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Developing High-Performing Organizations: Keys to Recruiting, Retaining, and Developing People Who Make the Difference
BEN SAWA
AND

SONIA SWIFT

ABSTRACT: Over the past 5 years, the economy has been unsettled. As a result, the culture 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, companies are 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 which everyone 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 more detail than it is in this paper. However, our goal is to show that implementing a few simple 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 employees are happy and feel that they are contributing to the company’s overall goal. A company cannot be successful without devoted employees.

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he only constant in life is change. Anyone who’s lived through the past 5 years of economic ups and downs knows how true this statement can be. The stock market saw record highs, homeowner property values skyrocketed, and companies enjoyed consistent double-digit growth and profits. There seemed to be no end in sight. Then, all that good fortune evaporated as quickly as it had been created. For the 20 years preceding the crash, the economic policy had been to promote leverage and asset price appreciation in an effort to keep consumers pumping money into the economy. They obliged, and the economy benefited by growing at a record pace. Unfortunately for us, there reached a point 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 “new normal”—one defined by lower demand driven by lower availability of credit and leverage. What does this mean? It means that in a lower growth economy, competition to sell goods and, particularly, services will be as fierce as ever, and firms will explore new strategies to compete. Some will work; some will not. Some firms will succeed, and some will disappear. So, our story begins. What can firms do to remain competitive? How can they maintain or increase market share, growth, and profitability in this new economy? The old adage “people are our most important assets” gets a lot of lip service, but the firms that truly believe this will be the most successful. This is because people have the knowledge, skills, and relationships that make a thriving and productive firm. To create competitive advantages through people, an organization should focus on promoting the following: 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 which everyone is committed to excellence; 4. Open communication and collaboration; and 5. Strong leadership to challenge and support employees to reach higher levels of success. We will show you examples of ways that our firm, GEI Consultants, Inc., has attempted to create a culture and organization that is aligned with these
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beliefs. GEI was founded in 1970 in Boston, where its headquarters is still based today. It is a privately held company of 530 consulting engineers, scientists, and business systems support staff, with 26 offices throughout the United States. Its core technical practices are geotechnical, water resources, environmental and ecological science and engineering consulting. GEI Consultants, Inc., has completed more than 35,000 projects, in all 50 U.S. states and more than 20 countries. Although we use GEI as our primary example, we do not mean to imply that we have the right organization or management philosophy. However, this approach has worked for us and it might work for you too. INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY AND AUTONOMY Our image of the average worker in America has undergone tremendous change in the past 200 years. From farmers to factory workers and now to “knowledge workers” (a term coined by Peter Drucker for people who work with information rather than things), the change has been nothing less than remarkable. The outdated carrot-and-stick strategy for motivating and engaging employees no longer applies to today’s knowledge workers. Companies that realize this and engage their staff through freedom, inclusion, and shared responsibility are more apt to have happy, motivated employees. Such employees will deliver better solutions to problems, be more efficient, and ultimately drive organizations to new levels of growth and profitability.
Why Are Responsibility and Autonomy So Important? Most professionals, especially high-performing ones, crave high levels of responsibility. It is part of their psychological makeup. Moreover, responsibility lends itself to a true feeling of accomplishment and progress in one’s job. When employees feel that they are making a difference, they become engaged. Autonomy means an employee can direct his or her own actions to complete tasks and solve problems within the general context of the organization. More often than not, people don’t like being told exactly what to do and exactly how to do it. Anyone who is a parent knows the power of autonomy. Although threatening a child to comply through coercion will often work in the short term, teaching a child over time what the right things to do are and why they should do them will ultimately
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lead them to make good decisions on their own. Companies work the same way—if they create a culture that values and rewards good decisions, their employees will instinctively employ good judgment and make well-informed choices. Having this ability to make autonomous decisions and influence the decisions of others is a primary motivator for humans. Again, a motivated employee is an engaged employee who will work to exceed status quo boundaries. Organizations that try to control their employees are fighting this inner desire, and by doing so, they may stifle creativity, productivity, and employee engagement—the very things that they are trying to enhance.
How Do You Create a Positive Environment? GEI has realized the importance of a positive work environment as a determining factor in great performance. Thus, it structured a relatively “flat” organization in which management control is decentralized and decision-making responsibility is shared by many people within the organization (rather than a handful of employees). Because centralized control is limited, de facto autonomy has increased. Likewise, because fewer decisions are made at the top of the organization, responsibility has been pushed down throughout the organization. Ultimately, the company’s broad direction and global vision are decided upon by the company’s leadership. Although these decisions may not please everyone, in an open and positive environment, there exists the opportunity for employees to influence the future of the company. To be successful, a firm must have people who are responsible for themselves and accountable to each other. This model of partnership and shared responsibility is one of GEI’s central features. We work in teams, we collaborate with our peers, and we aim to keep internal competition at bay. Although competition can’t be avoided entirely and small doses can serve as motivation, our goal is to avoid a cutthroat environment. A collaborative environment enhances the feeling that we’re all in this together and often pushes employees to go further than they would otherwise because they feel that their coworkers are counting on them. Beyond organizational structure, we seek to increase employee engagement through involvement. Staff members are not limited in their actions based on years of experience or staff grade level. In fact, we encourage members across all different levels to work beyond their current comfort level. In the same respect, major company decisions are not made without
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considering the interests and ideas of many people throughout the organization, from our shareholders to our technicians. CULTURE LEARNING

