Leading change: Jennifer Bennett

Feb 28, 2021

President of Shive-Hattery (Cedar Rapids, IA), a multi-disciplinary architecture and engineering firm that recognizes the power of design in transforming the human experience.

By Sara Parkman Senior Editor

In November, Shive-Hattery announced the election of Bennett as president of the firm. Bennett joined the design firm in 2003 and has 25 years of experience in client service, talent development, and market growth. She has a structural engineering background and previously served as the vice president and office director of Shive-Hattery’s Quad Cities location. As president, Bennett is responsible for the overall leadership, strategic planning, culture, vision, and direction of current and future operations of Shive-Hattery.

“In my view, leading change is the biggest challenge for all leaders, especially within our industry where so much change is occurring,” Bennett says. “Anticipating what impacts our firm while leading change within it is something I find challenging yet also fun. I derive a lot of energy from it.”

A conversation with Jennifer Bennett.

The Zweig Letter: Shive-Hattery announced you as the firm’s new president last fall. What do you most attribute to this advancement?

Jennifer Bennett: Strong relationships have been an important part of my personal and professional growth. Throughout my career, I’ve had great mentors who have encouraged me to take risks, challenged me to see things differently, and supported me when things get tough.

My relationship-first value aligned strongly here at Shive-Hattery. Our culture is dedicated to building relationships which is why this firm has been a good fit for me to thrive.

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

JB: We had successful remote workers and supported flexible schedules prior to COVID-19, and I’m sure we’ll continue to see that trend. Our challenge post-COVID-19 will be managing the right balance for our employees and our clients:

  • A balance that will allow us to continue our culture of flexibility while also supporting our strong learning, teaching, and mentoring culture which is much more effective when done face-to-face.
  • A balance that allows the best collaboration for our teams while providing a great experience for our clients.

TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?

JB: I have a supportive family and a network of people who have supported me throughout my career. Work and family life have always been blended for me. This was especially true when our kids were young where it was about integrating one into and around the other. I rarely missed one of the kid’s baseball games or school activities regardless of time or day, but I also had times where my family sacrificed so I could deliver on a promise to a client or colleague. During the busiest and most exhausting time of my life, I had a flexible and supportive family and flexible and supportive leaders and teams in Shive-Hattery. That made all the difference for me.

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

JB: Trust is at the center of our client experience. So many people struggle to build trust because they focus on themselves instead of the client. We earn the trust of our clients by focusing on them. We listen, we ask open-ended questions, we let them tell their story, and we don’t rush to a solution. To quote David Maister, “There is no greater source of distrust than advisors who appear to be more interested in themselves than in trying to be of service to the client.”

We earn the trust of our clients by doing what we say we are going to do and genuinely caring about them. We are responsive and they come to rely on that because we are available to them during the times when they need us, even if it is inconvenient or outside of conventional hours.

We earn being honest upfront, even when we are delivering bad news. When we are not perfect or can’t deliver on a promise, we address it head-on and work out a solution with them. This straightforward communication builds credibility which is critical to trust.

TZL: What do you see as the biggest challenge in your new role? How do you anticipate easing into the transition?

JB: In my view, leading change is the biggest challenge for all leaders, especially within our industry where so much change is occurring. For example, being able to go from research and development of a new technology to process to full implementation of and anchoring of that technology and process in the culture is something we need to be able to do quickly. Anticipating what impacts our firm while leading change within it is something I find challenging yet also fun. I derive a lot of energy from it.

I was selected for president a year in advance of our former President Jim Lee’s departure. This allowed me more than six months to transition my previous roles and begin building the relationships I would need to be successful as president of Shive-Hattery. At roughly the six-month mark, I relocated to our corporate office and became president of Shive-Hattery with Jim remaining as chairman of the board until spring of 2021. Jim and I have six months working together before his retirement. He’s been a great mentor for me, and it’s been a smooth transition.

