Sandy Doyle-Ahern and a healthier EMH&T rise up to meet new challenges on the other side of the recession

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The recession took both a professional and personal toll on Sandy Doyle-Ahern.

As EMH&T Inc.’s private sector work, which included projects for single-family housing, dropped off with the national housing crisis and the inability to obtain capital, Doyle-Ahern was called upon to make a number of painful decisions.

Employees were laid off, benefits were reduced and there was a constant review of the company’s finances to see what could be done to maintain profitability.

“It was awful. I hated it. But it is my job,” says Doyle-Ahern, who became president of EMH&T, one of the largest civil engineering firms based in Ohio, in 2012.

“At the end of the day, having spent a couple of years dealing with that really difficult situation, the communication piece ended up being the thing that really helped people to understand what was going on,” she says. “Was it difficult? Yes. Do I want to do it again? No. Not in my career I’m hoping — not that bad.”

But through it all, beyond opening lines of communication the firm still uses today, Doyle-Ahern found solace in one key point: The firm kept its word.

“When we said we would restore benefits, when we said we would rehire again, when we said we would make sure that you know what’s going on, and you follow through on all those things, that’s where the proof is in the pudding,” she says.

 

Understand your strengths

Coming through an extremely difficult time not only puts the challenges of today in perspective, it provides good experiences and lessons about what EMH&T did skillfully as an organization.

“You have to know what you do well as a company, and not be afraid to push in that arena,” Doyle-Ahern says. “But you also have to know if you don’t do something well, and walk away from it.

“I think obviously, there’s always risk in business. But I also think that, depending on everybody’s level of risk tolerance, your reward is going to come from really knowing what you do well and being willing to push in that area,” she says.

As a consulting engineering firm, Doyle-Ahern says EMH&T won’t take on a project in an area in which employees don’t have expertise, or is just not the right fit.

Part of that caution comes from being aware of the highly liable nature of engineering. By sticking to its core competencies, however, the firm also has the opportunity to work with other firms when it consults on projects, which Doyle-Ahern says can be a lot of fun.

Today, business has picked up and employment is nearly what it was at the company’s peak with 350 employees. The stronger, healthier company is ready to face new challenges of meeting customer needs and finding the right people.

 

Diverse business drives diverse customer needs

Prior to the recession, management spent time diversifying the business as a way to grow, not through any prior knowledge of tough times ahead.

Doyle-Ahern says the company worked in many different markets, but didn’t push hard to get EMH&T’s name out there — relying on repeat business.

The staff, however, was capable of a lot more, allowing Doyle-Ahern and others to focus on broadening project opportunities years before the market downturn with municipalities, hospitals, universities, the rail industry and so on.

This diversification was one of the reasons EMH&T made it through the tough times.

“And frankly as wonderful as that is, it’s awfully challenging because it requires you to understand your client needs in a lot of different ways. They don’t all want the same thing from us,” Doyle-Ahern says.

Consulting engineers are hired to solve problems, so employees need to be able to understand specific needs and resolve them.

In order to emphasize project management and problem-solving, Doyle-Ahern says you need to constantly talk about it.

“It needs to be part of the mission of the company, the purpose of the firm,” she says. “So, part of my job is to set that tone and to constantly talk about it, which I do. Sometimes that’s in groups. Sometimes that might be one-on-one. It’s with all of the new employees. It’s with existing employees. It’s a constant thing that’s here every day.”

The company also does yearlong, invitation-based project manager training with younger project managers or people with more of a technical background. It teaches them how to manage a project and think about client needs.

The bulk of the learning, however, comes from on-the-job interactions with other team members and supervisors.

“We can set them up with the basics, but at the end of the day people get mentored by what they see around them,” Doyle-Ahern says. “We have a really great senior staff here that understands all this, and they are all part of that training effort.”

 

A shortage of quality candidates

Getting the right people who have the technical know-how and the ability to manage projects while solving client problems isn’t getting any easier.

The numbers of engineers coming into the field is less than the numbers of those leaving. Engineers who lost their jobs during the recession have moved on to other things, and baby boomers are moving out of the workforce.

EMH&T started rehiring a few years ago. Doyle-Ahern says the company has had to bring in recruiters for the first time and now looks for candidates outside of Ohio.

At the same time, the firm is very careful about who it hires as it re-builds the team.

“As much as it’s difficult to find people, we also want to find the right people,” she says. “We want to be a good fit for them, and we want them to be a good fit for us, because we want them to stay.

“We’ve really refined how we look at candidates, and sometimes we have positions open for several months because it is difficult to find the right person — partly because of the reduced numbers of potential candidates and also partly because we are being particular, which I think is important for us to do.”

Doyle-Ahern says it’s not a matter of a long, detailed interview process. It’s more about taking the time to get to know people personally and allow them to understand how the firm operates.

EMH&T wants candidates to see the workspace, meet current employees and understand how the company functions with a strong team environment and little isolation.

“When you come right out of school with a technical degree of some kind, they don’t teach you this in college,” Doyle-Ahern says. “They teach you how to calculate. They teach you how to engineer or survey or whatever the case may be. But a lot of times, it’s our responsibility to broaden their experience into understanding why we do what we do.”

She believes companies have an obligation to help younger candidates learn that in the world of consulting, it’s all about problem-solving.

“It’s not like I can sit someone down in an eight-hour training course and teach them that. You can explain it. You can give them the basics, but they are really going to learn that through watching their peers and being in situations where they are able to contribute to the conversation,” Doyle-Ahern says.

“I think it is something that’s pretty critical for us, and it’s just something that I believe we bear the responsibility to do.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Focus your energy on what you do well.
  • Understand the “why” behind client needs.
  • It’s worth the effort to find the right people and train them.

 

The Doyle-Ahern File:

Name: Sandy Doyle-Ahern
Title: President
Company: EMH&T Inc.

Born: Toronto, Canada. I came to the U.S. at age 2 and became a U.S. citizen after college.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Delaware, master’s degree in environmental science and water resources from Miami University.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? My first job was cleaning animal cages when I was 13 at an animal sanctuary. You learn hard work when you do something like that.

For my first real “job,” I started in consulting engineering when I was 17. I worked for a company in Pennsylvania — that’s where I grew up. I worked there every summer and every break all through college.

I got the opportunity to do fieldwork, learn how to write reports and do data analysis. I traveled to different sites and locations across the country. It was a fantastic learning opportunity, and I’ve never left the field.

What is the best business advice you ever received? This may sound a little odd, but the best advice I’ve probably received is that the ability to communicate with people and read their concerns is just as important as the technical knowledge.

Sometimes in business I’m not sure we are always taught that understanding how to run a business also includes understanding people, and that needs to permeate throughout the organization.

If you could go back to when you started at EMH&T, what would you tell yourself? I’ve loved my job at EMH&T no matter what it’s been. I’ve always enjoyed being in this world of solving problems and working with clients, but it is very male-dominated.

A few years ago, I joined the board of YWCA Columbus because I have a personal interest in women’s leadership and challenges facing women, particularly homelessness. When I first walked into that room of amazing women I was stunned by the energy. I never realized until that moment I was missing something. It was a real aha moment because I was so focused on my job and the world that that was in.

So, I’d go back and tell that younger self you shouldn’t lose track of your personal passions. You can give to your professional passions, but if there’s a part of you that has a personal passion — and it could be different for every person — you can do both and you should have both. And you can do all that with a family, and dedicate the time you need to each of those things.

It has made me a more whole person today than I was a few years ago.