Creating meaning together: Sova & Platts

Aug 07, 2022

They are the CEO and president of RDG, a firm made up of architects, artists, engineers, landscape architects, and planners with a passion for design.

By Liisa Andreassen

Create. Meaning. Together. It’s these three words that bring leadership and staff together at RDG Planning & Design, and John Sova, CEO, and Justin Platts, president, work daily to maintain that culture of collaboration. In fact, it’s one of the reasons they decided to team up to answer questions about what makes them tick.

A design firm that’s labeled itself “free from the disciplines,” Sova and Platts understand – at their core – that everyone at the firm has something to contribute and they work to place value on that in more ways than one.

“We’re constantly working with and learning from each other,” Sova says.

A culture of eight. For Sova, one of his top responsibilities is to enhance and support the culture of its eight lifestyles (design, sustainability, healthy, leadership, continuous learning, technology, fun, and community). This translates into giving people the freedom to bring forward new ideas and to recognize and celebrate what people are doing, both inside and outside the office. His goal is to let people find their own area of interest among the lifestyles and encourage them to make that a part of their work-life balance.

Platts’ focus is on making sure people have what they need to be successful – professionally and personally.

“It’s really about more than just the everyday work we do – the different lifestyles represent elements people have brought forward as being important to them and that align with our collective values,” Platts shares.

And, while COVID threw a wrench into the system, it also helped the company to evolve in a way that is now more flexible and can accommodate everyone’s needs whether family, project, or personal. An increased flexibility when it comes to working from home or in the office is a response to the change in culture.

“We’ve always been flexible, but now that flexibility has been codified,” Platts says. “We’ve established hybrid work as an institutionalized benefit.”

Overall, there was a smooth transition into this hybrid environment because RDG has always had teams and individuals working from all over the country, so they’ve intentionally built up a robust IT system in support of that approach.

And it seems to be working. Not only has RDG developed a culture of trust among its staff, but also with its clients. Platts says that’s largely due to having the “say/do gap” be as small as possible.

Sova agrees and emphasizes that you simply have to deliver what you promise. Within their teams, they’re always talking about how they can stay one step ahead of their clients so they can anticipate needs and expectations.

Living and breathing the mission. Anticipating staff needs is important too. When you walk into an RDG office, the work-life balance is evident. Platts says that if occasionally he has to work on a weekend, his kids have played on the floor and he’s been fortunate to be there whenever they’ve needed him.

“Work and life are well integrated,” he says.

Sova has been with RDG for 40 years and his family has been a part of that the whole time. They understand what he does and they’re proud of what RDG does as a company.

“With everybody that I hire, I talk about my family, and I’m proud to tell them that I know I made 90-95 percent of all my kids’ activities when they were growing up. RDG takes a family-first approach, and that rings true in my own experience,” Sova says.

In fact, it’s this overall family first culture that is among the things that staff gets most excited about. That – and being given the freedom to be creative and innovate.

“People in our industry want that,” Sova says. “We have an open and collaborative environment that allows people to really do what they want to do and to not only work on projects, but actively direct and manage those projects.”

There’s no hierarchy at RDG. They empower people at all levels to take ownership of their work and their career path. They encourage flexibility in not just schedules, but also on the ability to move across project types. Additionally, RDG’s path to employee-ownership is faster than many design firms out there.

“Our employees appreciate the opportunity to own a piece of the company and benefit from the success they’ve helped create,” Platts says.

Much of that success is rooted in that “Create. Meaning. Together.” mission. The more they can be together, the more collaboration they have and the greater their perspectives, which makes them and their work better. In recent years, RDG has formed a DEI group to champion a goal of fostering a culture of empathy and understanding and to make the “together” aspect of their mission even stronger.

And when people get hired, they also have access to numerous internal programs that promote leadership development and training. Because they’re a strengths-based organization, they really pay attention to people’s abilities so they can put them in positions where they will do well and provide ample opportunities for training and exposure to work and lead people.

“People serve in people-focused roles because they want to be in that job, not because they feel like it is required for career advancement,” Platts says.

Community/school outreach benefits all. “One of our eight lifestyles is community, and RDG for a very long time has been actively participating in our community, especially through school programs and youth outreach,” Sova explains. “One way to increase diversity across all disciplines is to generate more interest in design – to talk about what we do and to show students what’s possible in pursuing design as a career.”

That’s why RDG is active in working with higher education institutions on multiple levels. They have people who teach, lecture, and review student work, and they sponsor studios in colleges. They’re partnered with several colleges and universities on “real world work” and in working with those, in turn, they get access to technology and are able to get in front of talented individuals who are potential recruits.

“We’ve been fortunate to attract quite a few students as interns because of our involvement,” Platts says.

Higher education is also one of RDG’s top markets, so working with clients such as Creighton University, UNMC, and the University of Iowa exposes them to new ways that technology is being leveraged by owners and the users themselves.

It’s largely this involvement in schools, community, and working “on” the business that has led to a recent growth spike. RDG recently hired 20-30 people to support its growth, and they attribute that to top management who mostly work “on” the business rather than “in” the business. They’re always looking for people who are interested in being a part of their organization and they’ve got a solid ownership transition plan in place too.

“We have to be intentional about the time it takes to prepare for the transition, both for the person coming in and for the person going out. It really takes years to do it well,” Platts says.

RDG has had an ownership transition in place since 1989, and it’s worked well since then. They’ve been able to now transition to the third generation of leadership under this system and fortunately, ownership transition isn’t something they have to worry about day-to-day because the system has worked and continues to work.

“We don’t want to lose sight that a big part of ownership transition is indeed leadership transition,” Sova says. 

Click here to read this week's issue of The Zweig Letter!

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.