An enticing aroma

Sep 17, 2018

If your firm makes a sincere effort to learn, teach, develop, innovate, and improve, old and new hires alike will notice.

As president of a 400-person design firm, one of my favorite activities is one-on-one meetings with new employees. They share their personal story and first impressions of Shive-Hattery’s culture. A new hire recently summed things up by saying, “I like the smell of the place.”

This was the most succinct way to say she liked our values – what we do, how we do it, why we do what we do, how we treat each other, and what we believe. Those that fit in our culture thrive; those that don’t usually move on.

We once employed a super-sharp process engineer. He had a doctorate in chemical engineering. He was brilliant at analyzing a client’s product formalization and redoing the chemistry to make it better, but he wouldn’t teach others what he knew. He was afraid that if he taught others, we would no longer need him. He was not aligned with our fundamental values of teaching and learning. He moved on.

It is a responsibility of everyone in our company to learn new things, teach others what they know, and look for opportunities to innovate and continuously improve. Our employees, clients, and company benefit from this.

Career paths. Shive-Hattery has multiple ways to help employees accomplish these goals. One resource we’ve recently developed for our employees is career paths. In the A/E profession, there are basically four paths most individuals can pursue: design/technical, project management, business development, and managing people (operations). Each individual can choose one, two, or possibly three paths as they grow their career.

Within each path, we’ve identified attributes that help each individual develop skills, knowledge, and abilities to advance their career along that path. Our career paths are not a checklist of accomplishments. They are a resource to start a conversation with a supervisor about career development.

Communities of practice. Our communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting regularly. Many of our COPs are discipline based, such as architecture or structural engineering, and hold virtual meetings on a monthly basis over lunch to trade knowledge, discuss a pertinent topic, share lessons learned, and teach best practices.

Some are market focused, such as our healthcare COP, and some are practice based, such as our project management COP and our sustainability COP. The singular purpose of a COP is to transfer knowledge within a community of people by linking people together.

Leadership development program. Twenty-three years ago, our company president recognized the need for future leaders. Many of our peer firms lacked a new generation of leadership to step into the roles of the senior partners looking to retire. For that reason, we started a leadership development program to develop the leadership skills, knowledge, and abilities of an individual quicker than they would learn through on-the-job experiences.

To this day, we have had two classes running concurrently. Each class will meet about five times every three months to discuss a series of reading assignments, articles, leadership-based videos, and case studies to enhance the natural leadership attributes they have already exhibited. We currently have 110 LDP alumni in our ranks, many of which have already stepped into leadership roles.

Business development university. Similarly, since most clients today value the seller-doer model of marketing, we, like many firms, recognized the need to have more individuals in our company taking an active role in business development. These skills certainly can be developed over time in our profession, however, our director of marketing, Greg Kanz, wanted to develop a group of individuals’ BD skills quicker than they could hope to learn on-the-job. In 2017, Greg put together a curriculum and assembled a group of seasoned BD veterans to beta-test our newly formed Business Development University. After tweaking a few things, we have the first group of employees underway this year, and will be teaching a second group this fall.

Innovation and technology. Technology will drive innovation; how to learn it, how to apply it, and how to market it. Whether it’s the fourth or fifth dimension of building information modeling, 3D scanning, aerial surveying (drones), 3D printing, artificial intelligence, or what can be dreamed up next, all we know is that technology will improve and change our business. We all need to be nimble and adaptable to learn and develop skills in these changing times or risk being left in the dust trying to catch up. Investing our resources into the next leading-edge technologies excites our people, adds value to our clients, and can easily be a differentiator for our future.

Learn, teach, develop, innovate, and improve – it’s all part of “the smell of the place.”

James A. Lee is president at Shive-Hattery. He can be reached at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.