CEO of SSOE Group (Hot Firm #44 for 2018), a global project delivery firm for architecture, engineering, and construction management based in Toledo, Ohio.
By Liisa Andreassen
“All key positions within the company are required to have two key successors,” Howell says.
A CONVERSATION WITH BOB HOWELL.
The Zweig Letter: How are the tariffs impacting your business and that of your clients?
Bob Howell: Currently, tariffs have been causing some uncertainty with a few of our clients, resulting in some projects being placed on hold or awaiting the go-ahead to proceed from the client.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
BH: Leadership development and succession planning for firm sustainability.
TZL: Engineers love being engineers, but what are you doing to instill a business culture in your firm?
BH: We are doing several things to instill a business culture within the firm when it comes to our engineers. We conduct project manager training sessions on basic financials for a fundamental understanding of how the firm makes money. As a corporation, it’s our responsibility to make it an easy task for our PMs to get their project financials so they’re able to run each project like a business. Business Intelligent tools and software give our PMs the ability to pull data such as earned value, actual versus budget, etc., quickly and easily to understand the current situation of their projects.
TZL: Do you tie compensation to performance for your top leaders?
BH: Yes. We have a program where all senior associates and above have performance-based metrics. As an individual’s career progression level increases, a higher portion of their incentive compensation is tied to these performance-based metrics. Additionally, the company’s stock value is based on the financial success of the firm so, again, senior associates and above, can earn additional reward for performance via this opportunity.
TZL: When did you have the most fun running your firm, and what were the hallmarks of that time in your professional life?
BH: When I was named CEO. Our financials were lagging and I wanted to focus on four key areas: clients, culture, collaboration, and employees. I believe those are the leading indicators of success. If we could make progress in these four key focus areas, the numbers would follow. I knew we had a great corporate growth strategy, but there were aspects of our culture that were getting in the way of us successfully executing that strategy. We’ve conducted multiple “All Hands on Deck” meetings across all of our operations in the years since. The energy level of the employees was extremely high and the results of our employee engagement surveys and customer satisfaction surveys have shown significant improvement. During this same period, the financial performance of the firm has also increased considerably.
TZL: How do you promote young and new leaders as the firm grows?
BH: SSOE has two programs that help develop new leaders within the organization and prepare them for future promotions. “Getting Results” is our leadership development program that expands the capacity of high-performing individuals. It promotes relationship building among those individuals to benefit collaboration efforts now and down the road. This program provides specialized leadership coaching as they tackle group projects. After a two-day seminar, individuals are grouped into teams and given an assignment involving an actual business problem or opportunity that they must research and solve over a six-month period. Each team presents their solution to senior management and meets for regular coaching sessions for the remainder of the year.
The second is our “Next Generation Leadership” program which is a leadership development initiative that consists of six, four-hour sessions in addition to a considerable amount of pre-work for each session. Participants attend quarterly sessions prior to SSOE’s scheduled management team meetings to provide an opportunity to rotate participants into the meetings and present on current NGL content. This program requires considerable time, energy, and commitment and ends with a graduation celebration.
TZL: What happens to the firm if you leave tomorrow?
BH: We have a formal succession planning process and we place great emphasis on this area. Our succession planning process has two scenarios – a planned succession and an unplanned succession. Each one addresses various possible successors and timing of readiness. We know how valuable it is to determine successors and help them develop into those future roles. Recently, we had organizational structure changes which allowed us to spread out the roles and responsibilities of the COO to other key leaders to ensure that more than one person is ready to move into the CEO position down the road. It also ensures that the subsequent CEOs will also be prepared to take on the role. All key positions within the company are required to have two key successors.
TZL: With technology reducing the time it takes to complete design work, how do you get the AEC industry to start pricing on value instead of hours?
BH: As a firm, we’re moving toward collaborative project delivery, similar to what some people in the industry refer to as integrated project delivery, although CPD is not necessarily contractually based like IPD. At SSOE, it refers to a strategy guided by a LEAN mindset with a goal of defining and delivering a collective vision of success on a project by eliminating waste, compressing schedules, lowering cost, and improving satisfaction. The overall idea is to work with the contractor, client and key subcontractors as a team to collectively set a target cost for the project below industry benchmarks. This challenges the team to drive innovation and deliver better results. However, efficiency leads to fewer hours worked. To transition to more value-based pricing, AEC firms need to be willing to share the risk in order to get compensated fairly – shared risks equal shared rewards. It not only aligns with our corporate-wide cultural journey, which is centered around collaboration and LEAN principles, but it allows us to move toward executing projects in a way that brings more value to our clients and their business.
We also document our value promise to our clients in the form of project cost savings. We have been successful in providing our clients with project cost saving equivalent to our fees.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion is lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
BH: SSOE has made a commitment to foster a diverse and inclusive culture that promotes personal and organizational growth – building these values into the firm’s vision, core values, and corporate priorities. SSOE has been on a journey to broader diversity and inclusion for some time now, focusing on building a strong foundation to ensure it becomes sustainable and ingrained in the firm’s culture. As a company we recognize diversity of thought as a strategic advantage – one that we’re not yet fully leveraging, but working toward.
Although we hold ourselves accountable to benchmarks that ensure progress, we believe diversity is really about hiring someone who thinks “differently than I do” in an effort to generate stronger ideas. To put forward something different requires a variance in life experiences, which frequently emerge from contrasting backgrounds, be they economic, gender, race, ability, generational, or industry differentiation. We train our employees on the dangers of implicit bias so we can proactively combat these tendencies. We also actively recruit employees who bring a fresh perspective, participating in programs like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes Corporate Fellowship Program, which is designed to train transitioning service members on skills needed to succeed in the civilian workforce. Additionally, we work with educational non-profits and universities to ensure women and underrepresented minorities have options and ways to get involved in STEM.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
BH: In addition to our culture initiative that has a proven ROI when it comes to retention, SSOE offers its employees an extensive list of benefit programs and employee perks that contributed to us being recognized as a “Great Workplace” by Great Place to Work for the last three years. These benefits and perks include flexible work arrangements, buy/sell paid time-off option to buy up to 40 hours of additional PTO or to sell up to 80 hours of PTO, subsidized gym memberships, tuition reimbursement, and a 401(k) plan that matches 50 percent of employee contributions up to 6 percent. In addition, SSOE offers additional work perks such as SSOE swag for new employees, BRAVO employee recognition program, a one-day “SSOE Experience” class that introduces new employees to the organization, employee appreciation clubs and volunteerism programs, as well as career progression.
TZL: Tell us about the last time you named a new principal from outside the firm.
BH: We announced the appointment of Cathy Myers, P.E., to our advanced technology leadership team in October 2017. We knew she would be an excellent fit because she not only brought with her 25-plus years of expertise, but she also has a deep familiarity with the semiconductor industry, one of SSOE’s key markets. In addition, she has a dual bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mechanical engineering from the University of Portland and is a licensed professional engineer.