consumer marketing and brand development in the iconic beauty company Estee Lauder. New York born, he graduated with a BA in Business from the International University Geneva and was an international student in Business and Economics at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
Stephen brings new perspectives and approaches to a business that has been traditionally family-owned, bricks and mortar, supply and deliver. He has a vision of digitally aggregating the industry and opening new forms of service to an industry that has not fundamentally changed for a century.
Woods & Jaye Sales is a full service Manufacturer’s Representative and distributor of specification grade plumbing and HVAC products for commercial, industrial, residential and institutional facilities. The company provides service to many of the world’s leading global and local engineering firms by providing technical support on highly complex sanitary, plumbing and design challenges. It has contributed intelligent plumbing solutions to many of New York City’s most important and iconic projects.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Istarted working for my father in this business in 2001 after 9/11 and after graduating hotel school in Switzerland, but prior to finishing my business degree. I had always wanted a career in global management working for the Estee Lauder Companies. My father had a stroke in March 2013, and after 10 years in global management at my dream job, I knew I had to resign and take over operating his business. I would not have been able to be successful in what I’m doing now without the experience and knowledge I learned working for ELC. I was walking into a business that I had some experience with but with tremendous pressure both on me personally to deliver and also for my family and professionally for the key manufactures that we represent. They had to take a leap of faith in me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was an intern and my boss (an incredible woman who graduated top of class from Harvard Business School) took me out for my first business lunch with a few members of the team at upscale restaurant in New York City. The menus came, and I spent so much time looking and studying the menu, and just couldn’t decide what I wanted for lunch. The point of the lunch was for her to get to know me, and me to get to know the team, but what they observed was that I couldn’t make a decision. Not even about lunch!
Later that day, I found out that the head of the mentorship program followed up and asked my boss how the lunch went, and my boss’s response was that I couldn’t make a decision.
The lesson here is that you are the author of your personal brand — one experience won’t define the rest of your career and life but it certainly left an impression on my new boss. From that very first lunch, it was like swimming upstream to rebrand myself every day to my new boss! And I never forgot it.
The biggest mistake you can make as a young leader is to assume that you will get ahead based on positive reviews and sharp suits. Much more important to your success is what people think of you. Small things, sometimes amazingly small, that occur every day determine what people think of you and during your entire career, there may be only half dozen brief moments that determine your success or failure.
Once people have formed an opinion of who you are, it becomes very difficult to change it. When the time comes for decisions to be made about your career, they are made hastily, based on the assumptions you’ve allowed them to make about who you are.
“The single most important thing you can do for your career is to lay the groundwork for an attractive personal brand.” -David F. D’Alessandro, author and former CEO of John Hancock
Your personal brand isn’t built from the smashing success you enjoy on “game day,” but rather built brick by brick from the innumerable small interactions you have with colleagues every day.
And now at business lunch, all these years later and despite being a major foodie, I usually don’t look at the menu, I just order the same thing the other person is ordering.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Phebe Farrow Port from the Estee Lauder Companies has been my mentor even when I was working for the company. She saved me from myself many times and was extra tough when I needed to be put in line. But she also most encouraging and enabled me to discover my strengths and how to leverage them for value-added contributions.
As a Presidential Management Associate at ELC — a program for top talent out of graduate school — not only did we have the responsibility of our day-to-day work, we were always given stretch projects. Each stretch project would be about a year long. After many months of research and preparing my presentation, she asked to see it before I presented to senior management. Let’s just say that I wasn’t able to articulate or present my ideas clearly. She opened my eyes to the fact that in presenting an idea to senior management or anyone, you must be concise and to the point. She coached me how to present to an audience, especially senior leaders, in a way that would allow me to bring my ideas to life.
The lesson was clear. Know your audience and connect with them the way they want to be connected with! She helped bring out the best in me, always believed in me and never would settle for anything less than the value she saw in me.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When my father started this business, the purpose was not as important as it is today to stakeholders. Whether your stakeholders are your employers, customers, shareholders or all of the above, today all parties want to know that a company is trustworthy, treats employees fairly and with respect and cares about the environment. Employees have a sense of pride in their work when they understand that their values and their company’s values match, or are at the least, somewhat connected.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Well, the most recent was the pandemic. It was definitely sailing in unchartered waters for all of us — small and large business owners — an unbelievable time for every President and CEO running a business across the country and world! It was important to stay calm and formulate a plan to get through the crisis. We followed CDC guidelines; we all came to work every single day as an essential service — wore masks, etc. It was showing up, being calm, seeing everyone, helping everyone stay safe and continuing to do everything possible to keep the business moving forward one small step at a time. Our team saw that and appreciated it, as did our suppliers and customers.
Even in dark times, facing adversity and doubt, find a way forward, make something better. If you can’t go over, go under. If you can’t go under, go around the obstacle.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Quitting and giving up is not in my vocabulary; perhaps it’s from my years as a professional athlete. With a former employer before I took over the business, I was given an executive development assessment to determine my strengths so I could leverage them. One of my professional talents is a high level of resilience in response to negativity. It has enabled me to persevere under some of the worst circumstances one can encounter both professionally and personally.
