AEC Groundbreaking Growth

Leadership Trends in the AEC Industry: Past, Present and Future

October 30, 2023 Stambaugh Ness Season 1 Episode 7
Leadership Trends in the AEC Industry: Past, Present and Future
AEC Groundbreaking Growth
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AEC Groundbreaking Growth
Leadership Trends in the AEC Industry: Past, Present and Future
Oct 30, 2023 Season 1 Episode 7
Stambaugh Ness

Dive into the world of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC), exploring leadership trends, industry insights, and the stories of those making a mark in the field.

In this episode, hosts Emily Lawrence and Jen Knox sit down with a special guest, Emily Preston, the president of Compass Infrastructure Group, a civil engineering firm based in Columbus, Ohio, to explore the leadership methods and office culture that have played a pivotal role in their rapid success, including a commitment to collaboration and the importance of diverse perspectives. Discover the remarkable journey of Compass Infrastructure Group, a company that went from a small startup in 2020 to a flourishing organization in just a few years.

Don't miss out on this insightful conversation about leadership, culture, and the bright future of the AEC industry.

🔔 Don't miss out! Subscribe to Groundbreaking Growth on your favorite podcast platform. Let's ignite growth, shape the future of the AEC industry, and redefine what's possible. Are you ready for some groundbreaking growth? Let's dive in! 🚀💼

Show Notes Transcript

Dive into the world of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC), exploring leadership trends, industry insights, and the stories of those making a mark in the field.

In this episode, hosts Emily Lawrence and Jen Knox sit down with a special guest, Emily Preston, the president of Compass Infrastructure Group, a civil engineering firm based in Columbus, Ohio, to explore the leadership methods and office culture that have played a pivotal role in their rapid success, including a commitment to collaboration and the importance of diverse perspectives. Discover the remarkable journey of Compass Infrastructure Group, a company that went from a small startup in 2020 to a flourishing organization in just a few years.

Don't miss out on this insightful conversation about leadership, culture, and the bright future of the AEC industry.

🔔 Don't miss out! Subscribe to Groundbreaking Growth on your favorite podcast platform. Let's ignite growth, shape the future of the AEC industry, and redefine what's possible. Are you ready for some groundbreaking growth? Let's dive in! 🚀💼

Emily Lawrence: Hi, everyone; welcome to today's episode of the Groundbreaking Growth podcast. I'm your host, Emily Lawrence, here with my co-host, Jen Knox, and we are very excited today to have a special guest, Emily Preston, with us. 

Jen Knox: Yeah. So, as Emily Lawrence said, we've got a new guest actually from the AEC industry that we're super excited to talk leadership trends.

Emily is actually the president of Compass Infrastructure Group, a civil engineering firm based in Columbus, Ohio. To kick us off and get our listeners familiar with you. Can you give us a little bit of background on Compass's history and what it is you do as a firm?

Emily Preston: As a firm, my co-founder and I founded the firm in March of 2020, so we've been operating for just under four years now. We started out performing bridge engineering design and have expanded our service line to include roadway survey and traffic design. We work primarily with public transportation clients. So the Ohio Department of Transportation, county engineer cities here in Ohio, and we've grown from 2 to 25 people, and we just really like designing transportation.

Jen Knox: Well, let me just say that growth is pretty amazing for the short period of time you've been in business, and we all know it's been tough. We've had a lot of headwinds economically and with the workforce and retaining and attracting talent. Can you walk us through a little bit about that growth and maybe what you feel is attracting talent to your firm?

Emily Preston: When we started out the firm, my co-founder and I were both bridge engineers by background. So we started out by pursuing smaller bridge design projects, culvert designs, and single-span bridge replacements (what we would consider small bridges in our industry), and we were able to self-perform, between the two of us, the majority of the design work on those, and over time, we had enough single-span bridges and culvert replacements that we felt like we could add on a roadway engineer to do the roadway plans for the approach work. As we continued on into the firm, we started pursuing slightly larger and larger projects and eventually were able to bring on a roadway department manager. And then looked at our workload and said, "Hey, we're giving out now over $100,000 in surveys every year." You know, that sounds like a person. So, we pursued a survey candidate and were able to bring them on board. We were able to start performing more and more of each project. And then also larger and larger projects. My co-founder and I worked for a mid-sized regional firm prior to starting Compass and had experience working on a lot of very large transportation projects in the state of Ohio, $250 million-plus construction projects. And we also did single-span bridge replacements while we were there as well. But when we came to the new firm, you were really building the reputation of the firm from day one. And that is so important to our story is just the trust that people were putting in us, even from day one, to select a new firm, a completely new firm that they hadn't worked with before.

