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Ben Sawa & Sonia Swift article in ASCE's April edition of Leadership and Management in Engineering!

Ben Sawa & Sonia Swift article in ASCE's April edition of Leadership and Management in Engineering!

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Published by Matt St Hilaire
Developing
High-Performing
Organizations: Keys to
Recruiting, Retaining,
and Developing People
Who Make the Difference
Developing
High-Performing
Organizations: Keys to
Recruiting, Retaining,
and Developing People
Who Make the Difference

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Matt St Hilaire on Apr 22, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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07/30/2013

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DevelopingHigh-PerformingOrganizations: Keys toRecruiting, Retaining,and Developing PeopleWho Make the Difference
B
EN
S
AWA AND
S
ONIA
S
WIFT
 ABSTRACT: Over the past 5 years, the economy has been unsettled. As a result, theculture and mood at many companies has changed as executives have reevaluated their  place in the current market and developed strategies to allow them continued success. As companies evolve, it is important that they cater to their employees, who are their biggest asset. By creating a more enjoyable work environment for employees, companiesare positioning themselves better for success. In this paper, we discuss five aspects of creating competitive advantages through people: (1) a belief in individual responsibility and autonomy and a strong sense of team collaboration; (2) a culture of continual training, education, and mentoring; (3) a challenging work environment in whicheveryone is committed to excellence; (4) open communication and collaboration; and (5) strong leadership to challenge and support employees to reach higher levels of success. Each of these topics is complex and could be discussed in significantly moredetail than it is in this paper. However, our goal is to show that implementing a fewsimple ideas can drastically change the culture of an organization and the disposition of its employees. As our professions become more entwined with our personal lives and as people within our companies are able to work together despite their geographic location,it becomes even more important to create an organizational culture in which employeesare happy and feel that they are contributing to the company 
’ 
s overall goal. A company cannot be successful without devoted employees.
A
PRIL
2013
Leadership and Management in Engineering 
96
Leadership Manage. Eng. 2013.13:96-100.
   D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   f  r  o  m   a  s  c  e   l   i   b  r  a  r  y .  o  r  g   b  y   H  o   l   l  y   K  o  p  p  e   l  o  n   0   4   /   1   6   /   1   3 .   C  o  p  y  r   i  g   h   t   A   S   C   E .   F  o  r  p  e  r  s  o  n  a   l  u  s  e  o  n   l  y  ;  a   l   l  r   i  g   h   t  s  r  e  s  e  r  v  e   d .
 
T
he only constant in life is change.Anyone who
s lived through the past5 years of economic ups and downsknows how true this statement can be.The stock market saw record highs,homeowner property values skyrock-eted, and companies enjoyed consistent double-digitgrowth and profits. There seemed to be no endin sight.Then, all that good fortune evaporated as quickly asit had been created. For the 20 years preceding thecrash, the economic policy had been to promote lev-erage and asset price appreciation in an effort to keepconsumers pumping money into the economy. Theyobliged, and the economy benefited by growing ata record pace. Unfortunately for us, there reached apoint when the debt levels became unsustainable,and we suffered the impacts of a major correction,i.e., the Great Recession.Now, many economists are pointing to a
newnormal
”—
one defined by lower demand driven bylower availability of credit and leverage. What doesthis mean? It means that in a lower growth economy,competition to sell goods and, particularly, serviceswill be as fierce as ever, and firms will explore newstrategies to compete. Some will work; some willnot. Some firms will succeed, and some will disappear.So, our story begins. What can firms do to remaincompetitive? How can they maintain or increasemarket share, growth, and profitability in this neweconomy?The old adage
people are our most important as-sets
gets a lot of lip service, but the firms that trulybelieve this will be the most successful. This is becausepeople have the knowledge, skills, and relationshipsthat make a thriving and productive firm.To create competitive advantages through people,an organization should focus on promoting thefollowing:1. A belief in individual responsibility and auton-omy and a strong sense of team collaboration;2. A culture of continual training, education, andmentoring;3. A challenging work environment in whicheveryone is committed to excellence;4. Open communication and collaboration; and5. Strong leadership to challenge and support em-ployees to reach higher levels of success.We will show you examples of ways that our firm,GEI Consultants, Inc., has attempted to create aculture and organization that is aligned with thesebeliefs. GEI was founded in 1970 in Boston, whereits headquarters is still based today. It is a privatelyheld company of 530 consulting engineers, scientists,and business systems support staff, with 26 officesthroughout the United States. Its core technicalpractices are geotechnical, water resources, environ-mental and ecological science and engineering con-sulting. GEI Consultants, Inc., has completed morethan 35,000 projects, in all 50 U.S. states andmore than 20 countries.Although we use GEI as our primary example, wedo not mean to imply that we have the
right 
organi-zation or management philosophy. However, thisapproach has worked for us and it might work foryou too.
I
NDIVIDUAL
R
ESPONSIBILITY AND
A
UTONOMY
Our image of the average worker in America hasundergone tremendous change in the past 200 years.From farmers to factory workers and now to
knowl-edge workers
(a term coined by Peter Drucker forpeople who work with information rather thanthings), the change hasbeen nothing less than remark-able. The outdated carrot-and-stick strategy for moti-vating and engaging employees no longer applies totoday
s knowledge workers.Companies that realize this and engage their staff through freedom, inclusion, and shared responsibilityare more apt to have happy, motivated employees.Such employees will deliver better solutions to prob-lems, be more efficient, and ultimately drive organi-zations to new levels of growth and profitability.
Why Are Responsibility and Autonomy SoImportant?
Most professionals, especially high-performing ones,crave high levels of responsibility. It is part of theirpsychological makeup. Moreover, responsibility lendsitself to a true feeling of accomplishment and progressin one
s job. When employees feel that they are mak-ing a difference, they become engaged.Autonomy means an employee can direct his or herown actions to complete tasks and solve problemswithin the general context of the organization. Moreoften than not, people don
t like being told exactlywhat to do and exactly how to do it.Anyone who is a parent knows the power of autonomy. Although threatening a child to complythrough coercion will often work in the short term,teaching a child over time what the right things todo are and why they should do them will ultimately
 Leadership and Management in Engineerin
A
PRIL
2013
97
Leadership Manage. Eng. 2013.13:96-100.
   D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   f  r  o  m   a  s  c  e   l   i   b  r  a  r  y .  o  r  g   b  y   H  o   l   l  y   K  o  p  p  e   l  o  n   0   4   /   1   6   /   1   3 .   C  o  p  y  r   i  g   h   t   A   S   C   E .   F  o  r  p  e  r  s  o  n  a   l  u  s  e  o  n   l  y  ;  a   l   l  r   i  g   h   t  s  r  e  s  e  r  v  e   d .
 
