Some companies still consider non-technical disciplines second class

Aug 18, 2008

I had a lengthy e-mail exchange the other day with someone who was the top financial person in what would have to be considered a good-sized (over 200-person) A/E and environmental firm in response to a recent Zweig Letter editorial I wrote on “Don’t run off the real leaders who are already inside your A/E or environmental firm” (Issue 772, July 28, 2008). This person was asking me what other companies in our business are doing to keep high-performing folks in non-technical yet key roles for the company. This person had been instrumental in the company’s rise from a small firm to a significant one and was apparently becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of recognition and ownership opportunities. All those in the non-line functions (marketing, IT, human resources, etc.) in this particular company had similar frustrations. It’s 2008— “We’ve come a long way,” I thought. Are there really any “good” companies today in our business who haven’t already come to grips with the idea that everyone is important— not just the architects, engineers, planners, or scientists? In the ‘80s— sure— there were plenty of firms who treated “support” (I dislike that term for staff!) functions like second-class citizens. But, today? And, this firm grew to a significant size with the idea that the line functions are all that really matter? I was shocked. The writer was curious about other companies that have solved this problem. Do they use phantom equity? Are there special reward systems that can be employed for those heading up staff functions? I cannot understand how anyone thinks that staff functions are second class. Every company needs to sell work, collect money, deal with banks, hire people, and have a functional and reliable computer system. Sure— a company in our business also needs the technical and design professionals that actually do the work. We need all types of people. Unless you want to have a very small business, i.e., a way to make a living for one person, you need people with different skill sets and backgrounds. None should be second class. Phantom stock for staff people versus real stock for line people is just wrong unless there is some legal reason related to ownership and an A/E or surveying firm in that state that requires only certain types of professionals serve as owners. I thought we were done fighting this battle long ago. Sure— it used to be common. I remember when I first got stock in the firm I worked for in ‘83 or ‘84— I was a staff person (marketing and human resources director) and it was controversial. I was pretty much told if I didn’t get my masters in civil engineering, I would never be CEO. Since I wanted to be CEO some day, I immediately signed up at Memphis State, now known as the University of Memphis. I ended up being recruited to join Carter & Burgess (Fort Worth, TX), now known as Jacobs Carter Burgess, so it never happened. But today, I doubt coming up through a staff function would be a problem at that firm. In fact, there are many firms today whose CEOs were marketing or finance people at one time. There are many, many more firms where there are all kinds of people involved in real ownership. No status differences exist, either. With as complex as our business environment is today, discriminating against staff functions can only be considered bad business! Originally published 8/18/2008

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