Craig Goehring is a professional engineer and a student of leadership. Both skills have been put to the test in recent years as he has steadily changed the organizational structure of Brown and Caldwell.
“We have morphed over time from a very locally led business to a matrix-type organization to what I would now call a virtual organization,” says Goehring, the environmental engineering and construction firm’s chairman and CEO.
“A lot of our business is with local municipalities and governments, so we need to be in a lot of towns,” Goehring says. “But most of our workforce doesn’t come into an office. They are not geographically dependent for their work. Someone could be based in Arizona, but working in New York.”
Brown and Caldwell was founded nearly 70 years ago. Goehring came to the firm in 1977 as a project engineer and progressed through various technical and management roles before being appointed CEO in 1995.
The 1,500-employee company has 55 locations spread across the United States and uses its scientific expertise and engineering innovation to find solutions that work for its customers.
But as they do that, they adapt to a company structure that is likely to become more and more common across all industries in the years ahead.
“Virtual is much more free-flowing, much more from the ground up or bottom up,” Goehring says. “There is a heavy reliance on technology and on remote teams, people you may never meet face to face. It’s much different than running a company with a brick-and-mortar location and a local leadership structure to support it. There is a challenge when you make the transition. Can the leader who was effective in a locally based structure be effective in a virtual model?”
Accountability is a must
As Goehring looks at his own ability to adapt to leading a virtual business, he sees mostly positives.
“I’ve enjoyed the transition and the company is progressing well,” Goehring says. “Being students of leadership is what has allowed us to lead through these transitions. It’s pretty substantial moving from more of a franchise model that is locally driven, managed and led to a virtual organization.”
Over the past five years, one of the major points of emphasis has been shifting from a classical strategic and operating type of metric to one that focus on organizational health.
“What’s the morale like? What’s the level of engagement? What’s the political climate? Do you have high politics or low politics? If you’re healthy, you would be low on politics, high morale, low turnover and high employee engagement of very talented people,” he says.
Engagement can be much more difficult for the leader who is not willing to adapt. You can’t just pop into the offices of your team and come away with a sense of how everyone is doing. Your team is scattered across the country. Trust becomes a must.
“The leader has to have a trust-based approach by necessity because you can’t see everybody,” he says. “A high level of trust has to be built not only from the leader’s approach, but ultimately the culture of the organization in order to stay healthy in a virtual environment.”
Unlike a traditional business where most people come into the office in the morning and leave in the evening, employees and leaders in a virtual structure often have the flexibility to set their own schedules.
“In a fixed model, you might not be dictating hours and terms explicitly, but there is a certain expectation of when you’ll be in the office and when you’ll be working,” Goehring says. “In the virtual model, there has to be a high level of trust that people are going to fulfill their responsibilities within the parameters that are set up. You’re trusting that they are going to get the work done and not be concerned about when they are doing that.”
Accountability and responsibility must be part of the foundation. If you don’t have that, or if you’re the type of person who is constantly worried about what your people are doing, you’re going to find it very difficult to succeed in a virtual environment.
“If you’re not a trusting type, but someone who needs to see things more physically based and you look at things as glass half-empty versus more optimism, you could definitely create a lot of pressure for yourself,” he says.
In the end, it comes down to some of the same principles that any leader or organization should follow. If you hire people that you trust, you need to be able to trust them and believe that they will get the job done that you are asking them to do.
“You end up not redefining accountability, but talking about it a lot more and the importance of self-accountability,” Goehring says. “It’s just contemplating everybody operating virtually all over the place in contrast to in the office.
“The contribution to the team isn’t as immediately obvious when you are virtual as it is when you’re local. That self-accountability is one you end up emphasizing more to get the results and to avoid that dropoff in performance.”
Communication also becomes a vital piece to achieving success as your company branches out beyond the four walls of the traditional office.
“It really is doubling down on communication,” he says. “We’re advocates of repeating and multiple reps on the same subject to ensure we make the connection in this virtual model to get high employee engagement.”