Loss was all around us in 2020. Recent polls found that between 20% and 33% of all Americans knew someone who died from COVID-19, while many millions lost jobs, life-affirming activities and other cherished freedoms during the pandemic.

In this installment of The Friedman File, we discuss how loss affects A/E/C businesses and the people who work in them. We examine this sad fact of life through the lens of a resilient architecture firm that encountered great loss in 2020, and – with strategic foresight and a rock-solid culture – expressed their collective grief and marched forward undeterred.

The Best Laid Plans…

JLG Architects was looking forward to a big 2020. The 150-person employee-owned firm carried a record backlog into the new year and was pursuing a jewel of a project – the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in Medora, North Dakota. With 11 offices in Minnesota, Massachusetts and the Dakotas, JLG was named one of the 50 Most Admired US Companies by MSN Money, the top ice hockey arena architect in the Upper Midwest by LuxLife and the 2019 Mountain States Firm of the Year by ENR.

CEO Michelle Mongeon Allen was entering her fourth year leading the firm, while the man she replaced, co-founder Lonnie Laffen, focused on his new mission to build JLG’s Sports Architecture Practice into a national force. It was working. The firm had 17 ice hockey stadium projects underway, from Connecticut to Colorado, and many more opportunities in the offing.

Then came March, and with it the pandemic, recession, delayed projects, stay-at-home orders, reduced revenue, masks and everything else the unexpected events of 2020 brought. Fifty-percent of JLG’s backlog had been put on hold by the end of March 2020.

Of course, COVID-19 touched everyone. Every company faced doubt and fear. Every leader was forced to deal with the reality of a worldwide pandemic as best they could, and JLG was no different. Until December 17.

Loss, Grief and Moving On

December 17 had been a good day for Allen and JLG. The board of directors had met, exchanged ideas, set plans, and celebrated winning the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library project. At about 9 pm that night, Michelle Allen’s phone rang. Lonnie Laffen, Allen’s longtime partner, mentor and friend, had suffered a heart attack. He passed away on December 23.

The sudden loss of a leader can be disastrous, especially for a professional services firm. Despite the smooth and successful transition to Allen, Laffen remained chairman and was still a notable presence in the firm he had started in Grand Forks with the late Gary Johnson in 1989. For his longtime clients, Laffen was still the face of JLG.

He was also a visionary, Allen says, and that included preparing for the day when he would no longer be part of the firm. “He always had such big, strong ideas,” she says. “He really believed that if he surrounded himself with great people and let them do their thing, that we would always get further than we thought we could go. That was the secret sauce, and it was how two people grew into an 11-office, 150-person firm.”

Part of that vision was taking the company to full employee ownership in 2014. After a record year, Laffen, Allen and the firm’s two other major shareholders agreed to forego distributions to create an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).

The firm grew even faster as an ESOP, and JLG now had a vehicle for ownership transition. The experience also underscored the need to prepare for leadership transition. “We created the ESOP to ensure JLG’s legacy; that the company would live on beyond us all,” says Allen. “That was also when we realized that we needed to plan for the time when Lonnie wouldn’t be there. So we started having conversations, internally and with other firms that had been through it. Lonnie decided we should just rip off the bandage and get it done.”

Having the foresight to transition was a key to helping JLG persevere without its founder, Allen says. Laffen had even begun grooming new leadership for the Sports Architecture Practice as he sought his next special project within the firm.

“The loss of our founder was very real and impacted us a great deal, but we were not all of a sudden leaderless,” says Allen. “We all know that the company can live beyond any individual; that’s really Lonnie’s legacy. The fact that we were confident and optimistic about the health and ongoing success of the company was hugely important. The overall strength of our organizational ecosystem kept us steady and secure. I hate to think of not having that in place and suddenly losing our friend and founder.”

Calming the Fears

As prepared as the firm was from an organizational perspective, the need to address the personal and emotional impact to its staff proved far more daunting. Laffen’s passing was only one of a series of devastating blows experienced by JLG employees. Other families braved illness and suffered tragedy, all compounded by the shared misery of the pandemic.

“We had different kinds of real personal loss throughout the year,” says Allen. “Deaths of family members and friends, but also loss of security and loss of lifestyle. There was so much uncertainty. How would this affect the company and the country? Would they have a job? Could they take care of their family? It seemed like there was a cloud over everything.”

