Growing a firm comes with many challenges, but maintaining a strong company culture can be one of the more difficult. It’s also becoming more important as firms compete for the talent they need to meet their goals.
In this issue of The Friedman File, we go behind-the-scenes with 110-person Nitsch Engineering (Boston, MA), a fast-growing firm that is putting its values-based workplace culture at the center of its growth plans.
In the past 5 years, the firm has grown by 45% in staff size and revenues, moving from a successful one-office firm to a larger regional player. Along the way, they’ve prioritized building on the firm’s award-winning progressive culture to attract and retain high-performing employees.
“I wanted a way to measure our culture – I’m an engineer,” says Chairman and CEO Lisa Brothers, PE. “I wanted to define that culture and keep it intact as we grow.” They’ve done it by implementing a comprehensive system of Core Values Assessments (CVAs) based on the Barrett Value System for Cultural Alignment.
“Like many firms, we already had core values,” Brothers says. But working with an organizational consultant, The LEGACY Center, Nitsch spent eight months evaluating, refining and setting up systems to assess how they live up to them. That involved surveying employees, holding working sessions to review values and the mission statement, aligning those things with their CVA results, identifying behaviors that support the values and rolling it all out to employees.
To engage staff, the in-house marketing team developed a fun buzz campaign around icons representing eight core values. They then held employee workshops and unveiled the new framed mission statement in posters and banners for central office areas and issued pocket-size mission statements and 32-card decks listing core values and behaviors.
Putting values to work
The CVAs are easy to take (the firm takes them every other year) and provide a wealth of actionable information, says Brothers. Participants choose their personal core values, the values they observe in the workplace and the values they desire in the workplace. The assessment then measures the level of values conflict, with a desirable score being under 10%. Firms with a score of less than 10% are value-driven, highly engaged workplaces. On its first assessment, Nitsch’s firm-wide score was 4% and the leadership team scored 1%. Firm-wide scores edged up to 5% when they added a second Massachusetts office, illustrating the challenges of exporting culture to new offices (and allowing the firm to address it).
“What makes this process remarkable is that it’s going beyond identifying core values to identifying the behaviors that demonstrate those values and measuring our progress to align ourselves with them, as a firm, as leaders and employees,” says Brothers.
Leaders are given 360 evaluations, personal coaching and action plans around their CVA results. The coaching is particularly important, she says, to allow leaders to better understand and use their results. For example, a manager who has recently changed behavior may have a higher score than they expected because the perceptions of the 20 people completing the evaluation are still catching up.
The ability to sort results by office and by demographics has also proved valuable. Millennial employees, for example, report a strong desired value of diversity, which led to the creation of a Diversity & Inclusion focused Employee Resource Group. “As a woman-owned firm where 38% of our engineers are women – well over the industry average of 12% – we’ve always been dedicated to advancing diversity and inclusion efforts,” says Brothers. “However, we learned from the CVA that our younger staff didn’t see that commitment on a daily basis. That drove us to more clearly define what a diverse workforce means for Nitsch, and take more active steps to improve diversity within our company and the industry.”
Managing for culture
One of Nitsch’s core values is work-life balance. Brothers herself worked a flexible 6-4 schedule as COO, with the support of founder Judy Nitsch. Behaviors around that include providing flexible work schedules, supporting outside commitments and encouraging staff to use their paid time off (PTO). But the firm also prioritizes managing workload spikes so that when people take paid time off, someone is there to handle the workload.
“No one here is expected to check in while on PTO,” says Brothers (who disconnected from the server while on her own summer vacation). “Some people can relax more if they check to see things are taken care of, but they know the firm doesn’t expect them to, and that means a lot! I tell everyone that if I felt I had to check in, that tells me I have not created a strong leadership team that can manage without me and that the same is true for everyone in the firm.”
Culture is a big part of the firm’s onboarding process. Core values are visible in each office and discussed in interviews. The card decks are issued to new hires. After 90 days, Brothers checks in with new employees by taking them to breakfast to talk more about their onboarding and the firm’s values.
Managers use the core values to define the goal of meetings, to evaluate employee performance, and to make and explain decisions. They’re also a tool for addressing workplace conflicts or concerns objectively.
“You can point to the behaviors and say, ‘Here is what we all agreed to and what we expect, but I am experiencing you doing something that doesn’t correlate with that,’” says Brothers. “Not everyone is comfortable with having those conversations and these defined behaviors can help.”
For example, missing deadlines for marketing deliverables without alerting those waiting on them does not align with respecting all employees. “In this culture, we’ve agreed that you deliver what you said you would or you let the other person know that you can’t, just as you would do with a client.”
Nitsch defines its value of transparency as sharing financial statements monthly with managers and twice a year with all employees. It means keeping employees in the loop about management decisions (Brothers uses a … directly to you custom letterhead to communicate personally to employees on important topics), listening generously and having an accessible leadership team.
Changing the game
When hiring senior-level people who have worked in other firms, the culture shock can be real and require 1:1 time to connect the dots between the firm’s values, behaviors and policies, she says. Seasoned employees may have to un-learn how they did things at their last job.
And it’s working. After years of rating as one of the AEC industry’s best places to work, in 2015, the Boston Globe rated Nitsch as its #4 small company Best Place to Work. By 2016, they were considered medium-sized and ranked #1 in that category. While 2017’s large field dropped them down the list, Nitsch welcomes that more companies are taking workplace culture seriously.
The firm’s CVA results also show that employee recognition is a highly observed, not just highly desired, value. That’s the result of intentional practices such as sharing client feedback and employee achievements internally; an HR-administered program for giving gift certificates as a thank you to colleagues; and bonuses for milestone anniversaries and PE/PLS certifications, along with lunch with the CEO to celebrate and encourage their career goals.
“For many years, our industry has believed that you work 8-5 with your head down at your desk all the time,” says Brothers. “That is not our culture, and we run a really good business, have always been profitable and have a highly engaged staff.”
“You have a corporate culture, whether you are intentional about it or not. If it’s not measured and intentional, you may get something you don’t want. What I want is a place where people want to come to work every day and be engaged. That could mean working on challenging projects, voicing an idea, or taking initiative – it creates a positive environment that contributes to the bottom line.”
What role is culture playing in your firm? Are you intentional about what you’re building, or letting it happen by default? Tell me more at firstname.lastname@example.org or (508) 276-1101.