Set the tone: Wayne Swafford

Sep 12, 2021

President of Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam (Houston, TX), a civil engineering firm that delivers exceptional quality and measurable value for the nation’s infrastructure.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Swafford is a structural engineer with more than 30 years’ experience. He’s managed the operations and finances of several organizations. At LAN, he’s focused on everything from empowering employees and cultivating company leadership to creating more sustainable and resilient infrastructures.

“We earn our clients’ trust by listening to their concerns and challenges, providing frank feedback, and then delivering on the promises we make,” Swafford says.

A conversation with Wayne Swafford.

The Zweig Letter: You’ve been with LAN for more than four years. To date, what’s the greatest change you’ve overseen or implemented and why?

Wayne Swafford: Pushing decision-making deeper into the organization. We’re empowering and encouraging practice leaders and team leaders to take a more active role in decision-making for their teams and the company. We’ve found that empowering employees has resulted in greater levels of service for our clients, better performance on our projects, and better collaboration and work sharing across the company.

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

WS: The pandemic compelled us to rethink our workplace model. Before the pandemic, the conventional industry paradigm – and the one I subscribed to – was that requiring employees to work in the office full-time was necessary for maintaining our productivity. I believe that paradigm is shifting because of what we’ve seen over the past year.

Once the pandemic hit, our firm quickly transitioned to a telework model to keep employees safe and healthy. Fortunately, with our industry being knowledge-based and technology-enabled, we were able to leverage our technological resources and adapt to new ways of working and collaborating. The past year has shown us that, in many instances, we can work and operate effectively from our home desks.

As a result, after the pandemic ends, I believe that we will have a more flexible work environment using a hybrid model. And I’m comfortable with that. To me, the key litmus test is, “Are you effective at your job and are you meeting your commitments to your teammates and clients?”

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

WS: Simply put, we earn our clients’ trust by listening to their concerns and challenges, providing frank feedback and then delivering on the promises we make.

I believe trust is a value that is simple in theory and more challenging in practice. The key to trust is consistently demonstrating these behaviors in all situations, regardless of how small or inconvenient the circumstance is. We have to recognize that the small decisions we make each day when serving our clients will accumulate to an overall sense of trust.

Communication is also a big part of building and maintaining trust with our clients. During the pandemic, we learned how to communicate and build relationships with our clients through video conferencing, and we did that successfully. Now that our clients are returning to their offices, it is important that we adapt our communications to their situation, and now we are seeing a return to face-to-face meetings where and when possible.

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

WS: When I was in school, one of the reasons I chose to study engineering was because I was good at math and science and didn’t enjoy writing or public speaking. As I became more experienced in my career and eventually progressed into management, it became apparent that doing the engineering work was only half of being an engineer. The other half, especially when leading a team or practice, is being an effective communicator. Effective communication and collaboration with your team members and clients is essential to bringing projects together and producing great work. I advise young engineers to sharpen their communication skills (verbal and written) because those skills will become essential in their careers.

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?

WS: We implemented a program in 2008 called Leadership Institute that focuses on cultivating our company’s future leadership. Every year, our future leaders go through an intensive nine-month training forum where they interact and build on each other’s strengths.

Through a series of learning modules, the program prepares them for expanding leadership roles, and the curriculum helps define and develop their relevant skills. This is an excellent opportunity for employees to develop their soft skills – such as communication and interpersonal skills – and grow their emotional intelligence. These skills are important for employees in all positions, but become especially important for people management.

This month, we launched a new employee development discussion program called COACH. This program promotes professional and personal development through periodic discussions between managers and employees focused on long-term goals and career objectives. I am excited about this forward-looking career development program.

TZL: LAN’s website states that the firm’s “path is to develop sustainable infrastructure solutions for the evolving needs of the public.” Can you give me a recent example of a project that speaks to this mission and illustrates how public needs are evolving?

WS: Here in Texas specifically, there’s an urgent need for more resilient and sustainable infrastructure to withstand and protect the public from the effects of natural disasters, which are expected to increase in severity and frequency over the next decade.

One example of a project that illustrates how we’re addressing this is the Exploration Green project in Clear Lake City, Texas. Partnering with the Clear Lake City Water Authority, we’re transforming a former 178-acre golf course into five massive detention ponds for flood mitigation purposes. Each detention pond can hold 100 million gallons of stormwater (the equivalent of 750 Olympic-sized swimming pools). In addition, Exploration Green will also serve as a nature park comprising 105 acres of natural habitat with wetlands and native grass land areas, six miles of hike-and-bike trails, two athletic fields, and other amenities.

Building the detention ponds has turned out to be immensely beneficial to the community, which previously experienced drainage and flooding issues during extreme storm events. During Hurricane Harvey, although only 80 percent of the Phase 1 pond was completed, it protected at least 150 homes from flooding. In 2019, Tropical Storm Imelda hardly made a dent on the community, and the project withstood Tropical Storm Beta easily. Ultimately, when all five phases are completed, Exploration Green will protect 2,000 to 3,000 homes.

Exploration Green is transforming Clear Lake City from a flood-prone community into one of the most flood-resilient communities in Texas. In addition, it is creating a healthy, sustainable neighborhood for its residents.

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?

WS: I’ve been very fortunate to work with many mentors who were brilliant practitioners. They were not only great at the engineering and technical side of the job, but also had the skills to effectively collaborate and communicate with non-engineers when working on projects. My first boss, Philip Lane, had a broad range of expertise. He was a terrific structural engineer and extremely knowledgeable about other elements of civil engineering. Phil really helped me transition my academic training into practical applications.

Another mentor, Ralph Smith, was excellent at critical thinking and maintaining perspective. In difficult situations, he had the ability to sift through heightened emotions, maintain composure and make rational decisions. These mentors taught me how to put projects together and how to work with others to get them done.

TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

WS: Change management for contracts never gets easier with time. Early in my tenure when I was a project manager, my supervisor told me, “Just do a great job, the client will settle with you in the end, and you will be fine.” I managed two different challenging projects using this philosophy, and it was difficult both times. I learned that if you have project issues, you must stop and work through them immediately. Bad news never gets better with time!

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?

WS: Making the transition from an engineer to a project manager is hard. You’re going from a task-oriented specialist to a generalist who is managing tasks and people. To support the PMs, we provide them with various kinds of training programs. We have long had internal PM training programs for our business processes.

We’re also providing industry-specific training from an external vendor to help our PMs align with one basic management system. Over the last two years, we’ve also implemented a monthly project review process that helps us identify strengths, weaknesses, and areas that need improvement. These training programs provide our PMs with guidance and support on an ongoing basis.

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

WS: Set the tone.

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