OF

We believe that establishing a culture of learning and continual professional development is important to the long-term success of any organization. As responsibility and freedom are necessary to engage knowledge workers, so is continual development through education and training. We try to offer as many professional development and training opportunities to our staff as we can. They need to learn new skills, learn from the knowledge that exists within the organization, and be informed on the most recent developments in our industry. We offer technical seminars, on-the-job training, and external training opportunities in addition to formal and informal mentoring. Multifaceted professional development provides a variety of learning opportunities and a different experience for our employees. We believe that mentoring is an important part of our culture and is especially valuable for younger staff members. Successful mentoring relationships help develop confidence and provide direction as these younger employees set and accomplish career goals. Finding a balance between too much structure, which can be suffocating, and too little, which can leave employees feeling neglected, is a difficult challenge in the development of junior staff. This is where mentoring relationships are most effective. The objective of mentoring is for employees to form connections and become resources for one another. Mentoring relationships can be focused on technical, professional, or personal goals but are often most fruitful when they address all aspects of life. Forming connections with colleagues provides a sense of belonging and community that promotes a culture of togetherness. Because much of our work is done in teams, mentoring relationships and even friendships often develop. Mentoring may be as simple as establishing a comfort level with a colleague that is useful when advice is needed or when issues arise on a project. Although mentoring relationships often develop naturally, implementing a structured but informal program can prompt an association that may not happen organically.
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CHALLENGING WORK ENVIRONMENTS AND COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE One of the keys to maintaining employee engagement is creating a challenging work environment. Everybody loves a challenge, right? Well, the professional services worker is no exception. Organizations that constantly push employees to work outside their comfort zone often find that employees develop faster and are more engaged in their projects. This is because professionals often lead lives of perpetual development. To develop their assets, they need to continually learn new skills and master old ones. The challenging work environment, then, is essential to professional growth.
Standard Operating Procedure GEI was built on technical excellence. The founders, many of whom studied with engineering greats such as Arthur Casagrande, realized that above all, a quality product is needed to attract and retain clients. This meant that every detail was important, from the calculations to the grammar used in the reports, and all products were meticulously developed and then peerreviewed. An outstanding product must be coupled with outstanding client service. Employees were encouraged to develop deep, trusting relationships with their clients. Cycle of Excellence In essence, by hiring and retaining motivated employees an organization can create a culture in which each employee is pushed by the others to succeed. If this environment is properly maintained, then it can become self-sustaining and, at the same time, continuously evolving. This subtle hint of competition nudges employees out of their comfort zone and pushes them to develop new skills. Once employees are hired, it is up to the organization to nurture them. Managers should always be thinking of new developmental opportunities for staff members. Whether exposing staff members to new and different project assignments or giving them greater responsibilities on the more repetitive tasks— it is up to the leadership to be acutely aware of the opportunities they are making available to their employees.

