Lessons A/E CEOs learned about their firms during pandemic

CEOs in the A/E industry reflect on the lessons learned from this past pandemic year relating to their firms and what has changed.

By Morrissey Goodale July 19, 2021

As the pandemic fades before we enter what is likely to be a Golden Age of infrastructure development and renovation, it occurred to me that right now could be a moment in time for the A/E industry to reflect on what we’ve learned about our firms and ourselves from this past pandemic year.

What did we learn about the A/E industry at a macro level? We’re (a) essential (yea!) in the eyes of public, private, and institutional project owners, (b) resilient—industry profits surged and revenues for the ENR Top 500 increased, (c) agile—we moved to a remote/hybrid work model overnight without skipping a beat, and (d) innovative—we found new ways to serve our clients and engage our people.

But let’s go deeper. What did we learn about our firms and ourselves as leaders? Well, we thought the best way to capture those lessons learned is to hear directly from the CEOs who guided their design and environmental firms through this unprecedented time. So, we connected with the CEOs of over twenty clients of Morrissey Goodale from around the country to reflect on and share what this past year has taught them about their firms and themselves as leaders. We thank each of them for taking the time to share their candid thoughts and perspectives to help create this narrative of the industry’s shared experiences this past year.

We’re sharing some of their stories in this week’s column. In some cases, we’ve edited the stories to allow for complete anonymity. But in most cases however, these are the exact words from the CEOs. We hope that these stories help you reflect on what you’ve learned about your firm and yourself over the past year. Maybe these thoughts will allow you to find a way to share with your team what you’ve learned to help them reflect and grow. Or maybe these stories might inspire or help you be a better leader in the future.

What CEOs learned about their firms over the past year:

About purpose, shared values, and trust

“…one thing that revealed itself to me is that the company values that we had put in place just a couple years ago were beacons of light in an unsettled world. We were able to lead with our values and flex the company to focus our priority on the safety of our community, both within our company, as well as doing our part to protect and serve the communities we live in and serve by working remotely with little disruption to the way we collaborate and deliver service to our customers and each other internally. It was remarkable how adaptive our company was and how seamlessly we were able to transition.”

“From a core value perspective we never lost sight of our core values.”

“Another lesson, there are some leaders that will never ‘get it’ regarding need for compassionate leadership. And, the sooner you remove them from the company, the better. Funny, in retrospect we all recognized their shortcomings, we provided personal coaches but yet, they never really did meet expectations. We always ask ourselves now, why did it take a pandemic to make us do something that was needed all along?”

“We care about our culture, our fellow colleagues and their families, and the clients that we work with.”

“During this last year which was the most unusual and likely the most uncertain in our lifetimes, it required us to be even more vulnerable, to share our concerns, how we plan, how we think, reinforcing our values and principles…character is most tested in times of crises. I am very proud of how our leaders and team have responded, planned, invested heavily, grew substantially and positioned ourselves as a North American leader. Our company purpose and dedication is more resolved and our team is so much stronger.”

“Managing talent was another big lesson. [In the past] we managed the box versus managing talent. The box being, standard work day/week, set number of days off, being in the office, etc. The pandemic blew up the box. We moved overnight to managing talent based on a foundation of trust versus a box of policies and procedures.”

“I learned that our team and leaders have tremendous care for client success, each other and for the success of the organization.”

“Given the divide in the political landscape across the country, it opened the door to the potential for politicizing our approach to employee safety. It was rewarding to see how we stayed above the political divide with the focus on the health and wellbeing of the our people. It was never about right or left, but about us.”

About resiliency, kindness, and community

“Our teams and our people are resilient and will react to change and challenge much better than expected. Trust them, listen to their ideas about the ‘new’ ways to interact and operate. Us grey beards don’t know it all because the studio operates much differently than it did 20 years ago.”

