Going first: Julia Harrod

Oct 24, 2021

President at MWM Design Group (Austin, TX), a firm that continues to embody its founders’ core values of personal integrity, responsibility, and service.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Harrod began her work at MWM Design Group in 1990 as a civil engineering technician. Her energy and determination led her to become the firm’s president in 2007. She helped the firm grow from a civil/survey firm to a multidisciplinary firm that also includes architecture, landscape architecture, and permitting. She’s passionate about her career and has devoted a significant effort to the betterment of the engineering profession as a whole through service to TSPE/NSPE, and to the promotion of careers in STEAM to schoolchildren throughout central Texas. With more than 30 years’ experience, she’s successfully overseen hundreds of utility, roadway, airport, and land development projects. Her primary responsibility is to lead the firm’s strategic initiatives and oversee financial operations.

“I come to work each day with the understanding that I’m here to serve all of our staff. They are who I report to,” Harrod says. “As a leader, setting the example is important – ‘going first,’ being willing to do anything I ask of others, holding myself accountable, showing empathy, and striving for continuous improvement are important cornerstones of my leadership style.”

A conversation with Julia Harrod.

The Zweig Letter: The MWM website notes that its focus has always reflected the importance of harmony between work and play. Can you provide some examples and tips for how you make that happen?

Julia Harrod: As a long-standing business, it would be easy for us to coast and be “good enough,” but we’ve committed to be excellent through continuous improvement. Our top priority is to be the most “FAWSOME” (For And With) place to work. We evaluate all decisions that we make as a company against our mission to balance being supportive of our people, trusted advisors to our clients, accountable to our company, and good stewards of our community.

While many firms may laser-focus on one of these areas, we’ve found that our balanced approach, while more difficult, is much more rewarding. By doing more than just paying lip service to each of these areas, we’ve been rewarded with a culture of inclusivity, connectivity, and excellence that’s truly unique.

From day one, through our recruiting/onboarding process, our employees know that they are welcome and supported. Our continuous improvement plan, provision of a life coach, and consistent feedback gives employees the support and professional development they need. Our in-house activities and community service programs allow employees to take a break and develop a strong sense of community. And our open-book project reporting, quarterly newsletter, and quarterly all-hands underscores our transparency, giving employees solid information about what’s going on with the firm and their role in our success. We consistently hear from our employees who come to us from a different company that they’ve never experienced anything like MWM. We’re proud of the intentional work we’ve done to achieve this level of success with our culture.

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

JH: We already had a flexible policy on telecommuting and quite a few people took advantage of that opportunity. Having all office staff work from home for more than a year has given everyone a chance to experience what it’s like to work and manage remotely even if they were initially reluctant. We’ve been able to evaluate the impact of how, when, and where we work on effectiveness, collaboration, and culture. We’re now in the process of re-imagining our office space to optimize collaboration and connection while taking advantage of remote work to accomplish focused tasks. I want people to look at their schedules and see what works best for them based on what they’re working on at the time. I’m willing to try different models and pilot programs and look forward to getting data from the team about what’s important to them.

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

JH: Trust is key to our business. I believe it starts with ensuring there’s trust within our firm by aligning our actions with our values. Everyone at the firm knows we have each other’s back. I think that the true test of someone’s character is how they handle a mistake. Managers and client-facing staff never “throw anyone under the bus.” We all own up to mistakes and make it right. We’re quick to take personal responsibility for mis-steps and to acknowledge others’ contributions for accolades.

TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?

JH: When I started out, I thought it was all about being right. I honestly thought that working harder and striving for perfection at all cost was the answer. I wish I knew earlier in my career the importance of taking care of oneself, truly listening to others, and being intentional. When I focus on these three things, I’m able to bring my best self to my job, help others, and advance the firm’s goals.

TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?

JH: I believe that being a servant leader is important. I come to work each day with the understanding that I’m here to serve all of our staff. They are who I report to. As a leader, setting the example is important – “going first,” being willing to do anything I ask of others, holding myself accountable, showing empathy, and striving for continuous improvement are important cornerstones of my leadership style.

TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?

JH: We’ve hired an independent life/career coach for the firm. Our coach meets with all employees and supports our emphasis on continuous improvement for the firm and all individuals. Our coach also conducts a yearly, 360-review that allows employees to provide anonymous feedback to each other, managers, and leaders. She then offers guidance and coaching to individuals on feedback received.

TZL: Tell me a little about how you moved into your current role of president? How long have you been with the firm? Did you work there in another role prior to your current position, etc.?

JH: I’ve been with MWM since 1990. I started fresh out of architecture school as a draftsperson, then pursued my degree in engineering and rose through the ranks to become a principal in 1999 and president in 2007. I’ve always had a stereotypical engineering mindset. When I first started out, I tended to be focused mostly on speed and efficiency. I worked hard on my ability to collaborate and empathize with colleagues and it has paid off both for myself personally as well as the firm.

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?

JH: As mentioned earlier, a coach is available to all staff. In particular, she works with all managers on communication and mentoring skills and is available to facilitate discussions as necessary. She provides training and guidance in areas such as feedback conversations, career pathing, and mentoring so that all employees are supported consistently.

TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.

JH: One of our foundational principles is “continuous improvement” both individually and as a company. We update our focus yearly and develop quarterly priorities and strategic goals to implement changes to increase client service, support for our staff, corporate accountability, and community stewardship. We’re typically working on four to six key strategic projects at any given time.

TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?

JH: I’ve had many mentors throughout my career. In particular, the first personal coach I worked with helped me understand that I needed to take a holistic approach to my life – that work and personal life were not separate. Nancy Oelklaus, Jon Stigliano, Mark Cook, Brad Clossen, and Jennie Leov are professional coaches who have guided me over the years as well as numerous engineering leaders I met through NSPE including Trish Smith, Kyle Womack, Bill Fendley, and Dan Witliff.

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

JH: To drive the culture of the organization and maintain the strategic vision.

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.