lead them to make good decisions on their own. Com-panies work the same way
if they create a culturethat values and rewards good decisions, their employ-ees will instinctively employ good judgment andmake well-informed choices.Having this ability to make autonomous decisionsand influence the decisions of others is a primary mo-tivator for humans. Again, a motivated employee isan engaged employee who will work to exceed statusquo boundaries. Organizations that try to control theiremployees are fighting this inner desire, and by doingso, they may stifle creativity, productivity, and em-ployee engagement
the very things that they aretrying to enhance.
How Do You Create a Positive Environment?
GEI has realized the importance of a positive workenvironment as a determining factor in great per-formance. Thus, it structured a relatively
flat
organi-zation in which management control is decentralizedand decision-making responsibility is shared by manypeople within the organization (rather than a handfulof employees). Because centralized control is limited,de facto autonomy has increased. Likewise, becausefewer decisions are made at thetop of the organization,responsibility has been pushed down throughout theorganization. Ultimately, the company
s broad direc-tion and global vision are decided upon by the com-pany
s leadership. Although these decisions may notplease everyone, in an open and positive environment,there exists the opportunity for employees to influencethe future of the company.To be successful, a firm must have people who areresponsible for themselves and accountable to eachother. This model of partnership and shared respon-sibility is one of GEI
s central features. We work inteams, we collaborate with our peers, and we aim tokeep internal competition at bay. Although competi-tion can
t be avoided entirely and small doses can serveas motivation, our goal is to avoid a cutthroat environ-ment. A collaborative environment enhances the feel-ing that we
re all in this together and often pushesemployees to go further than they would otherwisebecause they feel that their coworkers are countingon them.Beyond organizational structure, we seek to in-crease employee engagement through involvement.Staff members are not limited in their actions basedon years of experience or staff grade level. In fact, weencourage members across all different levels to workbeyond their current comfort level. In the same re-spect, major company decisions are not made withoutconsidering the interests and ideas of many peoplethroughout the organization, from our shareholdersto our technicians.
C
ULTURE OF
L
EARNING
We believe that establishing a culture of learning andcontinual professional development is important tothe long-term success of any organization. As respon-sibility and freedom are necessary to engage knowl-edge workers, so is continual development througheducation and training.We try to offer as many professional developmentand training opportunities to our staff as we can. Theyneed to learn new skills, learn from the knowledgethat exists within the organization, and be informedon the most recent developments in our industry.We offer technical seminars, on-the-job training,and external training opportunities in addition toformal and informal mentoring. Multifaceted profes-sional development provides a variety of learningopportunities and a different experience for ouremployees.We believe that mentoring is an important part of our culture and is especially valuable for younger staff members. Successful mentoring relationships helpdevelop confidence and provide direction as theseyounger employees set and accomplish career goals.Finding a balance between too much structure, whichcan be suffocating, and too little, which can leaveemployees feeling neglected, is a difficult challengein the development of junior staff. This is wherementoring relationships are most effective.The objective of mentoring is for employees to formconnections and become resources for one another.Mentoring relationships can be focused on technical,professional, or personal goals but are often most fruit-ful when they address all aspects of life. Forming con-nections with colleagues provides a sense of belongingand community that promotes a culture of together-ness. Because much of our work is done in teams,mentoring relationships and even friendships oftendevelop. Mentoring may be as simple as establishinga comfort level with a colleague that is useful whenadvice is needed or when issues arise on a project.Although mentoring relationships often develop nat-urally, implementing a structured but informal pro-gram can prompt an association that may nothappen organically.
A
PRIL
2013
Leadership and Management in Engineering 
98
Leadership Manage. Eng. 2013.13:96-100.
   D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   f  r  o  m   a  s  c  e   l   i   b  r  a  r  y .  o  r  g   b  y   H  o   l   l  y   K  o  p  p  e   l  o  n   0   4   /   1   6   /   1   3 .   C  o  p  y  r   i  g   h   t   A   S   C   E .   F  o  r  p  e  r  s  o  n  a   l  u  s  e  o  n   l  y  ;  a   l   l  r   i  g   h   t  s  r  e  s  e  r  v  e   d .

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