How to Really Keep Good People

Oct 02, 2000

Everyone says they’re interested in it, and there are all kinds of articles out there on the subject. How to attract and keep an outstanding workforce is clearly on the minds of many principals and managers of A/E/P and environmental consulting firms today. That said, as a group of firms, I think we are too often misguided in our approach to solving “the people problem.” As a result, we are solving the wrong problems and not dealing with the fundamentals that will really result in a high quality, low turnover staff. Here’s what it takes: Leadership that can conceive and sell a vision for the future. This vision has to be something the employees can get excited about as individuals and collectively. To me, this implies that growth and market domination have to be elements of the vision. For example, no one wants to work in a firm whose vision is “to maximize earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT).” To the rank and file architect or engineer that vision says, “You guys work your butts off, and the owners here will make a lot of money.” Hardly what it takes to rally the troops! A fantastic firm environment versus just having good projects. I keep saying this because many people in this business don’t get it. It takes more than good projects to recruit and keep the best people. Good projects in a bad environment equals staff demotivation and turnover. Yet there are a lot of companies that keep selling their projects when they pay substandard wages, don’t share ownership, don’t keep people informed, and have principals who hog all of the glory and credit. Who in their right mind would put up with that for long? No one! Great technology. If you don’t have the kinds of tools that busy people expect to have available to them today, you’ve got a problem. This includes wide area networks, remote access, Palm Pilots, e-mail, an intranet, online reports, cell phones, voice mail, and much more. And while most companies these days are on a fairly level playing field, there are still stragglers out there that can’t understand why this stuff is important to them. My guess is it’s probably too late for these firms to ever catch up. A spirit of winning. No one wants to be a loser. Winning is fun. Whether it’s a contest for a prize or a fight to the death, winning is critical to one’s self-image. Some firms win more than others do. They get more than their fair share of work, clients don’t push them around, and as a result, they feel pretty darn good about themselves. That becomes a self-perpetuating cycle as the employees expect to be winners and do what it takes to make that a reality. Sharing. Ownership needs to be distributed. Profits need to be spread around. Raises need to be forthcoming for those who are most deserving. Benefits should be the best they can be within reason. And the little things— like coffee and donuts and the ability to use a cell phone to take an incoming call with a request to pick up a loaf of bread on the way home— should be gratis from the company. Companies that get so shortsighted that they can’t see the dimes hiding behind the pennies they’re trying to save will always pay the price in their ability to recruit, retain, and motivate their workforce. Something new all the time. I am not suggesting that change for the sake of change is all this is. It should be meaningful change borne out of a desire to more effectively help clients, make the employee’s job easier, or build long-term health into the company. That means new organizational structures, new services, new technologies, new office arrangements, and new systems and processes that really do make things better. You have to keep doing new things, not just to compete but to capture the interest of your employees and owners. The thing that I find so interesting about this topic is there is always something you can do. The dot-coms will come and go, and the firms that provide something needed by society (or some segment of society) will endure. If you’re worried about your firm’s ability to attract and retain a viable workforce, consider the points above. Originally published 10/02/2000.

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