Not for everyone
While Brown and Caldwell has made a fairly seamless transition to operating virtually, Goehring says it hasn’t been perfect.
“It’s ongoing and some don’t make it,” he says. “Some, even though they like the flexibility of both hours and location, they really are much better in a more controlled and fixed environment. Their performance drops off and it’s difficult for them to learn and feel comfortable with being more independently accountable, to elevate their communication and make a contribution to the team.
“All businesses on this path are challenged by that. The virtual model isn’t for everyone. It’s the leader’s job to sort out who can learn, who can motivate, who can contribute and who can perform in this model versus a more fixed environment.”
The key is to find ways to be connected, even if you’re not seeing the other people in the office every day.
“You have to have a broader understanding of how the organization is working,” he says. “You need to be really good at listening. It’s basic hygiene for a leader, but in a virtual company, one that wants to be healthy, there’s a real premium on listening for a leader.”
At Brown and Caldwell, Goehring says a system has been set up so that everyone understands how decisions get made and who is involved in that process. Do your best to eliminate surprises and set clear expectations so that even if you’re not in the same office, you understand how things get done and how matters are dealt with on a day-to-day basis.
“You clarify who is making the decision, who is involved in the decision, the expectations of everyone’s role and what happens if there is a conflict or stalemate,” he says. “You’ve talked about how stalemates get resolved and what happens. You provide clarity.
“That’s led to all kinds of success stories where we can have a dozen people involved in an important subject involving a customer and they are all located in different spots and have varied roles. But when they come together virtually, they all know how the decision is going to be made.
“That clarity has allowed us to move faster with speed and agility. We are able to have the good debates that are needed to make a sound decision, but also the clarity of how that decision gets made.”
Emotional intelligence is another important component to understand, perhaps even more critical than in a traditional office. When you send texts and emails, it can be difficult to convey the right emotions, even with emoticons and emojis. But you need to build that kind of connectedness to create a strong team with your people.
“It’s just understanding the human dynamics on a much more focused level,” he says. “Because you’re dealing with more variation on the structure, with people working at home or being on the move, there is more ambiguity.
“A leader has to be comfortable with that type of setting and be effective at communicating through multiple channels. That would be face to face, but then also via email, webcast and voicemail, among others.”
Thus far, the transition at Brown and Caldwell has been successful. The company is among the leading environmental firms in the nation, ranking 46th on Engineering News-Record’s Top 500 Design Firms list.
The firm’s geographic footprint is positioned for continued growth and diversification as environmental infrastructure needs grow. It is uniquely positioned as a business solely focused on the environmental sector.
“The future for us is bright and very much starts at the leadership level,” Goehring says. “The engagement of your employees — are they engaged or aren’t they engaged — has taken over for some of the basic productivity metrics. As the leader, you have to be very mindful of what’s the health of your organization or your part of the organization. If you can do that, you can be successful.” ●
- Hire people you can trust.
- Set up clear expectations with your team.
- Be comfortable with multiple communication channels.
The Goehring File
NAME: Craig Goehring
TITLE: Chairman and CEO
COMPANY: Brown and Caldwell
Born: Long Beach, California
Education: Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, University of Arizona
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? One would be Daniel Goleman, who introduced emotional intelligence to the business community, and Jim Collins, beginning with his “Built to Last” book. Goleman was just opening up the science of what used to be called the soft and fuzzy stuff that now is called human intelligence.
Previously that was known as the human aspect of business leaders, but Goleman introduced business to the science of emotional intelligence and created structure for it. Collins gave me and all business leaders the sound research about what goes into making a successful company and all of the aspects of that successful company. He’s been a bellwether for a lot of us.
Goehring on the company’s headquarters: We do have headquarters in the San Francisco area and another one in Denver, but we don’t really use the term anymore. Our leadership is dispersed. I meet with my leadership team no more than quarterly. We use video, webcasts and all the other virtual tools to meet and connect.