I would say it’s been an extraordinary tenure since my father’s first stroke until his passing in 2020, leading the company through our ups and our downs. Some days it certainly would be easier to give up but that’s not who I am. Failure is not an option! I anchored my purpose into taking care of my family, my dad’s legacy and family name. I would never ever let someone outwork me no matter how talented they were. If I lost a battle on the ice or in business, it would not EVER be because somebody worked harder than me. They could certainly win or beat me in skill or talent sometimes, but I would never lose because I was lazy.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It’s hard to say because you play so many roles as a leader. There’s a presence of a leader — as a person of influence, a strategist and decision maker. You have to be compassionate and motivating. Most importantly, a leader has to master one’s emotions to stay calm. Quick decision, but not snap decisions, have to be made. Most of all, one must be authentic, hopeful and consistent in the mission.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Knowing who they are — talking to them, listening, empathizing and being creative in ways to help them feel at peace. They also have to be aligned with your goal of closing out the problem — taking steps to keep everyone at peace but at the same time, motivated, to keep moving forward with purpose. Lastly, celebrate short term wins and be clear to the entire team that you are in it for the long term.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I find individually — in-person and NEVER on email, text or phone. Sometimes it can be in a group but definitely in-person. A picture says a thousand words but when you’re there with them. Not only do they see you’re a real and authentic person but you’re sharing with them.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I’d say the future IS predictable to a certain degree if you know your industry. One of the most positive things I had coming into this industry was that we were NOT in technology that would morph every quarter; that we were not in fashion that changes every season; and that we were also based in tangible goods versus a virtual currency (as an example). So no matter what obstacles or changes that came across my landscape, I could plan and understand how to navigate. Also, having a Plan B to always be ready to pivot if the need arises. Agility, the ability to turn on a dime and modify plans is key.
If you really understand your business, if you really understand the industry that you’re working in, the future is somewhat predictable and you can create your future because there’s no industry that’s completely unpredictable.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
There’s no substitute for hard work; you have to do your homework, and there’s no easy path. You have to be prepared — mentally and physically — and have a “belt of armor” drawing from collective experiences but the path is never easy. You have to do the work, roll up your sleeves, get a little dirty digging and put the time in. Problems don’t go away — they get worse! — and you have to be able to engage the problem and address it. You can’t conflict avoid. Be ready to face headwinds straight on, adjust your sail, remain agile and stay alert and focused on navigating the winds of change!
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
1 — Just “hoping” a problem will solve itself or will just go away. Customers will just walk in the door or a windfall will come. YOU have to make it happen and help yourself!
2 — The inability to pivot and bring the team along with you. The status quo is a killer. Continuing to do the same things you’ve always done when clearly the road ahead is not the same as where you have been.
3 — Making snap decisions. There are quick decisions made with wisdom and snap decisions made out of desperation.
4 — When business owners can’t see beyond the horizon during a difficult time. At the beginning of the pandemic, a colleague advised me to not spend a dime — put your hands in your pocket. But isn’t it crucial to see how you’re going to position yourself AFTER the difficult time to see where you want to ultimately be to reverse engineer your path? This takes assessing the current situation, figuring out how you’re going to get to the other side of it all the while knowing you will need to pivot, learning as you go.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We kept our entire team employed, working and busy doing everything we could to improve the company. I encouraged them to constantly ask themselves — what could I be doing? This included sending out quotes, making a phone call to customers and colleagues, increasing our marketing program and infusing a sense of urgency; I am proud of my team for understanding this was all mission critical for survival. I also found it crucial that the team have “skin in the game” and know that they are important and valuable, while still holding them accountable.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1 — Remain learning agile. Know when to pivot, understand what needs to stay the same and what needs to change.
2 — Stay disciplined to survey the situation from different perspectives. Always listen to learn and be willing to continually see things with fresh eyes.
3 — Focus on one overarching issue at a time. Determine the highest and best priority everyday — what is the best use of my time? What is the best use of my team’s time?
4 — See the big picture and envision the future.
“Set your goals high and let reality dictate your course of action.” — Friend, Mentor, USMC and former NHL Scout for the San Jose Sharks Chuck Grillo
5 — Engage with others often and have empathy for your team, for your customers. Look reality in the eye then plan your course of action with a combination of facts and audacious optimism.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” — Abraham Lincoln
“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
Unquestionably, the last 14 months has left all of us wondering what the future is going to look like. Instead of sitting back during this time of uncertainty, my team and I proudly forged forward, not only providing essential services to businesses in the greater New York City area, but also planning for the future, post-pandemic — rebranding and relaunching a new website, initiate new marketing programs and undergoing a major renovation to our headquarters. Yes, these plans were in the early stages in March of 2020, but I decided to forge ahead despite the turbulence in the world to create OUR future as a company and define what our workplace would look like on the other side of COVID.
How can our readers further follow your work?
My website — https://www.wjny.com/.