President of PES Structural Engineers (Best Firm #10 Structural for 2018), a 57-person firm based in Atlanta.
By Liisa Andreassen
“Leadership development,” Planer says, referring to his No. 1 responsibility. “We work hard to ensure that we have the next person for any role in the company identified and trained well ahead of the need for the transition. This philosophy applies from entry-level positions to my role and everything in between.”
A CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL PLANER.
The Zweig Letter: When did you have the most fun running your firm, and what were the hallmarks of that time in your professional life?
Michael Planer: I always find challenges as opportunities to grow and find those times the most fun. Some of the more recent challenges have been transitioning between the founders of the firm and the next generation of owners. The founders realized early on that this transition process should start well in advance of their departures so that the accompanying strains on the firm would be minimized. It was enjoyable to use this time to develop the future leaders into their new roles.
TZL: How do you promote young and new leaders as the firm grows?
MP: We have developed well defined position descriptions and a skills matrix and share those along with potential career path opportunities when folks join the firm. As younger team members start to approach their next career step, we begin to review the growth opportunities earlier rather than later so that they are aware of what skills they need to build on for these new roles.
TZL: What happens to the firm if you leave tomorrow?
MP: We’re always looking ahead to who will fill needed roles in the future and start identifying the training needs required. The leading of the company involves many members so that if there is a need for a quick transition, it would not be detrimental to the firm.
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?
MP: We have developed processes over the years to help younger team members grow, both technically and professionally. These include internal QA/QC processes throughout the life of a project as well as technical and non-technical training so that our experienced engineers are providing oversight while allowing our younger engineers room to grow. Our technical committee is very active and hosts weekly technical sessions such as internal lunch-and-learns, calculation of the month reviews, project specific lessons learned and the like. These sessions encourage engineers to bounce ideas off of one another so that we are sharing and learning, company-wide.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
MP: Leadership development. We work hard to ensure that we have the next person for any role in the company identified and trained well ahead of the need for the transition. This philosophy applies from entry-level positions to my role and everything in between.
TZL: Engineers love being engineers, but what are you doing to instill a business culture in your firm?
MP: Pete Pruitt, who started the firm 30 years ago, instilled a business culture from the very start which consisted of open book/open door management as well as a strong business development mindset. This culture is still in place today as we share financials and other details about the business continuously. We openly communicate the business development and marketing strategies and provide training to all engineers to develop their understanding of the business side of engineering. We have also introduced a BD mentoring program for our younger staff to provide coaching and instruction for this part of the business.
TZL: The seller-doer model is very successful, but with growth you need to adapt to new models. What is your program?
MP: For the selling portion of the business, we have strong business development and marketing folks who are not engineers. This group continuously meets with all staff levels to create action plans for selling our services and provides support in those areas. Their aim is for every person at PES to feel comfortable and empowered to build strong relationships with their clients so that those relationships can weather job changes both within and between organizations as careers progress and change.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
MP: To create longevity/reduced turnover, we have an owner that oversees the cultural aspect of our firm in order to create a place that folks enjoy being a part of. This is done by continuously engaging with all firm members as well as establishing a culture and engagement group to better understand what we are doing well, where we need to improve and what things we should stop doing.
TZL: Benefits are evolving. Are you offering any new ones due to the changing demographic?
MP: We use a suggestion box on our internal intranet as well as the results of the Best Firm survey to find areas that need improving. The culture and engagement group dives deep into the results of the survey and compares them to previous years to see where we are trending in the right direction and where we need improvement. This year’s survey study resulted in some major revisions to our benefits such as improving our maternity/paternity and part-time policies.
TZL: Are you currently pursuing the R&D tax credit?
MP: We have participated in the R&D tax credit the last few years and have been able to reinvest this credit back into the company through purchases, better benefits, and other research and development initiatives.