Better together: Karen Jenkins

May 25, 2020

Co-founder and managing partner of Shear Structural (Chamblee, GA), a 100 percent women-owned and women-managed structural engineering firm.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Jenkins has more than 30 years’ experience in structural engineering and design. A licensed engineer and architect, her background in both disciplines gives her a unique perspective for solving problems and understanding client needs. Her experience includes the design of corporate headquarters, mission critical, laboratory and research facilities, educational facilities, faith-based buildings, and a wide variety of adaptive re-use projects.

“At Shear, we know we are better together because of our differences,” Jenkins says. “We value the depth of experience and focus that comes from diversity. I don’t think our firm looks like most structural engineering firms. The obvious difference is we are a women-owned and operated firm. We strive to maintain diversity in our group when we are recruiting and interviewing potential team members.”

A conversation with Karen Jenkins.

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

Karen Jenkins: We didn’t really have a telecommuting policy beforehand. We had flexible scheduling, so sometimes employees would work part days at home when necessary, but we had nothing formal in place. Overnight we moved to working 100 percent remotely and implemented daily video check ins and weekly calls, along with regular project discussions. It’s been a relatively smooth transition as we had a lot of the tech already in place to work remotely, just had never tested it out fully.

TZL: Shear Structural was founded by three women. Can you tell us a little about how you got connected and what the impetus for starting the firm was?

KJ: I had a professional connection through networking with Malory Atkinson, one of my current business partners. She was instrumental in bringing me into the firm she worked with to start a structural division in a primarily civil engineering firm. Holly Jeffreys, who is my other business partner, worked with me at that firm as a senior engineer on my team. Malory had left the firm by that time, but we stayed in touch, meeting regularly to keep our professional connection strong. One day we had the conversation that we thought we could create something different from our previous experiences. We have a team-centric approach, internally and externally, and we have created an environment that people want to be a part of. Each of the three partners have skill sets that complement the others, making us better as a team than as individuals. I value and rely on their strengths to make us better together.

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

KJ: As engineers you might imagine that we have charts and graphs and projections for just about everything. Or maybe that’s just us. But we have our eye on the ball – past, present, and future. With our historical data that we have collected throughout our careers, we’re able to see trends that help us predict, strategize, and implement a work plan. We do a monthly check on where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. Our workload is just shy of a year of backlog. Of course, that is very fluid as new projects come in, planned projects change scope, and some current projects go on hold. But it’s important to have a plan so you can react accordingly to the organic nature of workflow. As for cash flow, we are close to having a year of operating expenses in reserve. That was one of our five-year goals that we are approaching in two and half years.

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

KJ: I try not to think about the amount of time I spend, but along with our many charts and graphs, we have that data too. Malory spends about 95 percent of her time on the business. Holly and I spend about 50 percent of our time working on the business and the rest of the time, we’re working on projects.

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

KJ: This is an interesting question that required a bit of introspective analysis. I would say I try to be a leader who someone wants to follow. I try to lead by example. I try to be a good person. I always strive to do the right thing.

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

KJ: Our team is our primary concern right now, both their physical and mental health. Weeks before our governor declared the stay-at-home order, we implemented our remote work policy, immediately limiting our physical contact. We also banned all non-essential travel, and provided our employees with some basic PPE for both personal and professional use. Their mental health is just as important, and we are staying connected through daily team video calls and touching base individually as well to check in. Video calls have really proved helpful. It encourages everyone to be “ready” for work and to maintain a professional outlook while working from a makeshift office space. And it’s nice to see everyone and be conversational.

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?

KJ: I think this a great question and it’s extremely important for the success of a company. Our job as the leaders of the firm is to create the best engineers we can. That means training, responsibility, flexibility, respect, and recognition. We try very hard to let our team know how valued they are. We will always run the risk of our great people being stolen by other firms, but it’s a risk worth taking to invest in our team and the profession.

TZL: Shear Structural’s Chamblee office is growing. What do you most attribute that growth to?

KJ: Our growth is based on our business focus and the way we do work. We extend the principles of our partnership to the team. We give our team members leadership opportunities and an environment for growth. We have some great clients who engage us to work on some cool projects that provide challenge and satisfaction to the team. That, combined with the collaborative nature makes this a fun and gratifying place to work.

TZL: Research shows that PMs are overworked, understaffed, and that many firms do not have formal training programs for PMs. What is your firm doing to support its PMs?

KJ: As a young firm, we definitely can relate to this statement. First, we want to keep the overworked part to a minimum. We use an innovative model to help with our work overflow. We have contract workers that provide work when needed. We have a pool of four individuals who we have worked with in past experiences who have temporarily left the profession to take care of kids or elderly parents. Each person wants to continue to work to some extent, but is unable to meet traditional office hours or work models. Two of the four work with us on a regular basis. This has been a huge success for all parties. They keep their skills fresh, earn a little money and we alleviate some of the overtime that might have been required. Second, every employee gets a yearly stipend and time off for training. We strongly encourage everyone to use their stipend. In addition, we have provided ancillary training in public speaking and business development to help have well-rounded employees.

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

KJ: We have applied for the SBA’s PPP program and are awaiting that decision. As a woman-owned business, we have also applied for the Red Backpack Fund by The Sara Blakely Foundation and GlobalGiving.

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

KJ: Purpose and direction. This is a term I used to use with my Girl Scout troop many years ago. That was like herding cats. But I found it works in all aspects of life – my daily routine, the company, and leading our team. That phrase is written on the top of a task board and I look at it every day.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

KJ: At Shear, we know we are better together because of our differences. We value the depth of experience and focus that comes from diversity. I don’t think our firm looks like most structural engineering firms. The obvious difference is we are a women-owned and operated firm. We strive to maintain diversity in our group when we are recruiting and interviewing potential team members.

TZL: Since you founded the firm in 2017, what’s been your greatest challenge and what’s been your greatest success?

KJ: Keeping up with the work load. That’s not a bad problem to have. Our greatest success, without question, is the team we’ve created. We have an outstanding group of individuals who are passionate about what they do and are dedicated to their projects, clients, and co-workers.

TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?

KJ: The short answer is that we include our staff in our business decisions. Not only do we want them to feel included, we want them to be included. They have great ideas and great energy that is a strength for our company. We include our team in our strategic planning sessions and we have individual quarterly, touch base meetings to keep them engaged. These touch base meetings are not performance-related; they’re idea sharing about what we do well and what we could be doing better. We each bring personal experience from which we learn and grow. I keep a folder that I have had for almost 30 years of personal dos and don’ts. It’s an accumulation of incidences, experiences, and events that had an impact on me, both negative and positive, that I don’t want to forget now that I am in a position of influence in the firm.

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