Encouraging and engaging: Darren Conner

Jan 16, 2022

President of Dewberry (Fairfax, VA), a nationwide planning, design, and construction firm with more than 50 locations and more than 2,000 professionals nationwide.

By Liisa Andreassen

After 33 years of moving up through the ranks of nationwide engineering firm Dewberry, Conner was promoted to firm president in 2018. Today, he oversees operations within more than 50 offices from coast to coast, with services that include environmental, site/civil, structural, mechanical/electrical, energy, and transportation engineering.

“Encouraging and engaging staff requires direct interaction. I visit a lot of offices, and I’m constantly picking up the phone to check in with staff,” Conner says. “This is emphasized throughout our leadership training, and I practice this every day. It’s the best part of my job.”

A conversation with Darren Conner.

The Zweig Letter: What sets your marketing apart? To what do you attribute your Marketing Excellence Award and can you provide an example of some unique marketing your firm has done?

Darren Conner: The Marketing Excellence Award recognized our recent video series entitled “My Project Story.” Each of these short videos is narrated by a project manager or senior staff member providing an overview of a challenging project. In addition to the voiceover description, the videos include custom graphics, hand-drawn illustrations, photos, and captions that help provide a lively, easy-to-follow introduction to the project. The series has been produced entirely in-house, and employees are encouraged to share the videos via their LinkedIn and other social media accounts.

This was an interesting and successful marketing initiative for several reasons. First, it enabled our communications team to continue to showcase important projects despite the challenges of the pandemic. The project managers were able to create the voiceovers remotely. While the firm’s ability to secure on-site photography was curtailed during this time, our graphic designers and writers were able to step in to help tell the stories with illustrations and animations that supplemented available photography and set a friendlier, more accessible tone than some of the more technical CAD images or other project graphics. This proved especially effective in enabling us to highlight projects that would have been difficult to photograph in any case, including studies and complex construction efforts or underground utility systems.

Most importantly, this series underscores what sets our marketing apart in general: a focus on people and relationships. The scripted narration presents a warm and personal perspective, emphasizing the project manager’s sense of pride in the project using their own voice and words. The series also conveys our emphasis on the importance of storytelling and underscoring the compelling aspects of each project – the challenges, teamwork, innovations, and collaboration with clients that lead to successful solutions.

Our marketing and communication efforts are highly focused on relationship-building, and during the challenging stretch of the pandemic, the series enabled us to continue to reach out to clients and stay in touch. Over the past year and a half, we’ve also planned virtual happy hours, games, scavenger hunts, and other technology-friendly means of keeping in close contact with our clients – even through remote connections.

TZL: How do you earn the trust of your clients?

DC: I believe that building trust begins long before we’re awarded a contract with a new client. Our marketing and communications teams know more than anyone that it begins with an effective, ongoing communications program that promotes our reputation and our brand promise. We invest in our website, publications, blogs, press releases, video stories, and other tools that convey our firm’s expertise and create a comfort level with prospective clients who are considering working with us.

Building trust also includes going to conferences and contributing articles and presentations that highlight our knowledge and skills. It includes sharing testimonials from satisfied clients and securing awards and recognition for our projects. All of this helps pave the way with new clients. Of course, the most important factor will always be our performance on the job once we’re selected. The effort to maintain that initial trust must continue throughout the life of the project, guided by our core principles, including integrity, ethics, teamwork, and strong communications.

TZL: What steps are you taking to address diversity and inclusion?

DC: We’ve focused heavily on our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative in recent years, with a commitment that starts at the top with oversight and involvement from our board of directors. Our CEO, Don Stone, and our diversity goal leaders have made clear that seeking and listening to diverse perspectives, experiences and ideas makes us stronger as a firm and helps us create closer connections with clients. Don has challenged firm leaders to help foster a culture of equity and fairness, and to enhance our understanding of the limitations and barriers to minority engagement in the lifecycle of an employee, in terms of recruiting, developing, advancing, and rewarding. We also want to increase minority participation in flagship programs such as our Client Management Advisory Group. We’ve seen an increase in the participation of women in the CMAG, but we’d like to see more minority involvement.

