An employee-first approach: Lisa Kramer

Dec 11, 2022

President of Prairie Engineers, P.C. (Columbia, IL), a firm made up of engineers, surveyors, and scientists focused on solving problems for public and private clients.

By Liisa Andreassen

She’s a woman on the move. Kramer founded Prairie Engineers, P.C. in 2010 and has since grown the firm to 75 employees in nine offices throughout the Mississippi Valley region. What’s her strategy? She tends to build locations and services around new hires and not the other way around. She takes an employee-first approach.

“We’ve always been focused on finding the right employees to fit the firm’s values and have been less concerned with their location or particular skills. That’s why we’ve opened several offices around new hires who lived in different geographic areas and also expanded services when an employee has come in with unique skills,” she says.

Prairie Engineers has also made a few firm acquisitions where they had a strong existing business relationship. Their experience with these firms confirmed the mutual opportunities and the long-term cultural fit. Being very employee focused and maintaining a happy place to work has been their key strategy. This is likely why they’ve been named a Best Firm To Work For by multiple entities, including Zweig Group.

Kramer says Prairie Engineers truly has a great team that enjoys working together and supports one another. The culture is strong and the staff is accustomed to a culture of constant change and evolution because it’s this environment that provides more opportunities for growth.

Employees drive growth. “We’re very open with information and share updates company-wide frequently, and work with individuals to make sure their contributions are meaningful to both the company and their own career objectives,” she adds.

Prairie Engineers takes pride in planning, designing, and building infrastructure projects that enhance the livability of communities. They practice giving back by encouraging community service and participating in community organizations.

So, when making a new hire, Kramer and her leadership staff look for certain things such as meaningful involvement in extra-curricular activities and professional societies. They also look for relevant jobs held during summer or part-time during college. A sense of eagerness to learn, to be involved, and a true love of the profession are all key indicators of a potentially successful new hire.

That’s likely why staff have the ability to move into a principal role early on in their career. Prairie Engineers has several principals in their 30s, because an enthusiasm to take on the role and the ability to collaborate and develop a team is all that’s really needed.

“The diversity of viewpoints that comes from a variety of ages on the leadership team serves to make us stronger and builds community and camaraderie through the whole team,” she says.

As a woman-owned firm, Prairie Engineers holds DBE and/or WBE status in multiple states in addition to their Small Business Administration certification as an 8(a), economically-disadvantaged and woman-owned small business. But, she’s been careful not to overuse those designations and to make sure that the firm gets a majority of work from outside sources.

Early on, Prairie Engineers worked primarily for local and state governments in central Illinois. However, when the state went more than two years without a budget, the firm had no way to enter into new contracts or to pay their bills for existing contracts; their workload and cashflow suffered tremendously and they were forced to diversify their client base and geographic service area. Although they’re still doing state and some local government work in central Illinois, their largest market now is the federal government and it’s expanded throughout the Midwest and across the nation.

“I do think that firms with a DBE or similar designation are sometimes thought of as providing only subcontracted services – not as a firm to prime a project,” Kramer shares. “But, on the flip side, I believe as a woman-owned company it’s been easier to recruit women engineers, surveyors, and scientists and I’m proud of the fact that half of our leadership team are women.”

Opportunities to succeed. When she first founded Prairie Engineers, she had two pre-school age kids, so Prairie Engineers has always been very “family-friendly.” The parents on her team appreciate the flexibility the firm offers to work around kids’ schedules.

And, flexibility is something that’s always been a part of the company culture. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Prairie Engineers was a distributed company and an early adopter of Microsoft Teams for communications and project management. So, when this global workforce challenge hit, they were able to quickly pivot without much interruption to a fully-remote work environment. They also allowed telecommuting before COVID-19 and have continued that flexibility of work location and work schedule. Some people are fully remote and some work a hybrid schedule. Everyone’s needs are accommodated – whether that’s pursuing specific projects to get them the experience they are looking for or working with variable schedules and last-minute changes.

“I’m a macro-manager,” she says. “I believe in making sure that people have the right tools and resources to do their jobs, and then get out of their way and let them do their work. I’m here for guidance and support, but overall, I’m pretty hands-off.”

Kramer believes that the hallmarks of Prairie Engineers are flexibility and transparency. As a company, they’re very open with company financials, new initiatives, and future growth plans. They share a larger percentage of company profits with a third of the distribution pro-rated to everyone in the company and the remainder as performance based to all who have gone above and beyond. Their PTO policy is generous as well. Anyone with fewer than 10 years of industry experience receives 160 hours; more than 10 years gets 200 hours, plus additional loyalty hours for years worked.

It’s this flexibility and transparency that ensures everyone is well informed of company objectives, encouraging everyone to pull together in the same direction. There are weekly discussions with discipline groups and market leads, monthly presentations for all employees where they share successes and failures, opportunities and goals. There are also bi-weekly lunch and learns where individuals and teams have a chance to showcase their projects and present lessons learned.

“We also meet one-on-one with our discipline and market leads on a weekly basis just to talk about whatever is currently happening, and in turn, they meet weekly with each individual on their team,” Kramer says. “It’s these frequent one-on-one conversations that help to bring us closer together and gives everyone a chance to talk freely and address potential issues at the onset.”

Kramer says that she anticipates continuing to grow in numbers and geographic coverage. She’s constantly sharing project pursuits and opportunities with the entire team, and listens to their feedback about what they like to do and what they want to gain experience in.

“While it may not be possible to meet these goals immediately, we do make an effort to pursue work to meet individual goals,” she says. “I think it’s important for each person to plan their career and evaluate whether they are meeting their long-term goals. When we can align company goals with individual goals, we can achieve great things.”  

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