Change leader: Sirish Samba

Feb 24, 2020

CEO of Sambatek (Minneapolis, MN), a professional services firm with an authentic culture that promotes openness, transparency, and trust.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Staff describe him as “inspiring” and “relentlessly determined to achieve his dreams.” When asked about the challenges he’s overcome, Samba’s response is, “What challenges?” In 2009, he championed the efforts to restructure Sambatek and took responsibility as the firm’s primary owner. Since then, he’s led Sambatek into a phase of growth and energy.

“As an entrepreneurial engineering firm, we’re always looking to expand our services to new markets and to new locations – wherever our clients take us,” Samba says. “We’re always on the lookout for acquisition targets to diversify our market and geographic reach.”

A conversation with Sirish Samba.

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

Sirish Samba: As a practicing civil engineer, I enjoy working with our clients on a day-to-day basis. I do, however, believe that working “on the business” is a key contributor of business readiness in the long-term. Therefore, we are developing the discipline to master that style of modus operandi. We’ve separated the roles of CEO and COO. In my role as CEO, I want to spend more of my time working on the business while day-to-day operations and working in the business is taken up predominantly by our COO and our directors. The leadership team meets every quarter “off-site” to discuss topics pertaining to working on the business. I must say some of my best ideas working “on the business” come during my down time.

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

SS: With the connected nature of our business, I’m not sure I can say it is distinctly separate between family time and work time. I have two teenage daughters and a younger son. I sometimes talk about work deliberately during family time with the hope they too will openly talk more about their day at school. I believe it was Dicky Fox in the movie Jerry McGuire who said, “If this is empty, this doesn’t matter.” Having the support of your loved ones plays a very important role in one’s career. Fortunately, my wife enjoys our time together at work events and Zweig Group's conferences, especially if it’s at a warmer location.

TZL: What, if anything, are you doing to protect your firm from a potential economic slowdown in the future?

SS: As the president of American Council of Engineering Companies/Minnesota, on behalf of all our member firms, we are closely monitoring the economic indicators through a series of surveys and communications with ACEC/National, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Minneapolis Federal Reserve, and others. We follow Zweig Group and other outlets to keep our eyes wide open for recession proof strategies. We work diligently for enhanced value proposition as a trusted advocate to our clients and those long-lasting client relations help us weather the storm during thick and thin. As an entrepreneurial engineering firm, we’re always looking to expand our services to new markets and to new locations – wherever our clients take us. We’re always on the lookout for acquisition targets to diversify our market and geographic reach.

TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?

SS: We have been using the R&D tax credit for several years now. Thanks to our innovation, we were fortunate to benefit from the tax credit and reinvest the proceeds into new R&D.

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?

SS: First and foremost, it’s important to have an authentic culture that promotes openness, transparency, and trust. Second, identifying core values that help bring alignment with vision and your road map must be clearly defined and embraced by all. Once we have those building blocks in place, having the right people in the right seat to lead, mentor, and manage makes all the difference. Typically, professional services’ managers are excellent at analytical problem solving and delivering great results, but do they have the emotional intelligence to patiently listen and empathize with their staff’s spoken and unspoken aspirations? With the help of personality profile tests such as Kolby and others, Sambatek provides opportunities to our managers and staff to obtain unique individualized professional training to top off their personality and help them transform from great managers to great leaders.

TZL: What novel approaches are you bringing to recruitment, and how are your brand and differentiators performing in the talent wars?

SS: With changing times, it’s important to stay relevant and fresh with your brand. Brand isn’t limited to logo. It’s important to embrace the changing times and evolve your culture from conventional brick and mortar design to one that promotes flex hours, flex spacing, and remote access – giving our employees the greatest freedom to do great work in an enjoyable, fun environment. Why put a square peg in a round hole? We provide the freedom to our employees to pursue the area of their greatest interest. We’re fortunate to have several services and markets, which allows our college graduates and interns to try different areas before picking the area of their greatest passion. This combination of freedom of choice and Sambatek’s exceptional mentorship program motivates interns to choose Sambatek year after year. It allows us to then move the graduate engineers eventually to higher positions the company wants to fill. This strong foundation allows us to fare quite well in the talent war. September 12, 2019 marked my 25th year at Sambatek. Several of our employees are celebrating five, 10, 25, and even 40-year tenure at our firm. We have proven processes for recruiting and retaining talent.

TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.

SS: Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision. An organization must realize that its task is to lead change. If it doesn’t, it will fail. Therefore, as Peter Drucker famously said on change management, “the best way to predict your future is to create it by being a change leader.” What works well when you are a 50-person firm will not work when you’re a firm of 100 unless you lead the change and adapt to new structure and processes, and surround yourself with people who embrace change as the norm. So, yes, at Sambatek change is not a watershed event that happens on a blue moon day; it’s something we incrementally bring about on a daily basis.

TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?

SS: I gave a presentation at Zweig Group’s Hot Firm Conference a while ago on how not to do an ownership transition. I believe it’s a day one priority for all CEOs and firm leaders. Do not wait until the day of retirement or change event to start thinking about ownership transition. To build a firm that lasts, orderly, smooth transition and seamless operational continuity is a must. It’s best accomplished if we can avoid surprises and be able to articulate all options and avenues in a transparent manner.

TZL: What unique or innovative pricing strategies have you developed, or are you developing, to combat the commoditization of engineering services?

SS: Quality-Based Selection is something we all should strive to get to with our clients. Unfortunately, we all find ourselves having to combat the commoditization of engineering services. As a firm, we try to avoid commoditization or a bidding situation by developing “clients for life” through client advocacy and value add that far exceeds design fee.

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

SS: When I was a young CEO and someone left the firm, I felt as if a part of my soul left me too. I later realized that you cannot please everyone. Growth and change are not for everyone. It’s important that the company is clear about its core values, vision, and mission, and then takes steps to surround itself with men and women who align with those principles.

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

SS: We have come a long way in this area. We live in a great country and Sambatek is a great firm where an immigrant graduate engineer with a thick mustache and a thicker accent can one day become the CEO of the firm, livening the lives of ALL our employees, clients, and communities we live in. It is that humble underpinning that allows me to create a fantastic runway for diversity and inclusion to flourish at our firm. Long-term success of any firm is highly dependent on embracing changing demographics and increased participation of women in STEM fields. I believe each and every one of us can make a difference instead of categorizing and relegating this issue to others. I volunteer at Risen Christ Catholic Missionary School in inner city Minneapolis to help mentor 8th grade students through high school and STEM classes. Be the change you want to see in the world. It doesn’t have to be a pretty slogan on board room walls, but rather something we all can live by every day for the continued prosperity of our firms and our country.

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

SS: In this competitive marketplace, excellent compensation and benefits programs are now table stakes. When clients and employees have so many choices, why stick around your firm? What are your three unique attributes? What is your value proposition? What is your purpose, mission, vision, target, and roadmap? What processes/procedures are helping you get there? What are your hurdles? Each firm must ask itself these questions. When I became the CEO 10 years ago, we adopted an Entrepreneurial Operating System or Traction Model to get to the core of those questions. It helped us identify our core values and to create a culture of trust, mutual respect, common goals, and shared ideals for a great future together.

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.