A good conversation Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

Jacob Lipa has a pretty great view from the 44th floor of Psomas’ headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, but that vantage point doesn’t necessarily lead to the best perspective.

So to increase his decision-making savvy, the president of the consulting engineering firm routinely exchanges information with his 800 employees through frequent office visits and open-ended dialogues.

“I keep telling my people here all the time, I really don’t expect them to behave responsibly without information,” Lipa says. “With information, we cannot but behave responsibly.”

The philosophy has been paying dividends at the consulting engineering firm, which specializes in the land development, water and transportation markets and posted 2007 revenue of $130 million.

Smart Business spoke with Lipa about how to share information with your employees while putting things in perspective by stressing the bigger picture.

Divulge information. Give them as much information, other than personal information, about the business as they can take.

When I think that somebody is really not trained enough to understand the information, then I stop and will try and train them to understand the information better. I was going over our entire income statement with the company. I went, ‘Here’s our net revenue. Does anybody know what net revenues are?’

First of all, there are no surprises. Secondly, everybody becomes part of the solution. It’s not only that I feel the responsibility to solve, but now I have 800 people that want to help me solve it. You get a lot of ideas, and one or two of them are better than yours.

Ask for information. We have regular dialogue meetings. We call them dialogues. In those meetings, I come with no agenda whatsoever. This is my opportunity to listen to them tell me what’s going on in their world. It’s really an ongoing dialogue where they provide me with information so that I can make better decisions.

We try to go at least on a monthly basis to each of these offices. When I do dialogues, it’s usually for five to 10 people. Whenever we visit an office just for other reasons — we don’t necessarily go to the office just for that — we just call the office manager and say, ‘How about a dialogue? Would you ask if anybody wants to meet with us for an hour to talk?’

It’s not the formal process, but we try not to miss any opportunity.

What you really hear is what your people really care about. Then you really can do some great stuff because now you know what the people really care about.

Show your vulnerability. (Don’t) worry about being vulnerable. I have no problem telling somebody, ‘I tried it. It didn’t come out right. Let’s find another way.’

Everything that I say and I do isn’t perfect, and, for that matter, not everything that they say or do is perfect. The idea here is to continually learn to do better and obviously not to break the bank and make stupid mistakes.

They are really giving you good ideas and good information and sometimes good critique and sometimes also stuff that you realize that you have not successfully communicated. You say something, and you know that you meant one thing, but a guy says, ‘Jacob, I hear this and this,’ and I say, ‘Wait a minute. I didn’t mean it that way.’

Now you know that many people in the company misunderstood you, and you have an opportunity to go and correct it.

Undergo a 360-degree evaluation. A 360 is a system where you ask people to comment on what you do — people that are above you, below you, who work with you.

We actually don’t force it. We recommend it. The best way is if (me) and my partner ask to have it done on us every year. Then, other people are all of a sudden looking at it and saying, ‘If they’re doing it and it’s helping them, why shouldn’t I try?’ For example, I managed an operation in the company, and I had some very strong feelings about what the operation committee should look like. In the 360, it’s been two or three years in a row that people are saying, ‘Jacob, we don’t think that the operation committee is the best thing for us.’ So I’m getting ready to get in front of the principals, and I said, ‘I heard it once, I heard it twice, I heard it again. Let’s get together and decide how do we change it to make it more beneficial for everybody.’

Focus on the big picture. You really need to believe in a larger vision. Yes, we can measure numbers and everything, but unless we really believe that there is something larger here, bigger here, then it does us no good.

Every time you get in front of your people, that theme needs to be part of the story. If you want to go into a new program, let’s say we want to expand the water market, well, why are we doing it? There are more people dying in the world for lack of water or contaminated water than any other thing around. It is such an important job to be able to deliver water and clean water.

All of a sudden, it’s not just about how efficiently you’re doing in terms of profit. All of a sudden, there is an emotional story about why it is so important that we are doing it well.

HOW TO REACH: Psomas, (213) 223-1400 or www.psomas.com