President of Pond & Company, Inc. (Best Firm Multi-discipline #19 for 2018), a 550-person firm based in Atlanta with 25 offices in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Spain.
By Liisa Andreassen
“One of the most difficult things a leader has to do is separate themselves from personal feelings and do what’s right for the firm,” Green says. “I have indeed had to let go of dear friends who were just no longer in the right seat on the bus.”
A CONVERSATION WITH LORRAINE GREEN.
The Zweig Letter: How many years of experience – or large enough book of business – is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?
Lorraine Green: At Pond, principals are selected to participate regardless of their age – we have new principals joining us in their late 20s as well as their late 50s. Pond’s principal selection is based primarily on a selectee’s adherence to the guiding principles of our firm, which include teamwork, treating company dollars like your own, integrity, and vision. It’s not just about dollars – or age – it’s about the culture and vision.
TZL: Engineers love being engineers, but what are you doing to instill a business culture in your firm?
LG: Yes, this is a business, isn’t it? They don’t teach much of this in engineering schools, so we do have to start with the basics. We involve engineers at every level with revenue and profit goals as well as client interaction training. All engineers are given a budget for their particular task on a project, and are expected to track their performance on that budget. As they develop, their responsibilities transition from their own performance to that of the team. Just as importantly, we try to teach soft skills to our engineers to enable them to interact positively with our clients – these include training on professional email writing, and an internal Toastmasters type group.
TZL: Do you tie compensation to performance for your top leaders?
LG: Absolutely! Most of our senior staff are principals and associates, so a significant portion of their compensation is directly related to performance.
TZL: Do you share base salary or bonus amounts with your entire staff?
LG: We do not explicitly share this information, but our accounting system is such that if someone wants to figure it out, they can. But, then again, do I want someone working for me who will devote enough time to figuring out that information?
TZL: When did you have the most fun running your firm, and what were the hallmarks of that time in your professional life?
LG: Now! I think this is one of the most exciting times, not only at Pond, but also in the engineering industry. There is once again a renewed focus in the U.S. on solid engineering business fundamentals, and along with that, an appreciation for the value that top engineering designs bring to the daily lives around us.
TZL: Have you ever terminated or demoted long-time leaders as the firm grew? How did you handle it?
LG: One of the most difficult things a leader has to do is separate themselves from personal feelings and do what’s right for the firm. I have indeed had to let go of dear friends who were just no longer in the right seat on the bus. As part of a firm with a strong growth strategy, I found that some leaders are better suited to different-sized firms, or situational challenges such as a relatively stagnant firm. As always, in these situations, it is important to be clear on the reasons – and the previous value that person has brought to the team. I will say though, that in the vast majority of these situations, the person being terminated was actually relieved – either because he or she had sensed performance was poor, or they were just unhappy and didn’t know how to tell me.
TZL: How do you promote young and new leaders as the firm grows?
LG: We believe that young leaders need to be identified early in their careers and mentored. Leaders are not born, but the inherent personality traits that make one a solid leader are generally evident at any age. Pond has a staggered process for leadership development. We currently have two specific programs:
- Pond Leadership Forum: This is designed for our youngest, emerging leaders and focuses on many of the soft skills needed to develop leadership talents.
- Pond University: This is our flagship, year-long leadership development program. It focuses strategically on leadership qualities such as team development, marketing, financial acumen, and self-awareness.
Additionally, all of our officers are designated to mentor a developing leader.
TZL: What happens to the firm if you leave tomorrow?
LG: It goes on! Pond transitioned from our original owner (and principal shareholder) five years ago, and as part of that transition, our leadership team took a very hard look at our succession strategy to ensure that none of us was in such a position that our loss – by whatever means – would cripple the firm. I view my legacy as ensuring that Pond will go on without me.
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?
LG: We try to stay away from fee proposals based solely on hours (time and materials). We much prefer to use lump sum fee arrangements – they offer significant benefit to both us and our clients. I find that a greater trust and willingness to collaborate exists on a lump sum type of contract – it allows us to be partners rather than the client always wondering if this conversation is going to cost them more.
TZL: There is no substitute for experience, but there is pressure to give responsibility to younger staff. What are you doing to address the risk while pursuing the opportunity to develop your team?
LG: Pond has developed a strong mentor program throughout our organization. We team all staff with a mentor to assist them in their technical development. We also strive to give more responsibility to younger staff by making them responsible for the performance of others by creating a vertically aligned team, rather than purely horizontal. For example, we used to have all engineers (from E1-E4) reporting to a single senior engineer. We have refocused and now have E1 and E2s reporting to E3, and E3 reporting to E4, etc. This helps develop leadership at all levels in the organization.
TZL: Benefits are evolving. Are you offering any new ones due to the changing demographic?
LG: Every year we evaluate our benefit offerings to not only keep pace with the market, but also outpace it. One way we do this is through an annual employee survey where we ask the simple question, “What other benefits would you like to see Pond offer?” It is a balance because everyone has different values – some prefer more time off (we now close the last week of the year), others want more flexibility (we now offer 9-80 scheduling), and others simply want more monetary incentives. So, the challenge is having diverse enough offerings to excite all of our employees.
TZL: How are the tax cuts impacting your business? Have salaries and bonuses increased?
LG: Yes. We added a 2 percent across-the-board pay increase for our staff this year to reflect the savings achieved from the tax cuts. This was in addition to standard increases.