It is the leaders who establish the cultures within Architectural, Engineering, Planning, and Environmental Consulting firms. Even in small design groups, it is the group leaders who establish the customs within their sections of their organizations. Cultures can be healthy, toxic, or someplace in between. When a company has high turnover, fixing the problem often requires changing the culture within. If I were the CEO of a design firm with high turnover, here’s what I would do.
Conduct a confidential employee survey. Few employees are going to report problems with their supervisors. They may fear that it would jeopardize their current positions. Creating situations where employees can speak freely about how they feel is important when it comes to getting necessary information to make any decisions or changes within the organization.
Questions in the survey should include things like:
“What do you like best about the company?” What do you like least? If you were President of the firm, what changes would you make?”
Carefully review the data collected. Reports from these surveys often produce shocking, and often painful information. It’s not uncommon that employee perception of how the firm is operating is often quite different from top management’s perception. So, it is important for top leaders to really get a grasp of what’s communicated. They don’t always have to agree with what is said, but they should still try to empathize and understand why employees have the opinions they’re sharing.
Make changes to address employee concerns. This could mean replacing key people who clearly shouldn’t be holding leadership roles, but not always. Many of those poor communicating managers have good intentions. They just don’t realize how they’re alienating people and creating toxicity within. In some cases, executive coaching can help. In other cases, combinations of leadership development, management training, and/or executive coaching could be warranted.
Hold people accountable to those changes. It’s one thing to make changes like hiring executive coaches for groups of managers. It’s another to make sure that they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. Executive coaching, for example, only works when the person being coached will buy into the programs. Unfortunately, some managers may not be coachable. If they refuse to accept that they may be causing problems within the company, then top managers may have no choice but to ultimately replace those individuals.
Align employer and employee goals and objective. Most employers look for employees who are reliable, self-motivated, take initiative, are well-groomed, have positive attitudes, and are good communicators. Most employees want competitive compensation plans, autonomy, respect, growth, transparency, and open communication from firm leaders. By developing a mission and vision with incentives to align employer and employee expectations, each party can get what’s needed from these relationships.
Most of the concerns identified from employee surveys usually originate from communication breakdowns between supervisors and employees. As of this writing, there are 50,656 books written about effective communication skills available on Amazon’s web site. In the design industry retention is a huge concern. Interpersonal communication is one of, and perhaps the biggest, challenge that firm Principals must confront every day.