Now we do know in our industry, everything's pretty relationship-based. So, we did have some preexisting relationships that really allowed us to pursue the type of work we were interested in at the beginning and get selected successfully for it. Now, as for adding the talent, it's kind of a long story to get to 25 from two. But what I will say is, in year one, it was just the two of us. We added our first full-time employee in January of 2021. And in 2021, we went from 2 to 7 people by the end of the year. We added five people. It was a joke because we initially would meet in the basement of my house. We didn't have any physical office space. It was during COVID. 

Jen Knox: It's almost like a Steve Jobs-like garage startup. 

Emily Preston: Yeah, absolutely; we talk about employees there. They'll make jokes with each other as to whether they were somebody who had their onboarding in my basement or not because now we do have physical office space. But that first year, the first couple of people that we hired, it was nerve-racking for my co-founder and I because you're almost like, are these people going to trust that we're going to pay them?

But luckily, in our industry, it's a pretty small group of people. And I think that the people in our area recognize the integrity and just character overall that Gary and I bring to the table. And they trusted us these first couple employees. And so to add five people in a year, that's one employee every 2 to 3 months, you can kind of find that number of people.

The second year, we went from 7 to 18, so we added 11 people, and as we started pursuing these different types of projects, slightly larger, people saw that we were delivering what we were promising, that the quality was really good. The word got out really quickly, and people were using us for some consulting roles, and people were excited about what we were doing. And there was a buzz in our local engineering community about it. I think there was some excitement tied to that. So when we have an open position, there were people that did kind of jump on it and say, I want to be a part of that, because I think they could kind of see that we had something good going.

Jen Knox: Emily Lawrence, that story, I feel like it resonates with a little bit of the trends were hearing around leadership and that kind of small startup, almost entrepreneurial type dynamic, kind of the change of the leadership trends we're seeing, Right? 

Emily Lawrence: Yeah. And really, I think people wanting to be a part of something, and it's kind of an interesting situation that you had of, of really having this startup feel, and people could join the company and feel like they're helping develop something and develop a vision for it. And we have we've heard a lot from our clients that maybe this just traditional path to leadership of like, okay, I'll start out a company and, hopefully, get paid while or, you know, and kind of grind my first couple of years and then maybe move up and then maybe move up from there and hopefully develops and skills along the way. That's maybe not as appealing. And really, what people want is to be part of something and to feel like their voices are heard, and like they're part of something. So when you started this firm, Emily, what was your why? What was your purpose? Why did you choose to go this route? 

Emily Preston: So it can be a long-winded story, but I think I knew kind of early on that I was interested in entrepreneurship. My dad was an electrical engineer, and he started his own company in 2000, so I sort of got to witness him take some risks. I'm the oldest of six kids, and my mom was a stay-at-home mom at the time. So, the true risk is having six kids under ten and a stay-at-home wife and starting your own company.

What I didn't feel very risky in comparison, so I had that as kind of a back story in the back of my mind of, Oh, I could maybe do this. But, you know, as I got into my working career and worked at my previous firm, I got a lot of really great opportunities. I had great mentors and was able to work on some really cool projects in the region.

And really, they allowed me to see what teaming looked like, what the budgets were, helping write scoping fees, and a lot of different things that allowed me to see the industry and just what the upward mobility looked like in that firm. And also to see how, if I did that for myself, what all the pieces go into this. And I started to see the DBE type of firms in our area.

A lot of them had either been bought by another firm or graduated out of the program. So there was this kind of void in the market that you could kind of see. And so I think I always thought maybe it would be ten years from now or something that I'd start a company. And it just kind of worked out that my co-founder and I got the conversation going just kind of by happenstance, and we were both interested in doing that now.

So my why, like I said, I got really great opportunities at my previous firm. They were a family-owned company, so there were some ceilings to what opportunities might be available. But it's not that I ever wanted to be the president of a firm. I actually never I had really thought that through that much. 

Jen Knox: Well, you're there now.

