Host:
Welcome to another edition of Engineering Influence, a podcast by the American Council of Engineering Companies. Today. I'm very pleased to welcome back to the program. Michael Cooper. He is the managing principal of HED out of Southfield, Michigan. He is also a new member of ExCom. You might remember our last conversation when the new ExCom members came down for orientation and we had them on the show, and he mentioned that he was very active and engaged on leadership development and coaching business leaders to really maximize their effectiveness and grow as leaders. And that's something that we want to talk about today. So, Michael, thank you so much for coming back on the program.

Mike Cooper:
Well, thank you Jeff. Appreciate it.

Host:
So how did, how did you get involved with, with leadership as, as kind of a thought leadership kind of project for yourself? I know that you speak at conferences, you do podcasts and you talk about these things. How did, how did that really become a passion of yours?

Mike Cooper:
So, you know, I think it started because it paralleled my professional development, right? So I started out in, in the industry in the design community as a mechanical engineer working on projects and designing systems. And from there I went a little bit into project management where I had a chance to not just design projects, but we teams that were designing projects. And from there more participation in business development as I became a little bit more expert into projects, managing them project delivery, that became a natural extension. And then onto leadership of office and people and such. And so I, over the time, you know, I came to realize that I'm leading people, leading organizations. It's really its own skillset. It is, it is separate from, you know, engineering and sort of the technical world that I was educated in and I grew up in you know, if you look back at the industry 25, 30 or more years, it was not uncommon for, you know, the, the most talented engineer, architect, technical professional to become the manager to become the leader of the organization. I think that may be less common today as organizations are realizing that the business side of what we do separate from the design and the creative side requires professionals with a unique skill set to lead organizations and strategic plan and lead people. So it's something that I was involved with as I developed professionally. Something I realized was an important part of running our business and something that I found that I really enjoyed separate from the technical challenges, leadership comes with its own set of challenges.

Host:
That's correct.

Mike Cooper:
That I did, I enjoyed those as well. And so I think my career moved me in this direction and as you said, my interests and passion continued that and I was fortunate to get the opportunities to practice in this part of the industry.

Host:
And over the course of your career, I mean, do you think there's a watershed moment where things kind of shifted? Like you said you had at in times you know, in past the most talented engineer, the one who is the best of problem solving and maybe on time performance for project delivery rising up the ranks and becoming the manager and then find themselves managing people more than they are projects. Was there a watershed moment in your mind where that kind of shifted away from just, you know, that focus to looking at executives who also had the soft skills of people management of developing their teams? You know and kind of where we are today?

Mike Cooper:
Well, you know, I feel like if I, if I look back in the 80s, when we really started to hear more broadly about total quality management, about greater efficiency, I think that was the point in which you know, not in select pockets, but where broader industries and across countries, continents, professions. We started to see a greater push for efficiency and quality and process. And I think organizations started to look at their own processes the way, not just what they're doing but the way in which they do them and the way in which their people are trained in the way in which their people interact with one another and take on tasks. And that to me is where we really started to separate the, you know, the say the, the engineering or their creative design side stuff from the process and the leadership and the organizational stuff.

Mike Cooper:
And I to me that's where I started to see that discussion happening. You know,, in a wider swath of people. And then I think it's just continued from there. And then global competition, Jeff might be the other thing that has has really driven this, I think all industries have felt in the past two or three decades more competition coming from more places. And so the drive to utilize new technology the drive to be more efficient and to be able to pass on the benefits of that efficiency to and customers has further driven us to be to try to be more effective in our, in our businesses and tried to have more sophisticated marketing systems and finance systems and technology systems and all of those things. I think you've just led us to a focus on leadership and management in addition to the focus on the core business, which in my cases is design, architecture, engineering.

Host:
And I, that really just is a great segue into a really, one of the first points that we kind of discussed in advance of this show you know, outlining about six different points that kind of guide a conversation on leadership and that's purpose and strategic focus. And I think you touched upon that in your last answer, but, and essentially that, that focus in on - with the increased competition internationally with really an industry which is, which is evolving with increases in innovations in technology. The demands for both on the public side and the private side for a different kind of engineering work to be done. A greater focus on sustainability, resiliency LEED, all those things. How purpose and strategic focus is critically important in today's marketplace. How has the industry kind of coalesced around those two points?

Mike Cooper:
Well, I think there's two places where that becomes critical. I think the first place is because the next generation of talented professionals, the one that are the ones that are entering the field today, they, I think are more purpose-driven than generations past. You know, and, and so I think they're looking for that. And so I think on one hand, organizations are needing to be able to define that as, as part of a mechanism to recruit and retain top talent. But I think further to that, and touching on something you said earlier about change and the rate of change, I think the, the, the evolution of technology of systems and such has, has never been faster. The rate of change is accelerating very quickly. And so we often find ourselves day to day dealing with what appears to be constant change and that makes the need and the ability to define a clear purpose for the organization. So much more important because we can get lost in the day to day. And it's one of those things, you know, separating the urgent from important. We've got to remember that there needs to be a clear purpose, a clear direction out there so that the organization and everybody in it knows where the finish line is they know what road we're on. And they can, and they can follow that path.

Mike Cooper:
It's also the thing I think that inspires us to do great work. You know, when we coalesce, as you say, around a common person, a purpose, a common set of ideals a direction, that's what enables everybody in the organization to say, okay, I know where we're going. I know what I have to do to help us get there. You know, let's go. And we find we all end up pulling in the same direction. We find that we accomplish more. But the lack of that purpose, you find people spending their days very busy, but, but then at the end of the day wondering what it is that was accomplished that day. And I think we've all had days where we feel that way.