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

JB: We have long recognized that equity, diversity, inclusion, and engagement are drivers of innovation and so important as we strive to create the best client experience and the best experience for our people. The lack of racial/ethnic or even gender diversity in our industry can be frustrating at times when we serve such a diverse client base. We recognize that diversity is more than just racial/ethnic or gender diversity, but also about communication styles, leadership styles, our perspectives, and the way we approach a problem.

As we are creating our project teams, our candidate interview teams, our tasks forces, etc., we strive to create a team of people who think differently, who approach the problem differently, and will have a different perspective. And then we make sure they all have an equal voice and are heard. If we create an environment where all can speak, be heard, and are valued contributors to the team, we create an environment and culture that is engaging, and attractive to all. It takes constant work and intent, and it starts with the leadership. As one of my EDEI mentors says, “This is a journey with no end.”

TZL: Artificial intelligence and machine learning are potential disruptors across all industries. Is your firm exploring how to incorporate these technologies into providing improved services for clients?

JB: Our Design Technology and Innovation group’s mission is to stay focused on what is coming next. They have been working with AI, machine learning, and data driven design for some time now. Working with our project teams, this group researches and tests technology, and develops implementation and training plans for the technology we chose to deploy. This group helps keep us future-focused whether that is on machine learning or the potentially disruptive technology that pops up next.

TZL: You have more than 25 years of experience in the architecture and engineering industry. What’s the greatest hurdle you’ve had to face in that time and how did you overcome it?

JB: This may be more of a life lesson than a hurdle. As I look back on the evolution of my career and my personal experience growing with the firm (from part-time engineer to full-time engineer, structural group leader, industrial sector leader to becoming office director/vice president, to president), it has been so important to constantly train others for these leadership positions.

A Shive-Hattery value is to work yourself out of a job. The skills/approach needed is to have the generosity to train someone else and know they will be better than you. You have to be okay with that; it’s important to learn to let go and take on new roles that add value to the organization.

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?

JB: We are a very decentralized and entrepreneurial company. This culture works because of great people leaders. And by that, I mean leaders who bring out the best in people. We have an in-house leadership development program (LDP). Led by the president, an LDP class has about eight to 10 of our leaders or future leaders and meets six to eight times for two days over approximately an 18-month period. It’s an intense learning experience with a lot of required reading and group discussions. Our graduates learn how to serve, lead, and create lasting change in a professional service organization. We strive to make our LDP groups diverse and from all around the company. Not only do our graduates leave with common language and knowledge, but with strong relationships with each other. These bonds can remain long beyond “graduation day” and provide a network of connections for those future leadership challenges.

Our employee engagement survey consistently shows our “people leaders” excel at coaching, have great people skills, listen and communicate, train and develop, and create an environment that is comfortable for expressing views and opinions and concerns. As a result, our employee retention is consistently well below industry average.

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?

JB: Approximately 15 percent of our employees are owners, with mandatory age-related redemptions. Ownership transitions happen every year with some stockholders selling and others becoming owners for the first time. This has created decades of smooth ownership transition. We avoid the common pitfall of a handful of principals approaching the end of their career with most of the client relationships and all the ownership. That makes a smooth and successful transition very difficult and risky whether the buyer(s) is/are internal or external.

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?

JB: Often I think PMs have the most challenging job in our industry. We put our book of business on their shoulders – from planning, to writing a great contract, leading the team, delivering great financial results, and do this all while delivering an exceptional client experience! Our PMs have a strong Community of Practice where they (virtually) meet monthly to discuss lessons learned, best practices, a learning topic and support each other. We have a director of project delivery at the corporate level who leads a project delivery team that supports our PMs.

TZL: How many years of experience – or large enough book of business – is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?

JB: There are many things we consider when inviting new owners. We look for an ownership group with good diversity – in generation or years of experience, age, gender, and/or discipline of practice. We strongly consider market or client leaders and top-notch technical professionals. We look for people who exemplify our people and business values. As a result, our owners are a good, balanced cross section of our employees including people in their 20s and 30s.

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