Emily Preston: Yes, I'm there now. But what I did realize is that when you're in a company that's existed for, say, 50 years, they've set up a company in a culture in a way that really worked for the people that were there at the time, and the people that have come up through the ranks over time.

If I see a policy that needs to be changed, I am definitely somebody who would take the initiative, come up with the correct information, present it to the right people, and work through how to get other people on board to make that change. And I could have done that, and I could have done that in that company. But you do that enough, and, sometimes, I could have seen where, if I had done that my whole career, maybe there'd be some pushback. It never happened while I was there. But I was like, well, you could start something from scratch and really mold it in the way that you want it to be done. And there are definitely some differences in the way we're setting this company up from scratch.

And it's something that we talk back to the talent that we were able to attract. We really use that in our job descriptions, and when we marketed, the role was, help us mold this new company and be a key person in molding this company. And people really were excited about that. And that's part of the reason we were able to attract certain people is because they definitely saw that they would be able to help mold the new company.

So, for me, being able to start fresh in the year that we're in and with the technology that we have, we don't have archaic systems that got started with hand drafting and things like that. We get the chance to start fresh and not have to go through some sort of new implementation of the new software.

So it's a little easier to make those decisions now; in 20 years, I'm sure somebody will be griping about the way you set it up, but I'll deal with that then.

Jen Konx: That's the great thing about generational change. We each have the opportunity as we're coming up to either: One, Be part of implementing that change at an existing organization, or, Two, have the opportunity to clean slate and start and build it ourselves. 

So I wonder, Emily, you talk about this talent you were able to bring in, and it sounds like it's top-tier talent. And, your firm has been not just growing but financially very successful. You were named PSMJ Circle of Excellence in 2023. Do you feel like that success ties back to this leadership method and to building it collaboratively?

Emily Preston: We have focused our hiring on value-based hiring, so we've identified key things that we think differentiate us from our competitors and try to focus on finding talent that fits those values. And collaboration is absolutely one of the top ones. We have a very you go and check type personalities in our firm. So that's from the leadership of my co-founder and I down.

For example, Am I going to listen to someone's complaint isn't the right word, but they're constructive advice and take it well and make a change, or maybe politely say, we decided to go this other direction, but everyone else is paying attention to that.

And so throughout the company, they're realizing, what are we willing to accept here? You see it on a day-to-day basis in our technical staff: a lot of the work that we do when it comes to calculation, somebody is performing the calculations, someone's checking the calculations. There's a thousand ways to design a bridge. Are there better ways? Maybe, but there are probably adequate ways as well. And so when you have somebody that's designing a checking, we want them to have that constructive nature to the conversation that they're having if they have a disagreement. And I've definitely been in conversations, in my previous firm, with other people that maybe weren't in that kind of constructive mindset. And that's a difficult environment to be in. And, when we talk about being able to retain people in the workforce and burnout, having a really high-stress environment where you're scared of the criticism or that feedback that you're going to get is not a place that emerging leaders want to be. That constructive environment is it kind of reduces your stress overall. You know you're not going to have somebody beat you up because you didn't do it exactly their way. 

Emily Lawrence: Yeah. Right. And as you're kind of developing that leadership style in that office culture, you talked about being a little bit more agile in decision-making and sort of being able to implement newer technologies really easily. But when you're running those meetings or when you're developing this collaborative culture there, what are some of the things that you're doing and maybe talking to peers that are in leadership positions? What are some of the really important things that you are seeing right now?

Emily Preston: For us as a company, I try to get buy-in from our senior leadership team very frequently. To be honest. I come from ten years of experience at my previous firm; I have members of my leadership team who have 30 years of experience. So, very quickly, I know I'm not the smartest person in the room at everything; it's very obvious, so I really have to surround myself with these different people who have a lot of experience in each of them. The cool thing about bringing these people from all these different companies, these 25 different people, is you get the perspective of 25 other companies.

These people are bringing in all kinds of ideas on things that we could implement into our company. And so we really take this. We look at other companies that are in our industry, and we say, okay, this one is one we really want to be like when we grow up. And we also take ones, and we might say, maybe that's not something that we want to do?

And it's not that it's the wrong thing to do, and they're doing it wrong. It's that it's not the right thing for Compass, based on these values, the direction that we're going. I think we just use a lot of collaboration.

