Approachable leadership: Mark Sweet

May 11, 2020

President of Shield Environmental Associates (Lexington, KY), a full-service engineering and environmental consulting firm that seeks solutions of distinct value.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Sweet has accrued more than 30 years of experience in the consulting field, with 30 years of extensive experience working with contaminated sites. He has performed many environmental assessments and prepared numerous remedial action plans on a variety of sites for private and corporate clients, including several major oil companies.

“When I became majority stockholder in 2019, I did not accept a CEO title, instead preferring to hold only the title of president,” Sweet says. “My number one job responsibility is to ensure company sustainability.”

A conversation with Mark Sweet.

The Zweig Letter: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?

Mark Sweet: We were able to quickly arrange for all employees who typically perform project work in the office to begin working remotely in less than a week. Some employees with families have worked less efficiently than others, but access to the company’s server via a VPN connection allowed work to proceed with minimum interruption. We restricted office access to a minimum number of employees, but allowed flexible time for those employees with less remote-access skills to have access to the office when office time is needed.

TZL: In addition to being managing principal, you also manage four PMs from the UST program. What is the UST program?

MS: The UST program is the group of petroleum underground storage tank site investigation and remediation projects managed under contract by Shield. My 30-year background includes management of this type of work, and these types of projects continue to constitute a considerable portion of Shield’s revenues. Due to the large number of UST projects in multiple states, it’s necessary to have multiple managers. Since I have historically been the primary contact for the UST clients, I remain the primary manager, although those duties now mostly consist of guidance to managers, some client communications, and marketing.

TZL: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cashflow?

MS: About 18 months.

TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”

MS: I reduced my target billing utilization from 60 percent to 30 percent in early 2019, although it has been difficult to extract myself from historic involvement in project work. I am currently spending approximately 50 percent to 70 percent of my time “on the business.”

TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?

MS: I have a son who works for the company and he has assumed primary management of the projects I have historically brought to the company. Shield is a very family-oriented company, and considerations have been given to both owners and staff to accommodate family concerns – at times to the extent that it could be viewed as detrimental to profits.

TZL: What measures are you taking to protect your employees during the COVID-19 crisis?

MS: Social distancing, daily disinfection of the office and all field vehicles, providing hand sanitizer and latex gloves, restrictions on field work, limiting vehicle occupancy to one person per vehicle, and mandatory use of masks when working outside of offices with doors. Masks must also be worn in the field.

TZL: Since you’ve been managing principal, what has been a top challenge?

MS: Motivating managers to hold staff accountable for meeting utilization goals and training staff to learn the marketing skills necessary for succession to sustain future work.

TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?

MS: I am a good administrator and, given my background of “rising through the ranks,” I have the respect of staff that some of my managers do not. I am a “lumper” rather than a “splitter.” I recognize the skill set that both of these broad personality types offer. I feel that I am an approachable leader who has the best interests of both company interests and staff interests in mind. At times, I have allowed myself to be less assertive, but have seen positive gains for the company when I am more assertive. I have managed to be more assertive by instituting manager accountability systems rather than dealing one-on-one with multiple staff persons.

TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?

MS: We struggle with this. Having “inherited” the group of employees that developed work habits under my predecessor’s lax accountability structure, it has been difficult to change the managers’ work habits. I have increased the frequency of manager meetings and have emphasized the interpersonal skills that I feel each manager needs to succeed with their teams. However, I have no “great” people managers. We manage to succeed by keeping groupings small; this is simply a necessary strategy for me given current staff and their historical freedom in managing their work.

TZL: Does your firm work closely with any higher education institutions to gain access to the latest technology, experience, and innovation and/or recruiting to find qualified resources?

MS: No, we do not. I personally sit on an advisory council to my alma mater’s science department, and regularly interact with higher education institutions via a professional organization I have been a member of for many years in order to stay connected, but these efforts are essentially advisory at this time. I have made these efforts in order to allow for pursing the experience and/or recruiting in the future, but time does not allow for expansion on this at present. With no other managers seemingly interested in outside interaction, we are limited in what benefit we can gain from such contact.

TZL: How has COVID-19 affected your business on a daily basis?

MS: It has, to some degree. Available work has proceeded as normally as possible, considering that many of our clients also have restrictions in place that we must adapt to. Work has greatly slowed down in one of the company’s three primary sectors of work, which has resulted in some employees having much less work to do. Another sector has continued to work on project backlog, and our third sector has seen steady work primarily due to an uptick in regulatory inspections.

TZL: How do you handle a long-term principal who is resting on his or her laurels? What effect does a low-performing, entitled principal or department head have on firm morale?

MS: This has been an issue for us. Some high performing, but lesser paid and lower-level management staff, are very critical of what they see as certain principals (particularly the company’s former president/CEO) being unmotivated and a drain on the company at the expense of what certain staff sees as stronger effort by these same, lesser paid and lower-level management staff. At times it has greatly affected morale. As the more approachable manager, I spend a disproportionate amount of time (and mental energy) to counter this.

TZL: How often do you valuate your firm and what key metrics do you use in the process? Do you valuate using in-house staff or is it outsourced?

MS: My predecessor had no accountability metrics at all. In 2017, I began requiring project managers to forecast revenues. In 2018, I began assessing company revenue streams by assessing revenues (not profits) using a simple sector concept (i.e., revenue by client type). In 2019, I modified the sector concept and developed a principal/manager revenue/utilization/profitability metric that will be instituted and evaluated quarterly in 2020. We evaluate totals revenue and profitability on a monthly basis.

TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

MS: Breakdown in communication. I have explored various strategies in an effort to motivate managers, and some have failed, causing me to take a different approach to re-establish trust and rapport, which takes time and is difficult to re-establish.

TZL: How many years of experience – or large enough book of business – is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?

MS: We have one principal in her 40s, and all others are 50-60+. The current principal group would be reluctant to welcome a new principal unless it was a forced move.

TZL: Are you seeking some kind of financial assistance during the COVID-19 crisis? If so, what type?

MS: Yes, we have applied to the government Payroll Protection Plan program.

TZL: Shield’s history goes back to 1983. How has the company’s mission changed over the years – if at all?

MS: The mission is essentially the same – to sustain the company’s revenues and remain profitable. We have not expanded or contracted in size over the past several years, so the makeup of the company is essentially the same as it has been for several years. Also, we have had very little staff turnover. Although these are positives, I recognize the need to motivate staff for the inevitable adjustments that will need to be made as the senior staff ages. With regards to company ownerships, the primary change has been to include a small number of staff as non-voting stockholders, and an increase in communications with the next age demographic of company owners to recognize and consider the changes that will be necessary (both marketing and staff development) to sustain future revenues.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?

MS: When I became majority stockholder in 2019, I did not accept a CEO title, instead preferring to hold only the title of president. My number one job responsibility is to ensure company sustainability.

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