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Jim Walsh Featured

7:00pm EDT December 31, 2006

Jim Walsh’s job as president and CEO of employee-owned SCS Engineers presents some unique challenges. While the company’s 530 employees work for Walsh, under the Employee Stock Ownership Plan, they are also in a position to throw their boss out if his job performance comes into question. But by creating an atmosphere where opinions are welcomed and collaboration is encouraged, Walsh has guided the engineering consulting firm to 2005 revenue of $92 million and an expected $106 million for 2006. Smart Business spoke with Walsh about the importance of setting goals and rewarding employees for their hard work.

Learn to lead but also to let go. I’m involved in the technical practice that is SCS. That gives me a better understanding of where we are and where we’re headed.

I can see the ups and downs of the business hopefully better than most can because I understand our business, the work we perform and the industry we’re in.

Being hands-on and involved means that I see all of our work. It doesn’t mean that I do every part of it, but I understand what it is. That gives me a better handle on our business, where it’s headed and the quality of our work product and the satisfaction we try to provide to our clients.

It is a challenge. You’ve got to draw the line and not be too deeply involved in the minutiae. Understanding it is one thing; trying to do it all is quite another. You’ve got to let go progressively as you elevate in a particular organization.

Don’t be afraid of failure. Recognize that you are going to have some failures and that it’s a learning experience. If it doesn’t take the company down or kill you, you’ll survive and be stronger for it.

It’s easy to take one small failure as a disaster. That would be a major mistake. Hold your head up and use it as a learning experience and move on.

It gets easier after awhile if you have enough small failures. Some people who have nothing but successes, or don’t risk enough that they have that many battles to fight, may not have enough failures.

Engineering in our professional practice is all about covering the odds and making the chances of failure zero. In business, we can’t have that kind of certitude. We can’t have that kind of risk-averse mentality.

Take on some risk and hopefully recognize that if there is failure, it will be small and you’ll fix it and move on.

Promote those who have earned it. We always have more than one person reviewing each person so that we get the best input as to who our leaders and future leaders are, and we treat them and elevate them accordingly.

We want to make sure that we don’t have somebody who is making a bad judgment about somebody. We may create opportunities and an appearance of fairness that we might not otherwise have.

We don’t elevate people based on politics and who knows who. We’re a meritocracy. If you earn it and you’re ready for the next level, you’ll be elevated. If you don’t succeed there, we’ll try to find some other job that you can succeed at, or you’re out. We’re going to make decisions in a very deliberate, quantitative fashion.

Be approachable. There have been some times, particularly the tough times, where the stress gets to you. You feel it, but you don’t recognize it.

You need peers that you know and trust that can see that in you and say, ‘You know, you’re not balancing your work life, you’re taking this business too seriously. You need to lighten up and spend more time with your family.’ I’ve had that in the past, and I think all of us need that kind of advice from time to time.

When you talk to people, your friends, your associates, your partners or the technician who just started, you’ve got to sometimes show your personal side. Show that you’re open. Show that you’re not king and that they are free to say anything that they feel compelled to say to you, within limits, obviously.

If I had a technician come in to me and say, ‘Jim, you’re working too hard and, as a result, I think your last decision on this wasn’t sound,’ I wouldn’t bite his head off.

I’d probably listen. I can’t say as I’d always be that way. I like to think we learn. Create an atmosphere where the whole company feels they can speak openly.

Establish goals to achieve success. We have about eight goals that we set for ourselves each year. We don’t achieve every one of them. We try to set them in a manner so that you have to reach to get them.

I look at them every month and reconcile how we’re doing against those goals. Every week, I establish what I’ll be doing in the week ahead. I try to reconcile those weekly plans against the goals that I reconcile monthly.

If I can sit in the board meeting in June and report that in our previous fiscal year, we achieved six or seven out of eight goals, I think that is success.

On a personal level, I think obviously what I view as success in more subjective terms is whether I’ve made a difference. If I can lead us through good times and bad, then I would consider my career and my position to have been a success.

Plan for the ups and downs. The reality is you don’t cut people in advance. Try to plan accordingly and have contingency plans if the business goes south.

Try to watch things as best you can to determine if that is coming. We’re so spread over the entire country and really the world. That really buffers us from the economic vagaries of any given metropolitan area. Things do go up and down by region in the United States.

So we can export people and workloads from region to region to try to cover the high points at the same time that the low points aren’t keeping our people sufficiently busy.

HOW TO REACH: SCS Engineers, www.scsengineers.com.