Make it about the people already!

Apr 02, 2023

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If you can make your culture about the employees, you and your firm will reap the rewards over the course of your career.

I’ve read a lot about leadership, culture, and the like, much of it specific to the architecture, engineering, and construction industry. In fact, The Zweig Letter has become one of my favorite weekly reads. If you’ve been in the AEC industry over the last 20-30 years, you’ve likely noticed that it has become more worker friendly. I can honestly say that 30 years ago, few employers in the industry cared about employees’ work-life balance or “employee engagement.” Today, most successful AEC companies expend many resources developing inclusive cultures focused on hiring and retaining the best employees, and rightly so – employees are a firm’s primary resource. Ask any C-suite occupant what differentiates their company from competitors and I’ll lay long odds that the reply will be “our people.”

At SCS Engineers, we encourage and support mentoring at all levels. I do a fair amount of mentoring, and this has become my most prominent message to employees at all levels: If you can make your culture about the employees, you’ll make a lot of good decisions over the course of your career. Here are a few examples of what I mean by making it about the people:

  • Communication/status/board meetings. I can’t tell you how many meetings start out with how a company (region, sector, etc.) has done or is doing financially. Ultimately there’s a “hook” or a push for additional efforts from staff to meet or exceed the financial goals. Eventually the meeting might make it to key performers, milestone anniversaries, and newborns. What if you flip-flopped the meeting and started with employee news? What difference would it make? Imagine that you are a new hire or an otherwise unseasoned employee. How many minutes into the meeting do you think they make it before they’re disengaged or tuned out? By the time you get to the employee-focused portion of the meeting, their mind is elsewhere. Now imagine the momentum you could build by starting the meeting with employee celebrations and building up to the financials. I’ll bet the hook or push for additional efforts would be met with a different mindset. What would this say about your culture?
  • Employee engagement. I hear this term so much that I believe its intended meaning is watered down. Since the pandemic, many folks think anytime they meet one-on-one they are engaging. I won’t argue with this frame of mind, as any time spent together is likely good time. But by engagement, I mean that we’re making ourselves available for questions – and I mean that in both directions of the employee/employer totem pole. Here’s a personal example.
    Just over 30 years ago I was a newly-hired field technician at a national environmental consulting firm. Most days I was in the field, but I recall being in the office during the first week for onboarding. During a break, I walked, uninvited, into the regional manager’s office and introduced myself. I know he was busy, because his assistant followed me into his office. But he took the time to introduce himself and ask me several questions. He spent 30 unremarkable minutes talking to me. I asked him what one bit of advice he could give that would be beneficial to me in my career. His response? Write everything down. Meeting notes, phone call contents, etc. He actually thanked me for stopping in and invited me to do so in the future, which I did as time allowed until he retired two years later (on future occasions, I would ask his assistant if I could say hello to avoid breaking protocol). Some 30 years later, I’m still in the industry.
    Let me point out a few things. First, and most important, I initiated the engagement – bottom-up engagement, from employee to employer. Last, I’m not naïve enough to believe that I continued in the industry because of that one interaction; however, it had a profound effect on me, and I’ve done my best to pay that very interaction forward. And I ask all of my protégés to do the same. Make time to engage with folks. Not just to train them, not just to teach them your craft, but to speak with them. One of the good things about learning to work remotely is that I can look at a person’s avatar and see a “green button” if they aren’t in a meeting or otherwise scheduled. I will often take that opportunity to call them – top-down engagement – just to see how they’re doing. But it’s fairly common for me to ask their opinion regarding a problem du jour. Would it surprise anyone that the opinions I get are often a part of the eventual solution? This is what I mean when I say employee engagement, and it’s another example of making it about the people. Imagine this “bi-directional” engagement template being commonplace throughout your firm. What would this say about your culture?
  • The new normal. The pandemic created many new issues for the AEC industry, not the least of which is forced separation that stresses the best of cultures. And talking about your culture doesn’t necessarily define your culture; you have to live it to define it. I’m uncertain what the new normal will look like, but my guess is that firms with inclusive, engaging cultures will not only survive, but learn to define the benefits of the “new normal.” The new normal affects every employee within every firm and each individual perspective should be considered. So if you’re ready to begin defining the new normal, what are you waiting for? Make it about the people. 

Robert Speed is a vice president at SCS Engineers. Contact him at

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