“The challenges this past year demonstrated an entirely different dynamic to [the] meaning [of our tag line]. I am so proud of our team in how we applied our skills and creativity to serve clients, support our team members, and keep the business healthy. I learned how resilient we can be.”

“Kindness – During the pandemic a lot of reaching out to other team members about how they were doing.”

“The staff…were incredibly resilient. Fortunately we only lost a small percentage of our staff for a range of reasons…but our core stuck with it and us, and successfully worked remotely. I continue to be amazed at how well all of us worked.”

“Our employees, really almost all of them, are resilient and really banded together when the pandemic hit. They prioritized their jobs even though they had a lot of other things (health, childcare, aging relatives, cramped conditions) on their minds. We need to remember that as we bring them back and show respect for their needs and not judge them about their feelings on virus, vaccine, or work from home.”

“We are a very resilient firm and were able to quickly adapt our operations to pandemic mode.”

“I found out we had some very articulate, creative and intuitive people working at the firm; I saw teams/departments/divisions setting up video competitions with others within the company across the US with no pushing from leadership. I found others that created support groups for single parents, others to address burn-out. The common challenges faced our employees became a rally for creating an uncommon (in a good sense) sense of community.”

“Friends – the company is comprised of close friends who looked after each other during the pandemic.”

“[It]… set the stage for many to develop into compassionate leaders. Now, leadership was experiencing the same home-bound challenges as their staff; even the DINKs (dual income no kids) had to adjust. Anyone with kids going thru home-schooling could sympathize with their direct reports. The hardship was common upon all levels of the organization- no proletarian revolution was going to occur. The suffering was equal.”

“Culture: Our commitment to create a ‘culture’ of an employee centric organization really paid off.”

“Our brand/reputation, is stronger than I had realized, as I was contacted on numerous occasions for advice and feedback on how we were handling pandemic issues. Some colleague firms saw us as a barometer of sorts.”

About the importance of a cohesive leadership team

“Tight leadership team – all came together during the pandemic to make sure all employees were taken care of.”

“The question you have raised is an interesting one. The opportunity to face adversity is something that occurs only a few times throughout an entire career. The opportunity of adversity in a word is validation…is the culture, strategy, and alignment of the team in a position during a time of great adversity to come together and elevate or flounder or even fracture.”

“The pandemic provided the opportunity to validate the strength of the team.  We came together quickly, despite the high degree of uncertainty in the spring of 2020 committed to our employees in regards to continued employment, making decisions in the best interest of their health and well-being, and to base our decision making process on the best available data versus paralyzing ourselves attempting to play out what-if-scenarios. We committed to not making decisions prematurely to protect financial performance at the employees expense.”

“The firm’s leadership… the pandemic put an unusual amount of stress on all of them, and me, too. In the process, it revealed some weakness, which in the end I was thankful for, as we made a significant correction in our Board.”

“I realized that we have a resilient & entrepreneurial team.”

“Strong leadership teams are built on trust and personal relationships. Virtual meetings, no matter how frequent, are no substitute for in-person meetings when trying to get a new leadership team to build relationships and trust.”

“A pandemic or any crisis is an opportunity to assess your leadership team. We learned about the team’s ability to adapt, be agile, think strategically and see beyond  the present. It is also a chance to see people under the stress of an unprecedented situation.”

About technology

“The past year was a great reminder of the importance of making long term investments in your IT infrastructure.”

“The importance of technology in society today.”

“Our Information Technology Group is awesome. Our investments in IT staff and equipment paid off!”

“We can live in and excel in the digital economy.”

About the new A/E workplace

“We had been on a virtual path of finding and hiring the best talent, wherever they were, and working virtually, this just reinforced our flexible work environment where we measure results based on your contribution to the team success. Being highly accountable for results, working well as part of a team and lifting each other up are the values we recognize and reward. While some supervisors/managers were slower to accept the flexible schedule/work, our team is on-board realizing that we have a high performing technical team that is accountable to each other for results, and cares greatly about the organization and client success.”

