Solving a leadership void

April 2013 » Columns » BEYOND WORDS
Duane Pinnix, P.E., C.C.P.

In summer 2011, the A/E industry was mired in the deepest recession since the Great Depression. Yet, RMF found itself on a record growth pace. Our clients – like many across the industry – shifted their focus to the upfit and improvement of existing facilities while capital projects were put on hold. Services such as master planning, energy auditing, condition assessments, retro-commissioning, maintenance/repair, and energy conservation were in high demand. Our firm's diversity in the marketplace allowed an aggressive response to clients' needs, and growth continued throughout 2011.

Meanwhile, several of our peer firms had to close shop and others struggled with staffing levels considerably reduced. One firm, considering roll up options, approached RMF about a merger that would enable us to expand in two regional markets. The deal was quite appealing and it came on the heels of RMF opening new offices in Georgia and Ohio. Our only apprehension was from concerns about our ability to lead these new initiatives successfully.

It soon became apparent that regardless of RMF's favorable position for steady growth, we were facing a fundamental leadership void.

During the next decade, the national baby boomer trend will also impact RMF – one third of our leaders will either retire or transition to retirement. This fact became a hot topic in our boardroom as we had not developed a strategy to fill the leadership void; we had more business opportunities than we had leaders to attack.

When this revelation was understood, our board approved the concept of an internal Leadership Development Program (LDP). The LDP is similar to what is delivered by a traditional MBA program, but with specific focus on our business.

During the third quarter of 2011, our management team developed a syllabus for the LDP, including topics such as finance, human resource planning, business development, business unit management, personal accountability, and growth. We implemented a program that would run for two years, addressing different subjects each quarter. We leveraged the skill set of a current leader at the firm to develop the program from the ground up, using internal and industry resources.

An initial budget for the program was established and we were off and running fearless into the process. The fourth quarter of 2011 started with a listing of potential LDP candidates, followed by a short list. Then, we selected "The 7," as they are currently known. Before they were invited to participate, The 7 were paired with a corporate mentor who would support and direct their participation in the program. Each candidate was presented with a formal invitation to participate; all seven accepted the opportunity without hesitation.

The LDP formally kicked-off with a two-day project management boot camp conducted by a management consulting firm. Moving into 2012, two-day workshops were scheduled and held monthly. Attendance was mandatory.

Workshops included approximately 12 hours of classroom time and evening social events for team building. Each month, participants had formal assignments, both individual and group, depending on the subject matter. Several assignments involved problem solving of traditional issues where team dynamics were diverse and in conflict. We stressed the importance of effective communications and required that each participant achieve the competent communicator designation through Toastmasters. This single requirement has improved each participant's confidence both internally and externally with clients.

The first year of our LDP concluded with tremendous results. Each of the seven participants developed a formal growth opportunity for RMF, which they will spearhead upon graduation from the program. To support this objective, each participant completed and presented a business development plan to corporate management for approval.

Through this process of strategically filling the leadership void, we have learned that when in doubt, act. Don't be complacent; challenge traditional thinking and be flexible moving forward.

We are confident that our program will yield seven leaders who are better prepared to lead RMF into the future and facilitate the transition of owners. Team building that has occurred among the five offices involved in the program is immense and has allowed some of the traditional silos common in the A/E industry to be shattered because participants were required to collaborate in challenging scenarios to complete technical assignments. Our total cost to date in terms of time and financial capital has been significant, but well justified.

Duane Pinnix, P.E., C.C.P., president and CEO at RMF Engineering, has been at the helm of RMF since becoming majority owner in 1998. He joined the firm 29 years ago as a project engineer and is now responsible for the general oversight of RMF and executive management of its branch offices.
Pinnix can be contacted at: duane.pinnix@rmf.com.

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