From the pandemic’s outset, JLG was mindful to be honest and transparent, a continuation and expansion of its open-book management policy. The firm made concessions for chargeability goals; underutilized staff were assigned to strategic initiatives that would benefit the firm as it emerged from the pandemic. It eased financial performance expectations, reducing expenses (e.g., suspending the 401(k) match) to lower their break-even while maintaining a high multiplier goal to avoid developing bad habits. Leadership also communicated with clients to reconfigure the project pipeline to fill workload gaps. The constant message to the staff was always positive. The mantra became “Keep Calm, and JLG On.”

“We knew that a lot of bad things could happen, but we had a robust strategic plan and vision,” says Allen. “We connected with people across the organization and we weren’t afraid to talk about anything. As an ESOP, we always make decisions that balance our near-term needs with long-term sustainability. Culturally, what you consider expendable is different in an ESOP. But we didn’t know what was going to happen, so we never made any promises. We never said that there wouldn’t be layoffs.”

There haven’t been. As spring 2021 arrived, JLG’s backlog was improved. Normal performance goals for 2020 and 2021 are off prior years, but the company was able to begin hiring, instead of laying off.

The Emotional Toll

Pushing a positive message, communicating openly and doing what was necessary to keep the firm’s doors open calmed fears and reassured staff that their livelihoods were secure. That was only part of the equation, however, as the emotional aspects needed to be addressed. In an unexpected twist, steps that JLG took during the early days of the pandemic helped guide its response in December.

Seeing how shaken its people were by the pandemic, JLG’s leaders realized that their clients were likely experiencing similar sentiments. The firm created a four-part online webinar series focused on recovery and reinvention, and invited clients to participate. Topics included change and risk management, medical and mental health trends, team motivation and indoor air quality for safe return to work.

“We started looking at our clients more as organizations,” says Allen. “Regardless of whether they’re an institutional, corporate or developer client, they were all going through a lot of change just as we were. Their employees were struggling with loss and uncertainty, too. And that really connected us to our clients. We could see common threads of concerns and issues, no matter what industry.”

Viewing their clients externally aided JLG’s understanding of its internal needs. The firm fast-tracked a planned initiative called “Career Advisors” to help counter the stress of working remotely while dealing with family issues and all other effects of the pandemic. Modeled after the “Battle Buddies” concept from the military, it tethers every employee to a colleague a level higher in the organization who can check in on them to ensure that they are well, both personally and professionally. Employees can also turn to their Advisor for questions or in times of stress.

The client webinar also helped inform JLG’s approach after Lonnie Laffen passed. When the firm contracted with its Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to provide group counseling sessions, Allen and her team could better direct the EAP on program specifics. The first was on grief and loss, and how to process it, while the second addressed how to create and participate in a support network.

“If all this had happened in 2018, we wouldn’t have fallen apart, but we also would not have been as well-positioned as we were,” says Allen. “Our radar would not have been up as much to connect to the personal needs of our individuals. In responding to everything that was going on, we got more in tune with the people in our organization in a much more dialed-in way.”

The peculiar circumstances of the pandemic altered many things of daily life, including dealing with death. With no capacity to physically gather to collectively express grief, a death can leave even greater emptiness among friends and loved ones.

“We struggled to mourn,” says Allen, who counted Lonnie Laffen among her closest friends. “There’s this power of mourning together and bringing some closure, and we didn’t have access to some of those things. So we just had to acknowledge and speak openly about loss. The EAP sessions allowed people to come together and talk about loss, but at an arm’s length from a source outside the firm. It helped everyone understand how to tap into support networks and be there for each other.”

The need for the EAP session was reinforced when over 80% of the staff attended the first program. And while limitations on gathering during the pandemic challenged JLG’s efforts to sufficiently grieve, it taught a lesson as well.

“You have safety nets in a culture that aren’t going to be as strong when people aren’t physically together,” says Allen. “That’s one reason we implemented the Career Advisors program – to ensure that people still felt a personal connection and relationship within the company. Under the circumstances of the pandemic, when we personally and organizationally experienced real loss, we realized that we had to be more deliberate about our approach to supporting people in the organization. We’re communicating constantly and consistently, and leaning more into connecting on a human level. It’s helping us, as a company and as individuals, to heal.”

Balancing the needs of the firm with the needs of the people in it is always a challenge, but never more so than when dealing with tragedy and loss. Do you have a story, whether related to the pandemic or not, that could help others better prepare to successfully confront loss in their firm? Tell me about your firm’s experience at rich@friedmanpartners.com or (508) 276-1101.