Cultural steward: Steven Metzger

Feb 06, 2022

CEO of LaBella Associates (Rochester, NY), a firm with diverse service offerings that can address any aspect of the built or natural environment.

By Liisa Andreassen

Metzger’s work ethic started as a teenager while working in the family business. He learned to show up early, never sit down on the job, and, if he ran out of things to do, sweep. Today, Metzger continues to subscribe to that same philosophy.

“Above all else, we want to be a great firm for our employees,” Metzger says. “If we can maintain a culture and a workplace where our employees feel professionally fulfilled, valued, and provided with growth opportunities, they will perform at their highest potential, and there is little incentive to leave. We work hard every day at doing just that.”

A conversation with Steven Metzger.

The Zweig Letter: Your website states: “We want to deliver more – more value, more trust, more problem solving.” Can you illustrate this by sharing a recent example of how you did this for a client?

Steven Metzger: Recently, LaBella completed an athletic facility project for a K-12 client in a traditionally underserved community. On the surface, the project seemed straightforward, but it eventually proved very challenging from an engineering and financial perspective. Many unforeseen aspects came to light as the project progressed, including extreme environmental conditions, extensive permitting, and complex space constraints. To address and resolve issues, our team remained nimble and worked side-by-side with the client to develop solutions. In doing so, we gained their trust and built a partnership. The ultimate result was a completed facility that met the initial expectations of the school district and exceeded those of the community it served.

TZL: How do you anticipate COVID-19 permanently impacting your firm’s policy on telecommuting?

SM: COVID-19 has proven that we have the ability to work remotely under extreme disruptive circumstances. We’ve also learned that certain components of our business could work remotely under “new normal” conditions, i.e., post-pandemic. However, there remain critical aspects of our business that we feel work best in an environment of in-person interactions. These include building and maintaining client relationships, mentoring and training young designers, collaboration among professionals developing and producing designs, and keeping our highly-valued company culture intact, naming a few. I cannot speak with exactness on permanent impacts to work policies at this time, but I feel confident that we will continue to value in-person interactions as we emerge from the pandemic.

TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?

SM: We build trust by exercising our core value of honesty in every client transaction. At times, this means delivering a message they may not wish to hear. A negative situation may arise from our actions or theirs. In all cases, it’s best to have an honest conversation as early as possible. If we are at fault, we admit it, own it, and work diligently and reasonably to resolve it. Trust is an essential precursor to our ultimate goal of building a lasting partnership. If we can’t share trust, we cannot share a meaningful partnership.

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

SM: We have a popular refrain at LaBella, “Our strength is in our diversity.” This originated years ago to support the idea that although our work spanned many practice areas, we were “one company.” As we grew into new locations, we expanded this thinking to include the diversity of our geographies. Today, we’re widening it further to include the diversity among our employees. In 2020, we established a Diversity and Inclusion Council comprised of volunteers representing a cross-section of our employees to facilitate a culture where diversity and inclusion are respected, valued, and celebrated. We believe that the Council’s mission is built soundly on our core values of honesty, stewardship, leadership, and growth. Through its actions, we’re better suited to meet the growing expectations of our clients and attract and retain the talent of the future.

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?

SM: This is a current priority for us, and we’re still developing an action plan. During periods of remote work, the ability to manage performance, rather than effort or time-in-seat, is critically important. Younger staff also miss indirect observation, context clues, and peer-to-peer dialogue when they’re working remotely. If some level of hybrid work is here to stay, our managers will need to be actively engaged in addressing these changes.

TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.

SM: Our company has been growing – on average, 20 percent year over year – so our tenured staff who are participating in our broad-based ownership are receiving significant reward for continuing with LaBella and fueling its growth. That said, investing in employees can take many forms. Training and development are continuous and not limited to a particular cohort. Transparency, the ability to participate in high-level meetings or strategic planning sessions, increased flexibility, or support for an employee’s philanthropic passions are some of the ways we reward and invest in our staff.

TZL: With more than 1,200 employees across more than 35 locations, how do you ensure that your culture of collaboration and transparency stays consistent throughout the firm? What types of things are you doing?

SM: While some firms emphasize their mission or vision statement, we place a tremendous importance on our four core values. We hold people accountable to them and have several ways employees can earn recognition for exemplifying them. We believe what’s celebrated gets repeated, so our recognition programs are designed to reinforce what’s culturally important.

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?

SM: There are two connected pieces to this: Ownership transition and leadership transition. Leadership transition should occur every day; we challenge our leaders to approach “training your successor” as a primary job responsibility. This is necessary to allow for the growth that LaBella has experienced and it’s essential to providing a career path and opportunity to the talented employees we want to retain.

Ownership transition, or the buying and selling of shares, is easy when you have employees committed to the firm because you’ve done a good job at leadership transition. There may be timing or legal considerations that play into how this is accomplished, so it requires a strategic plan with phases and milestones that is proactively managed.

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?

SM: There are a few things. The first is a formal training program, which is really designed to give the foundational knowledge emerging PMs need to be successful. Following that, one of the best ways we can support our PMs is by investing in tools and processes that genuinely increase efficiency. As LaBella grows, we’re consciously striving to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy. Lastly, continuously overworked PMs simply cannot deliver the client experience that we want to provide. Because it can be hard to spot in the thick of it, we have a client experience manager who captures client feedback and helps us make adjustments to each client’s expectations. Knowing what matters to each specific client allows our PMs to spend less time on what doesn’t.

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

SM: Cultural steward.

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

SM: Above all else, we want to be a great firm for our employees. If we can maintain a culture and a workplace where our employees feel professionally fulfilled, valued, and provided with growth opportunities, they will perform at their highest potential, and there is little incentive to leave. We work hard every day at doing just that. 

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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.