“I’m now realizing how difficult it will be to get everyone to return, as they like their new setup…and this in the context of a staff that is 100% vaccinated.”

“While I like being in the office, it is convenient for me, more productive, and I appreciate the energy being around others. With that that said, not being geographically restricted to the best talent, possibly lowering the total cost of delivery, improving the lives of our team members, is paramount and will help us recruit and retain the best talent. Coming to the office has to be purposeful and international…There has been a fundamental change.”

“We learned our people could work remotely BUT we desired to have them together to maintain our culture. We need that to maintain mentoring and on-boarding of staff. We can do it remotely, but to maintain individuals with the firm that didn’t just chase the higher price in their jobs, we realized they needed to engage with us in person.”

“The past 18 months has been a time of growth. While we have always been a fairly dispersed company (I have always liked to say that we hire talent, not location) having the team be 100% online and growing at the same time has been a challenge. So, we now have a higher degree of redundancy for our different functions and project work.”

“Once the new remote working conditions were accepted how seamless the change from commuting to work allowed work from home to thrive. Feedback from frequent staff surveys points to contentment with the new order and the why for going back to the office is not as definitive as I might have expected.”

“It is my opinion that only a small percentage of a firm’s employees are as productive working from home as they are in the office.”

“I learned that my firm is much less culturally monolithic than I thought with differences in values, beliefs, life patterns, resiliency, risk-taking, and commitment depending on location. It has been hard to craft a post pandemic remote work policy when some offices are back at full strength, and others are almost totally remote even in July of 2021. We have found a way through and developed a policy, but it has been a cultural struggle.”

“We demonstrated that performance is not inherently linked to working in an office with direct daily oversight. We are now looking at how to leverage the value of the workplace versus the constraint of the workplace. The workplace has tremendous value in building / strengthening a culture, creating the opportunity for innovation, mentoring / developing talent, and in providing for meaningful social interaction. We don’t need to be in the office every day to perform. How we leverage the value of the workplace will be a great opportunity coming out of the pandemic.”

“I really enjoy and appreciate the energy of being with people, but effective and trusted relationships can be nurtured virtually through video.”

“We did learn we had some bumps due to lack of communication and difficulty in communication with the team. You can only schedule so many Zoom meetings vs. just walking down the hall. We can do remote, but it’s not as efficient and not as meaningful. And being in person is educational to a younger set of employees.”

About financial performance

“From a financial perspective we had the greatest all around KPI performance the company has ever had.”

“We could operate more efficiently and profitably.”

“Best sales year and huge organic growth. Made multiple acquisitions and opened new offices during the pandemic.”

“We did a great job of managing our cash.”

“Our financial performance weakened in 2020 and still has not returned to 2019 levels.”

“Also, we were surprised by the financial success we had.”

About clients

“We have excellent clients who allowed us to keep working on their projects.”

“We didn’t know what was happening and were worried agencies would shut down work. But we found we were very, very lucky to be in our industry because it was needed and we continued to work – we work in a good profession!”

About initiative, innovation and improvements

“I have also learned that tapping into our collective creativity can often come up with unexpected and unexpectedly great ideas on how to get things done.”

“A crisis presents an opportunity to assess future leaders. I gave an emerging professional the opportunity to develop the company play book for returning to the office. He responded that she had no experience in this area. I reminded him that we had never experienced a global pandemic. He seized the opportunity, did a great job and grew personally and professionally.”

“Independent – Employees came up with ways to stay connected rather than waiting for management to come up with solutions.”

“Letting people champion different initiatives in the company has led to solutions and outcomes I would never have thought of. Because of this, I believe that we are stronger with more commitment from everyone, because they feel more in control of their work and they feel more ownership in what we are trying to achieve.”


This article originally appeared on Morrissey Goodale’s websiteMorrissey Goodale is a CFE Media content partner.

Original content can be found at www.morrisseygoodale.com.