Craig Goehring has helped Brown and Caldwell find success in the virtual realm

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.”

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.”

Takeaways

  • 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.