Culture: A Firm’s Secret Weapon

Matt Burns

by Matt Burns, PE

Company culture is arguably the most important trait of a professional service firm, and is easily the most difficult to develop and nurture. Culture is the personality of the company, the social and psychological environment in which employees work. It is what clients experience when they do business with us. It is the synergy of technical excellence, ownership, teamwork, innovation, and camaraderie. It is what distinguishes great companies. Clients and star performers choose to work with people they like, and it all begins with a strong culture. When clients select an engineer or talented employees choose an employer, culture is a brand differentiator. A strong culture enables clients to feel understood, and helps staff feel valued and part of something important.

In our industry, there are thousands of competent engineering firms. They can all produce similar technical work, but culture is what positions one firm above the rest. When we talk about “culture”, what exactly does it mean to clients and why is it so important? Why do today’s talented professionals expect a great culture from their employer, and how do we get them to take ownership towards its success?

A strong company culture benefits clients in many ways. In our industry, clients have a lot at stake with their infrastructure projects, and are rightly concerned about every aspect of a project. Clients in the public spotlight are concerned that any misstep can mean a personal or organizational setback. Because of this, they value strong professional relationships, and prefer to work with people they like and trust. Clients gain the benefit of a strong culture through the experiences they have with a firm over time. These positive experiences create loyalty and barriers to competition. On the contrary, a stifling bureaucratic culture can hinder innovation and productivity, is not adaptive to change, and makes it difficult to understand and exceed clients’ goals. A culture that allows the consultant and client to work together closely is fundamental to success in the relationship-driven professional service business. With a strong culture as the backbone of hard work, teams can consistently address clients’ goals and concerns, create tremendous value, and produce magical results!

Culture is critical to the recruitment and retention of talented professionals. Competition for top talent is fierce, and star performers choose companies where they best connect with the culture. A strong, supportive culture allows people to feel comfortable, which in turn encourages teamwork and lets innovative ideas bubble to the surface. Within an organization, highly talented people can be difficult to work with. They can make easy work hard, and can be impatient, abrasive, inflexible or opinionated. Think Steve Jobs. While these people typically excel in their areas of expertise, their attitude and behavior may be in conflict with the overall culture of the firm. This can upset clients and co-workers, and requires lots of extra management and coaching. A strong corporate culture can help alter behavior, or select out clients and employees that don’t fit.

At Burns, culture is something we invest in every day. It’s an investment that has taken time, and requires the reinforcement of strong company values. Our culture is special, and depends on the attitudes of each person on our team – at every level. We strive to help team members understand and embody the common traits we value so clients like us, and look forward to working with us. A few of these traits include the ability to: maintain a positive attitude, avoid overreacting to challenges, move on from disappointments, be patient, act promptly without procrastination, look for opportunities to learn, and cheer on others’ successes. These traits build strong, competent teams, and a solid company reputation.

A strong company culture is an investment, and it is one that has greatly benefited our organization. Culture is not a line item that shows up on the financial balance sheet, but it may very well be the most valuable aspect of our firm.