Empowering people: Dusty Eaton

Apr 06, 2020

CEO of A&E Architects (Billings, MT), a firm that believes all disciplines can live together within any given project.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Eaton is a Montana State University alumnus. He has experience in a wide range of architectural disciplines and has had lead roles in many of A&E’s most complicated projects. He was featured as one of the Billings Business “40 under 40” winners.

“The founders of our firm learned valuable lessons many years ago about being over-committed to one client or sector when a recession hits,” Eaton says. “We’re fortunate to have our two founders still serving as invaluable mentors to me and our leadership team.”

A conversation with Dusty Eaton.

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

Dusty Eaton: As the COVID-19 situation was quickly evolving in the beginning, I knew it was critical that we be innovative in how we approached it with our team. Over the past few weeks, we’ve had most of our staff working remotely and we quickly invested in the resources needed to accommodate that. I’ve continually reminded our team that the way we respond to this collectively will define us going forward. Our leadership team and staff have stepped up and we’re managing this situation successfully, and for the most part, remotely. It’s worked incredibly well and we’re continuing to meet deadlines, manage projects, and present to our clients throughout this challenging time.

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

DE: I spend about 60 percent of my time working “in the business” and 40 percent “working on the business.” I find this time split to be an increasing challenge as I seek to remain a designer doing what I love and building client relationships, but also focusing on our practice and setting a vision for the future. Since 2016, we have grown from 32 people to 70, so there’s an increasing need to shift more of my time toward “on the business” work. As part of some recent strategic planning facilitated by Jamie Claire Kiser and the Zweig Group team, we outlined specific goals for our leadership team’s time allocation and management. That planning has been exceedingly helpful in not only identifying our highest and best use for the firm, but also empowering each other to achieve our goals.

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?

DE: Creating a culture of empowered leaders is at the heart of our firm. A critical part of my role is to empower others to achieve what they didn’t think possible – to truly strive for greatness. Empowering others to lead and take A&E to new heights means we need to intently and genuinely listen to every person who works for us. In order to do that, we built a comprehensive strategic plan that was shaped by every employee – their goals, aspirations, and vision for A&E is reflected. Building a management team that understands the value we place on everyone’s role is critically important to our success. When our entire team feels heard and valued as an integral part of crafting where we go next, I believe that’s key to keeping people not only happy and productive, but continually inspired.

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

DE: The most exciting development I’ve watched in the last few years is our brand serving as a recruitment tool. We’ve put incredible focus on building a powerful brand that people associate with two key things: an extraordinarily high level of design and a great culture. Those two elements alone drive everything else. When people seek us out because of the quality of our work or the culture they’ve heard about, I know we’re building our firm the right way.

TZL: Does your firm work closely with any higher education institutions to gain access to the latest technology, experience, and innovation and/or recruiting to find qualified resources?

DE: A&E works closely with Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. Our firm is made up of many MSU graduates and we continue to stay connected to the School of Architecture and the larger university. We serve as guest lecturers, adjunct professors, members of the advisory council, and are strong financial supporters. We’ve been fortunate to also maintain a strong working relationship with the university, designing many of the largest and most complex buildings on campus over the last 30 years. We recently completed the Norm Asbjornson Hall that serves as home to the College of Engineering and Honors College. It is the first LEED Platinum facility on campus and proving to be the most energy-efficient building across the state. It’s an innovative facility, unlike anything else, and has set a new design standard across the campus. The significance of striving for unprecedented innovation is how it can be leveraged as a teaching tool for students. We partnered with architecture and engineering students throughout the design and construction to collaborate on explorations such as daylight studies, energy modeling, and a wide range of construction monitoring. We learned as much from the students as I hope they did from us.

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

DE: The health of our company starts with the health of our employees. While we followed the CDC recommendations and encouraged remote working, I also found that it was critical to address each employee’s needs, individually. Everyone has a different situation and it quickly became apparent that what may work for one person is not ideal for another. We’ve worked incredibly hard to respond and adapt to everyone’s unique situation to ensure they could still work while also managing family and health obligations.

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?

DE: I’ve watched so many great firms completely vanish over the years because of not having a plan in place. We’ve taken the position of building a long-term transition plan that is managed and updated on a regular basis. No matter how young our leadership team is, we forecast retirement dates and how far before that we will begin selling down our share of the ownership. One of the simplest, and most important, things you can do is be clear about the structure of your firm with your entire staff. Everyone should know the basics of how the company is structured and how stock (or leadership) transfer occurs. It’s simple, but it lets people understand how it works so they can strive for those future opportunities. The biggest pitfall to avoid is senior leadership waiting too long to transfer stock – essentially choking out the firm. The best thing you can do is give ownership opportunities to young, eager leaders and let them grow the practice.

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

DE: Don’t let failure drag down the morale of your whole team. We implemented a staff-wide “wins, losses, and why” section to our weekly Monday morning meeting. We use this opportunity to tell the entire staff about our project pursuits and why we win or lose a particular project. When we have a loss, I use it as a chance to reflect on the takeaways and how we can improve next time. I had a great mentor once tell me to “rip off the rear-view mirror because you’re not going that way.” Get up, move forward, and let your team know you’re behind them to fail fast and move on to the next one.

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

DE: Set the vision, empower people, and build the culture

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

DE: We continue to focus on the diversity of our team at both staff and leadership levels. It’s important to me to be intentional and transparent about increasing diversity in our firm. We’ve had numerous staff-wide discussions about the value of diversity and bringing different perspectives to the table. One of my most important objectives is for everyone at A&E to know they have a genuinely equal opportunity to be successful and achieve their goals. I have a young daughter and I’ve told my team many times that I want to build the kind of business where she could be just as successful as her male counterpart. In addition to simply doing the right thing, I also believe diversity is good business. You miss out on tremendously valuable perspectives and insight if everyone making the decisions comes from the same background with similar experiences.

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

DE: One of the metrics that I’m most proud of is our retention rates. We have almost no voluntary turnover and I believe it centers on our culture. If we treat people well, value their work, and reward them accordingly, we can keep people committed to A&E for their whole career. If someone leaves our firm, we do a lot of self-reflection to understand what we can do better next time.

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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.