Jen Knox: Yeah. And it sounds like diverse perspectives, right? Pulling on the knowledge of 25 different firms, and I'm going to throw this question in there, and I don't know if it's because I don't know your staff breakdown. Do you find the culture, your building, and the leadership style that your management and leadership team has, do you think that's attractive to Gen Z as well? Because that's something that we hear so much from other clients and industry organizations, how do we get this next generation really excited about joining our firm, staying in our firms, and being successful with them?

Emily Preston: The first thing I'll say that I've noticed about kind of that newer wave of folks coming in is, and I'm trying to think how to put this. We've found that they want to be in the office, and they want to be learning directly with people, and they really emphasize what their expectations are of training and of having that interaction early on.

We first got our first office space. I think we were probably eight people, and we happened to interview somebody on a Friday. And it was just the two people who were interviewing them in the office. We have a four-day work in the office, one day work from home, and they walk through, and they ended up turning us down for our offer because they're like, "There's nobody in the office. Who am I going to learn from?" And so they're very conscientious of what that training is going to look like. And definitely, in interviews, I've had to ask many times from that new grad type of perspective, what's the ongoing training going to look like for me? They're really focused on that and how they're being developed as a person.

I also think from some of the more recent grads that are kind of those emerging leaders, up-and-comers, I've noticed that they have a much clearer picture of what their why is much earlier than and me and my friends ever did. It probably took me a couple of years ago to be like, why am I doing this?

I think some of them are coming out, and I don't know if they're being coached for that in college, but they have a clearer picture of what their why is, much, much sooner. 

Emily Lawrence: And I think that's something that I've noticed, too; there are so many different opportunities, and there are so many different ways to start a career, start a profession. But younger generations want to be part of something. They want to be part of a vision. And part of that want is having your own vision of what you want your career to look like. It's this sense of ownership of your career and of your profession and wanting to drive some of that. I think that it's really interesting how that is coming about in these interviews or career beginnings. But it's definitely something that we've heard a lot; I want to be part of something; I want a vision. And so yeah, that's, that's an interesting observation to come about.

Jen Knox: Yeah, and kind of taking that and maybe looking towards the future. My background is mostly in construction, so I think of that cultural dynamic of kind of growing up on the job side. I grew up around construction as well, and I think about the future, and I'm actually really excited because I think there's a great opportunity for kind of the collaboration where we've been talking about here to extend to project teams as a whole, right? And that execution in the field and even in the design phase and coordination phase. So I'm super excited about AEC, and I think some firms may be facing this challenge where no one wants to raise their hand to leadership and step into those kind of firm leadership roles. But I think knowing your story, Emily, if we're positioning them to create their own type of leadership dynamic and their own leadership culture, I think we can do amazing things as an industry.

And Emily, as we kind of close out here, anything to add on your leadership journey, the culture you're building there, or really what you see for your firm in the industry in the next five, ten years?

Emily Preston: As you said, I think it's an exciting time as we have an unprecedented amount of money coming into the industry in terms of design and construction. For me, and I think for a lot of the people who are in engineering, we take a lot of pride in the work that we're doing, and it is a noble profession. It's not something that's super glamorous. You could go to a lot of other industries and probably make a lot more money, and the types of minds that end up in engineering could easily work in the banking or business sector. So trying to find a way to market what this noble passion sort of thing is about our AEC industry, where we're progressing society as a whole, can really be used to our advantage because I think then we find the right people that are in it for the right reasons that kind of align with what we're trying to do here.

We're focused on that as a firm because we filled a lot of our kind of senior leadership team, middle leadership team, and we focused on that before we went to hire a bunch of entry levels because we wanted to make sure that we can really devote the time that's necessary to train them in the right way. So, over the next year or two, we're going to be starting to develop our pipeline of entry-level, less experienced engineers that we're bringing up. And so we're going to learn how well we can train people from scratch as a new company, which is pretty exciting. But I mean, with the horizon of our industry, where it's going with technology, all of that overall, it's an exciting time just to be doing what we're doing. And I'm super proud of the people and the work that they're doing for our company, and I'm excited for the next couple of years and where it takes Compass and all the folks that have really jumped on board our ship to be a part of it and help mold something really cool. 

Jen Knox: Yeah, well, if the past has any inclination of the future, you're you've got a great future ahead of you. And I know you've said it's all the team that's there that's done it. So we're excited for you, and we'd love to stay connected to your journey and maybe talk again in the near future. 

Emily Lawrence: Thanks so much.