Conference call: Al Barkouli, part 1

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Chairman and CEO of David Evans and Associates, Inc. (Hot Firm #93 for 2016), a 1,000-person engineering firm based in Portland, Oregon.

By Liisa Andreassen
Correspondent

Barkouli joined DEA in 1988 as an engineer-in-training. He advanced to project manager, engineering discipline director, and office manager of the firm’s flagship office in Portland. He served as COO and president before being named chairman and CEO.

“Ownership transition is crucial, especially for privately held firms in our industry,” Barkouli says. “A lack of internal ownership and inability to transition ownership are key reasons why small and mid-size firms disappear.”

A CONVERSATION WITH AL BARKOULI.

The Zweig Letter: The talent war in the A/E industry is here. What steps do you take to create the leadership pipeline needed to retain your top people and not lose them to other firms?

Al Barkouli: We have two programs that have paid handsome dividends in terms of leadership development, camaraderie, and building relationships across offices. In 2013, we developed the DEA Leadership Initiative, a three-session, year-long leadership development program. The curriculum focuses on understanding and managing the self-as-a-leader; understanding and managing client services; and understanding and managing teams and team leadership. This program focuses on our supervisors and we select about 25 supervisors for each cohort. Over the year, the group attends a series of multi-day retreats led by internal staff and external facilitators. To date, 43 supervisors have completed the program.

Prior to this program’s development, we created a Future Leaders system to develop the next generation of leadership and give early career professionals a voice in deciding the kind of firm DEA needs to be for them to be fully committed to us. About 25 up-and-coming professionals were selected into each cohort and we had a number of consecutive cohorts. Each cohort met a few times a year and worked with an outside coach who helped the cohort develop leadership skills. Each cohort met with a number of executive leaders and had a two-way dialogue about the firm and its future direction.

TZL: As you look for talent, what position do you most need to fill in the coming year and why?

AB: In this market, good people are hard to find so we are looking for the right people regardless of position. More specifically, we are looking for people who can sell and do work for our clients. Relationship managers and project managers are especially difficult to recruit. In our profession, most who join it tend to gravitate toward the technical elements of our business. It is more difficult to recruit professionals with intrinsic interest in client relationships or the softer skills, and there’s a shortage of these individuals in our industry. Right now, we are looking for both technical and relational skills.

TZL: While plenty of firms have an ownership transition plan in place, many do not. What’s your advice for firms that have not taken steps to identify and empower the next generation of owners?

AB: Ownership transition is crucial, especially for privately held firms in our industry. A lack of internal ownership and inability to transition ownership are key reasons why small and mid-size firms disappear. We had some ownership transition challenges when a few large shareholders retired during the recession in 2007 and 2008, when the markets were declining. In a downturn, buying back shares can be a significant stress on the balance sheet of a privately-held firm. In good times, ownership transition can be a little easier. Either way, firms need to have a funded internal ownership transition plan. The plan must address how a firm will attract or create the next generation of owners.

TZL: Monthly happy hours and dog friendly offices. What do today’s CEOs need to know about today’s workforce?

AB: Today, given the state of the economy, it’s very easy to find a job that will pay the bills, put food on the table, and in general meet an employee’s basic needs. I believe that today’s employees are looking for more than the basics. They are looking for exciting, challenging, and inspiring opportunities, recognition for accomplishments, opportunities for personal development, and meaningful work that helps them make a difference.

CEOs need to look beyond satisfying the basics to what truly motivates people. They need to create the conditions or the environment where employees can love their jobs. We know through many studies that the basics are important to preventing people from disliking their jobs, but the basics don’t contribute much to people loving their jobs.

At DEA, we work hard to create an environment conducive to people loving their jobs. Our project opportunities include major expansions of light rail systems, highway and bridge design and inspections for city and state departments of transportation, site/civil work for a new football stadium, and contributing to regionally significant water supply programs. These are exciting, meaningful projects. We also appreciate our people, recognizing their commitment and results through officer designations, Standing Ovations, and awards for sales and creating superior client experiences.

A flexible work environment is also attractive. DEA offers a 9/80 work schedule, which allows people to work 80 hours over nine days and take every other Friday off. When this schedule is compatible with client needs, it can give our employees the opportunity for greater work/life balance.

In addition, employees are looking for a great workplace culture – one that they can connect with, where they can add value and make a difference. Over the past few years, in a collaborative effort, we have developed and defined our unique DEA culture according to six principles that we call the DEA cultural drivers:

  1. Clarity of expectations: This is essential to any strong relationship. We need to understand the expectations we have of each other within the firm. Lack of clear expectations usually leads to disappointments.
  2. Effective communication: This helps expectations to be expressed clearly. With clarity and effective communication, people have the ability to be accountable and deliver on expectations.
  3. Accountability.
  4. Collaboration and teamwork: Because teams accomplish almost everything we do, collaboration and teamwork are very important. We want our people to take initiative and demonstrate creativity in the way they respond to expectations.
  5. Initiative and creativity.
  6. Truth: Trust in each other and in leadership is essential to forming trust-based relationships. Trust also grows when there is clarity, communication, accountability, teamwork, initiative, and creativity.

Our cultural drivers are ongoing, not an event. A person can’t say, “I achieved clarity or communication or accountability and am done now.” The behaviors have to be ongoing in our everyday dealings. To that end, 40 percent of each DEA employee’s performance evaluation is based on acting consistently with the behaviors identified for each cultural driver.

After we developed these internal drivers, it became clear that these principals are also important to our client relationships, and we should use them externally. This led us to conclude that our cultural drivers should be the foundation for our differentiation strategy. We now have what we call the DEA Difference, which is our promise to clients. The DEA Difference is about creating superior client experiences based on our drivers – experiences that cannot be matched by the competition.

TZL: Zweig Group research shows there has been a shift in business development strategies. More and more, technical staff, not marketing staff, are responsible for BD. What’s the BD formula in your firm?

AB: Our BD formula is based on collaboration and teamwork between technical and marketing staff. It takes everyone to achieve BD success. The way we approach client relationships is through client development teams that are assigned to each of our clients. These teams are led by individuals and include technical and marketing staff. Securing work is a team effort. Clients have different needs and we must be very aware of them – their technical needs and their relational needs. Our focus is on long-term relationships with our clients and we shy away from transactional engagements.

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