We’ve examined every facet of our operations, from recruitment and hiring practices to retention and leadership styles. One productive result has been the establishment of our Employee Resource Groups. These are internal employee groups that are based on common lifestyles, demographics, and experiences, and offer a fully inclusive, safe, and open environment for employees to participate. Examples so far include our Family/Work Life Balance group and Women’s Forum; with a Multicultural, Minority, and Allies group and an LGBTQIA and Allies group in the works.

TZL: What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?

DC: Leadership development has long been a focus within the firm, but now we are placing more of an emphasis on competencies in leadership. Nothing is more frustrating than watching a valued employee leave the firm, and we want to be sure that our leaders have the skills, tools, training, and awareness to be excellent people managers. We developed a leadership competency model to help define the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that leaders must demonstrate consistently. This includes such attributes as creating a vision, critical thinking, delegating, resilience, and team building and motivation. For each competency, we’ve identified demonstrated behaviors. This has become a critical element in our ongoing leadership training.

TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation with rewards for tenured staff?

DC: As a tenured employee, I find mentoring others most rewarding. We’ve recently revamped our leadership training program. In addition to adding the focus on core competencies as well as diversity and inclusion, we are emphasizing engagement with our emerging professionals. Again, this is an initiative that starts at the top. For example, our CEO has established a regular “coffee time” and open discussion with newly-registered professionals on their leadership development. We’ve also enhanced onboarding and engagement with a focus on recruiting classes. During the 2020/2021 season, we recruited more than 100 new professionals. They are taking part in a series of information sessions, workshops, and teaming events to create a stronger orientation experience. I’m serving as the executive sponsor and we involve seasoned, senior-level executives in the process. In general, we employ a wide range of tools and resources to encourage mentorship and camaraderie across all of our geographies.

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

DC: We have active, long-term relationships with several major universities, with our subject matter experts and technical staff contributing through lectures, project tours, and participation on awards programs for student projects. We also partner with several institutions to recruit interns and new graduates. We have close ties, for example, to Virginia Tech’s Land Development Design Initiative, which partners with the university’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering with industry practitioners. Many of our marketing and communications professionals have also partnered with George Mason University’s marketing professional services and technical writing program, serving as advisors and mentors.

We have a strong internship program throughout many of our offices – one in which we provide students with meaningful, hands-on involvement in major projects while also encouraging candid feedback on their experiences at Dewberry. We design custom projects with teams of interns and Dewberry facilitators. As an example, our 2021 summer intern project examined what the higher education market might look like in the post-COVID environment – then reported the results back to clients.

TZL: What are you currently doing to meet the vision of “Inventing Our Next Future One Opportunity at a Time”?

DC: Our strategic plan is closely aligned with this vision. We maintain a strategic focus on acquisitions, the hiring of key subject matter experts, leadership development, engaging emerging professionals, employee retention, increasing diversity, and, most importantly, building and sustaining productive relationships with clients and partners. There is a common thread to all of this: our focus on people and their personal experiences and perspectives.

When we talk about leadership, diversity, and retention, we’re drawing heavily on the personal involvement of our employees. We want to understand how people relate to one another and how we can support and motivate each other. This includes our marketing. To realize our marketing goals, it all needs to begin at the personal level in reaching out to clients and prospective clients. Everyone here represents Dewberry. In that respect, we’re all a part of the marketing team.

TZL: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

DC: We’re very much a culture-driven firm, and one that has always focused on people and relationship-building in our service delivery. There are markets that are not a fit with this emphasis. For example, we committed resources and the opening of an office to exploring business opportunities related to a market opportunity that was pretty hot and being pursued by many in our industry. We quickly found that this was very much a commodity-driven market. That isn’t a fit for our firm, and we soon stepped back from that initiative.

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

DC: People. As a civil engineer, I’ve enjoyed the many challenges that complex projects bring, but today I focus on what our firm is doing to keep our employees happy, engaged, and challenged.

TZL: What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?

DC: We’ve examined this up and down and a few strategies do stand out: having the right leadership in place, creating and defining clear career paths, providing opportunities to work on interesting and challenging projects and having fun. We work hard, but we focus on the work-life balance too. In terms of career opportunities, we have a strong focus on internal transfers. As our geographic footprint has grown, this has become easier to do, with multiple opportunities across service lines and offices around the country.

Encouraging and engaging staff requires direct interaction. I visit a lot of offices, and I’m constantly picking up the phone to check in with staff. This is emphasized throughout our leadership training, and I practice this every day. It’s the best part of my job. 

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.