Secret sauce

Jul 24, 2022

Firms often have the same “ingredients” for creating great places to work. Your success really boils down to how you choose and blend these elements together.

Last year, I attended Zweig Group’s ElevateAEC Conference – a unique event that draws AEC firm leaders from across the country to network, learn, and celebrate. The conference included many sessions where peers discussed lessons learned and ongoing research regarding trending topics. Additionally, firms were recognized for several prestigious awards, including the Best Firms To Work For Award. As a representative of Patel, Greene and Associates, a multiyear winner in the category, many of the conversations I had at the conference started with the question: “What is your firm’s secret sauce?”

I had previously thought about this question in the sense of “What is our secret ingredient?” rather than “secret sauce,” which explains why I have struggled to answer it. Firms often have the same “ingredients” for creating great places to work. Tangible items like quality staff, competitive salaries and benefits, and the intangible items that we develop, like culture, professional experiences, and advancement opportunities. Rarely do we, or other firms, have that one “thing” to point to that is completely unique. Since the question is about the sauce and not the ingredients, it boils down to the best blend of all these individual elements and, in most cases, the process in which those elements are chosen, that makes everyone want to be a part of it.

To be honest, unlike a can Bush’s Baked Beans, our sauce is not a secret. It often changes as we adapt to the market, industry, feedback from staff, or as a result of conversations about topics our leadership learns through conferences like ElevateAEC. However, it is really our mission that guides us and the principles by which we operate that allow us to continuously tweak, try, and adapt. Our firm is driven by our core principles of Integrity, Commitment, and Excellence, meaning we do the things we say we will do, particularly when no one is watching, and we do them to the best of our abilities. We talk about this often, make it known to our staff, and encourage everyone to think about our mission when making business decisions. Understanding that decisions need to be made with the bottom line in mind, but not simply to serve that number. With this approach we have been very successful in creating and maintaining a great working environment, while drawing the best talent in the industry.

So, what can you do to craft your recipe? Like everything, start with your mission and lean on your principles, because why have them if you are not going to live them, right? Also, if you have not completed a strategic plan within the past five years – it is time to reassess because things are changing fast! From there, gather your leadership to discuss the following:

  • Does your current blend of “ingredients” serve employee needs and expectations? What worked in the past may not work in the future. This requires consistent evaluating, assessing, and brainstorming. Our leadership relies on employer surveys, industry surveys, and feedback we receive directly from staff. As a growing firm, staff expectations can change rapidly. We encourage staff to share thoughts and ideas on topics including staffing levels, benefits, mentoring, community engagement, and especially the fun stuff like office happy hours and holiday parties. Additionally, we look to improve where we may have fallen short and conduct exit interviews because we can’t improve if we don’t know what to fix.
  • Do you have leaders who can see the bigger picture and can ask the tough questions? Your organization needs diverse leaders who are engaged and willing to break status quo. Changes don’t have to come immediately or completely switch the direction of the firm, but conversations with new or unique perspectives will keep decision making meaningful. Executive management should encourage firm leaders to think about change as a necessity to stay relevant, but to also understand that change takes time – it’s a delicate balance.
  • Are there ways to provide “better than industry standards”? To provide better, you have to know what the industry is doing. Firm leaders should be engaged with industry organizations and have mechanisms to follow trends closely, especially for benefits and compensation. Being strategically proactive, rather than reactive to changing trends will save firms from playing catch-up constantly. It’s understood that exceeding industry standards for all benefits does not come without significant costs and firms have to remain fair and competitive for their clients and shareholders. However, to be the best to work for, staff must be a priority over the bottom line.
  • Is your decision-making process transparent? If you take anything from this article, let it be this – be transparent. Two firms make the same decision, go in the same direction, and have identical missions – if one firm is led without transparency, it will not see the same level of success as the other because its staff will not feel engaged. As a father of five children, I often learn life’s toughest lessons through their eyes, and transparency doesn’t apply only to the office. It can be quite humbling to reflect on times where my lack of transparency at home created significant disappointment – the exact thing I seek to avoid in the office. As business leaders, we often make decisions that can have unintended consequences – reducing one benefit to provide for another, deferring the start of a company initiative, or simply changing the type of coffee in the breakroom. All could be considered minor decisions but, if done in a vacuum, could create significant frustrations that impact staff morale. If I convinced you that a small decision could make such an impact, think about what a significant decision could mean. Transparency drives success. 

Joseph Lauk, P.E. is a principal and vice president at Patel, Greene & Associates, LLC. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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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.