worldwide. We think that effective communication is one of the most important determinants of performance in decentralized organizations. Communication can be thought of as the glue that binds an organization. It ensures that everyone is pulling in the same direction and working toward the same goals, while not duplicating work or inefficiently using resources. Ineffective communication is no doubt detrimental to an organization. From lowering employee morale to leading to decisions that might paralyze the firm, poor communication can have disastrous effects. Open communication leads to collaboration, which is the process of working together to realize shared goals. Within a company, this often means that people, project teams, and offices work together to reach the company’s overarching goals. At GEI, people make decisions that are in the best interest of the company and its stakeholders, rather than making decisions on the basis of what might be best for them. High levels of collaboration are another indicator of high performance. In collaborative environments the typical barriers to operations do not exist. People, teams, and divisions feel able to reach out to one another and to do what is best for the organization.
We’re Not Perfect GEI has seen firsthand the results of ineffective communication, and we have realized that as an organization, there are things that we can do better. GEI leadership became committed to creating more effective communication and addressed the problem of poor communication through a company-wide learning and training program that focused on improving dialogue. The program, now called SMART conversations, seemed to be a natural fit for the firm. It promoted clear and concise principles of effective communication that were actionable and relatable to real work situations.

OPEN COMMUNICATION AND COLLABORATION We all know the importance of communication in an organization; many workers cite poor communication as the single biggest problem in organizations
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LEADERSHIP Thus far we have discussed key aspects of successful organizations and explained how these aspects are handled within GEI. As we progressed in our research, we realized that the central theme connecting these topics was leadership. In general, a company’s leadership sets the tone and determines the culture within an organization. The leadership determines what type of work the company pursues, the opportunities offered to its employees, their progress, the overall tone and attitude of the work environment, and the vision
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for the future of the company. Although employees can take responsibility for some issues, they need the support and encouragement of the company’s leadership to be successful. What is most important is the company leadership’s interest in and commitment to its employees as individuals, not only as a vehicle from which to profit. The leadership at GEI is involved in the day-to-day operations of the company, the company’s global vision for the future, and the professional development of every employee. The leadership genuinely cares about its employees, their happiness, and their professional and personal success. They are committed to developing programs and encouraging behavior that will contribute to the professional abilities and advancement of their employees. We are proud of both the culture we work in and the technical services we deliver to our clients. The expectation is that employees will work to their full potential and respect the commitment to excellence that the founders envisioned. We acknowledge that the company would have a drastically different environment without strong, fair, and devoted leadership committed to decentralized decision making. While our company is certainly not perfect, it has grown and changed significantly over the past

40 years. Its ability to undergo such dramatic change without losing sight of the founders’ intention of creating an atmosphere of community, collaboration, and comfort is a testament to the leadership of the company today. All the issues we have discussed contribute to the success of organizations, and while an organization may be successful without implementing these ideas, their application can only improve the success, productivity, and culture of engineering firms. These elements—individual responsibility and autonomy, a culture of learning, challenge, a commitment to excellence, and open communication—are woven together by strong, enlightened leadership with an equal commitment to excellence and to its employees.

Ben Sawa is a project manager at GEI Consultants, Inc., in Woburn, Massachusetts. He can be e-mailed at bsawa@geiconsultants.com.

Sonia Swift is a project engineer at GEI Consultants, Inc., in Woburn, Massachusetts. She can be e-mailed at sswift@geiconsultants.com. LME

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