Creating lasting change: Jim Stephenson

Mar 05, 2023

President and CEO of CHA Consulting (Albany, NY), an innovative, full-service engineering consulting and construction management firm.

By Liisa Andreassen

Stephenson became president and CEO of CHA Consulting in January 2020. He was almost instantly faced with navigating and managing through a global pandemic that had no historical blueprint for success. Despite the headwinds of the pandemic, CHA continued to prosper and deliver for its clients in extraordinary ways. Stephenson says he’s proud of creating a culture of growth and excellence and expanding rewards and recognition deeper into the organization for exceptional performance.

Creating lasting change. “Our organization has successfully executed a complete organizational restructure and go-to-market strategy to be more operationally- and client-focused, while also being more scalable and efficient,” he says.

This strategy included a pivot to pushing decision-making further down into the organization to be more nimble and empowering management to take ownership of their respective businesses, as well as executing on and fully integrating eight accretive acquisitions over the last four years that have aligned with the firm’s strategic growth plan.

The impact of COVID-19 also reinforced that CHA can be effective in a hybrid working environment that provides for a better work-life balance for its employees. It has found a solid balance by instituting a more-flexible, hybrid model that has opened up recruitment, helped with employee retention, reduced unnecessary travel expenses, trimmed the office footprint, and is widely embraced by staff.

“We also understand that there’s great value to be had from in-person collaboration and believe it’s vital to have staff in our offices each week,” he shares.

That’s one of the reasons why CHA has invested in upgrading office spaces – so its working environments are welcoming, collaborative, and somewhere employees want to come to work.

From project work collaboration to building relationships with colleagues and fostering junior-level employee professional development – these things cannot happen at home.

“Ultimately, creating a fun, engaging, and entrepreneurial company culture that employees want to be a part of is key,” Stephenson says.

He believes that strong retention is a product of creating a differentiated employee experience, starting with adopting a proactive mindset where you give people reasons to want to come and stay versus working to avoid giving them a reason to leave. This starts with identifying a few key areas that are most important to your staff to prevent falling into the trap of trying to be everything to everyone. Once you know what those are, you commit to them, making sure employees can see and feel the organization’s efforts to build, enhance, and improve in those areas. Employees are loyal and committed when they feel valued and like their input matters. For CHA, coupling a foundation of competitive compensation and benefits with clarity around growth and development opportunities and highly effective leadership has the firm focused on the areas its employees have said are key to their engagement and longevity.

A targeted approach. And when employees are happy, the business is happy. As a private equity-backed company, achieving consistent, profitable growth is a core objective. At CHA, leadership have built a team with deep expertise and experience in all phases of the M&A process from sourcing opportunities to due diligence, transaction execution, operational integration, and growth synergy realization. To ensure they remain focused and disciplined, they’ve developed a strategic growth plan built on pursuing a balanced approach of organic acquisitive growth strategies within each of the firm’s operating sectors. The plan is focused on identified end-markets and services while pursuing innovation as a differentiator.

“We pursue acquisitions where we see opportunities to fill service, geographic, and end-market gaps and add talent to broaden and deepen our capabilities and better serve clients,” Stephenson says.

When looking to acquire or merge with a firm, CHA seeks well-run, well-managed, and profitably growing firms that:

  1. Align with CHA’s strategic plan and fill a specific gap and growth opportunity;
  2. Culturally align with CHA’s approach to business and respect for its employees; and
  3. Have demonstrated a differentiated position in the market, so coming together allows both firms to realize tangible outcomes and synergies beyond what can be done individually.

As part of its growth and strategic plan, CHA is continually looking to leverage best-in-class technology solutions to enhance the delivery of its projects. Its digital and cloud platforms allow project stakeholders to receive and act on data near real-time during the design process.

“Our shift to digital review platforms has allowed our teams to deliver projects faster while improving quality,” Stephenson says.

Using AI and machine learning to manage the tidal wave of data that is now inherent with all engineering projects is critical to exceeding the requirements of its customers.

One example of project execution heavily reliant on technology is CHA’s work in Intelligent Transportation Systems. It’s using big data aggregation and analytics to optimize traffic flow and improve congestion and safety in some of the largest metro regions in the U.S. by collecting large amounts of data which is then analyzed in simulations and used to manage systems at signalized intersections on heavily traveled corridors.

Its bridge engineers are also on the cutting edge of innovation. They most recently designed a unique steel straddle bent for a bridge in Connecticut that has become a game-changer in bridge design. CHA designed a unique and innovative triple I-girder configuration that can provide load path redundancy, thereby eliminating the fracture-critical designation and the special long-term inspection requirements. Several states are now adding this innovative design as a key tool in their steel bridge toolbox.

Tools for success. Stephenson says that as he looks ahead to the rest of 2023, there are four major drivers of change in the engineering industry that he foresees in terms of the work itself. There’s an acceleration of the energy transition and electrification toward clean energy, driving utilities to modernize the grid and accelerating the acceptance of alternative energy sources. There’s also unprecedented federal funding from the IIJA and IRA exerting pressure to deploy and energize projects more quickly and increasing the need for design/build and alternative project delivery. Firms across the industry are experiencing a realization of investments being made in technology/digitization as well as AI in a resource-constrained and more complex-interconnected design world, in addition to the continued consolidation of what is still a highly-fragmented industry.

“The challenge to our industry and CHA is meeting the growing demand for our services in a resource-constrained environment,” Stephenson says.

He believes that hiring and retaining talent will continue to be a challenge and CHA is strategically sourcing and hiring highly-skilled new staff, while focusing on the retention of current staff by creating a differentiated employee experience driven by the needs of its workforce.

CHA is heavily investing in the training and development of people managers, recognizing there is a difference between being a great technical or project manager and a manager who can lead and engage teams effectively.

“We recently hired a dedicated, professional manager of training and development to lead and guide our training efforts more formally as we continue our aggressive growth and add new staff to the organization,” Stephenson says.

With the help of an industry-leading outside consulting firm, CHA has conducted a deep dive into its employee experience to gain better insight into the organization and employee needs to improve the retention and attraction of staff in a very competitive, resource-constrained environment. This effort resulted in a complete training roadmap to equip people managers with the competencies, tools, and resources they need to continue to grow and develop as successful managers.

“As a growing firm, another challenge specific to CHA is the continuing need to scale efficiently and effectively to be responsive to clients and realize the benefits of expanded capabilities and services across new geographies and markets,” he says.

And, there’s no magic bullet for success.

“It’s rather a combination of skills and qualities continually developing and evolving as circumstances change,” Stephenson shares.

Some skills he believes are essential elements of success include: establishing a clear vision and expectations; being collaborative and open to the exchange of ideas; being responsive to employees and clients; surrounding yourself internally and externally with successful people with different experiences; developing a high level of trust; and most importantly, leading with integrity and empathy. He’s also learned, over time, that patience is critical to success.

“Not everyone or every process will operate at the pace at which you may want to go. While positive, forward momentum and achieving progress are important elements of success, it should not be at the expense of failing to solicit critical input and feedback to ensure you are setting yourself up for the best opportunity to achieve success. Learning from failures (as painful as they may be) often provides valuable experience toward future success,” he says. 

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