Host:
Absolutely. And it's, and it's really important to keep that strategic goal moving forward. So everyone sees the bigger picture and doesn't get lost in the day to day work, which may be unrelated to something, but you're working towards a larger purpose. And, and keeping that in everyone's mind is a challenge, but is critically important to keep things moving ahead. And you mentioned, you know, having everybody kind of coalesce around that idea that, that one purpose, the strategic goal. Once you get to that point and everyone's kind of bought in, what's your philosophy on setting those teams up of how do you select talent? How do you balance teams and kind of set them up to achieve their objective and motivate them along the way?

Mike Cooper:
So so when I, when I look at teams, I generally look at them through two lenses. The first is talent, and then the second is chemistry. There's, there's so you start out with the idea of talent and there's a quote by Jim Rowan that says you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. And that to me is a reminder that when you surround yourself with great people, you yourself become better simply by being around them. And, and I'm a, I'm a believer of that. So I think you start out with the idea that I'm going to, I'm going to recruit the most talented people, the smartest people, the most strategic people that I can and begin there and then really have to focus on chemistry. I'm providing them tools, resources, and opportunities for that team to spend time together, get to know one another and grow together.

Mike Cooper:
You know, I'm always reminded in the world of sports usually all-star teams struggle against championship teams. You could argue that they have more talent, but they can, they never seem to be able to win. And that's because championship teams, while they don't necessarily have the best individual players, they've coalesced and they've become a team and they've gotten to know one another the way that they play, how they can complement one another. So they've sort of mastered that one plus one equals three philosophy. And that's where I think we want our teams to be. We want to put teams together, let them get to know one another so they can anticipate their moves, what they need and how they operate so we can truly complement one another. And then as leaders, I think we have to make time for the team.

Mike Cooper:
We've got to spend time with them. We've got to help them and support them. You know, there's, there's a saying that we've all heard right? When all is said and done, more gets said than done. And I think as a leader, it's really important that we focus on doing things, supporting things in a tangible way, and helping them to get better. It can't just be talk. There are times where we've got to roll up our sleeves and, and, and, and do some things. And, and as leaders we've got a great opportunity to lead by example and help teams come together and be successful.

Host:
The point used the analogy to the sports teams is really good. I think the idea between an all-star team and a championship team you know, the, I guess the flip side of that is when you have an all-star team, you have a lot of competing personalities and they're very good at what they do and they want to make sure their voices are heard and that they're leading. You have a bunch of people who are leaders and they're very, very high level performers versus a championship team where you might have some standouts, but overall the team together pushes forward to get the championship. And that's a question of culture. How do you deal with I guess the, the different kind of voices that you can have in the room, you know, and how do you set a culture that really puts that strategic goal, purpose and mission ahead of individual accomplishment? Not to say that individual accomplishment is bad because you know, that's what leads to group success. But how do you put the team before the individual personality?

Mike Cooper:
Yeah you know, the, they say, and I, and I believe this also people join firms, but they quit their managers. And I'm a, I'm a believer of that and I think that's true for our clients as well. I think that they hire firms, but if they gravitate away, it's the team and the leaders of the team that they're moving away from. So you know, I sort of begin all of this with the idea it's all about people. And particularly when we're talking about engineering, design, service, a service profession. It's about people and, and we need to make them are our top priority. If somebody says, you know, you know, Mike, what's the most important thing to I would tell them, don't listen to what I say. Pay attention to how I spend my time.

Mike Cooper:
Time is the most valuable commodity for all of us. And if you want to know what's important to me, simply look at what I choose to spend my time on that that will tell you everything you need to know. And for me by focus is on the people making time for them. You know, making sure that we are celebrating our successes and making sure that we're celebrating our failures and we're learning from them and we're understanding that when we don't succeed, it's often the path to greater success. Making sure that we're giving back to our community and we're, you know, and we're free to try to make the world a better place. It can't only be about what is on my desk. We, we in our world, we are working on projects that help our communities and help our societies. They make people's lives better every day. And I think it's important that we understand that. And that we embrace that and we foster that.

Mike Cooper:
We need to mentor one another. We know we don't have enough people entering our profession. We know that we need more people. And that's one of the great challenges that we all have. And so let's mentor people and let's help bring people into the profession and let's help develop them. And so I think it really starts with this idea that you've got to focus on your people. You've got to make them your top priority, not because somebody tells you to, because you, we have to know that in a service business, everything happens because of people. People do everything. And so you know, whether we're talking about our markets and understanding our clients and doing the research to know the trends, those things are critically important.

Mike Cooper:
But then when we do those things, at the end of the day, we're going to ask our people to put those things in motion and use all of those tools to serve our clients and help our communities. And and I, and I think you know, you sort of start there. The other thing with respect to culture that might be worth mentioning is the importance of sort of an inspirational message to motivate hard work. You know, we talked about focus and purpose and creating a rallying point for the organization. It also often is what motivates us to leapfrog and to make great jumps. And there's nothing, you know, that's more powerful for a culture than a rallying point that gets people super excited and super fired up to do something. Back in 1962, when John F. Kennedy talked about going to the moon, you know, we choose not to go to the moon. You know, not because it's easy, but because it's hard. You know, in 1962 we had no business talking about going to the moon with confidence. We were not winning the space race. I, a lot of people felt that Russia would get there first. They were more advanced than us, but that was the rallying cry. And that was, was one of the things that galvanized the country. It got us working towards a common purpose and inspired us and though we weren't positioned in 62 to get there, we got there in 69 and we got there first. And, and I don't know that that would've happened without JFK first putting that stake in the ground. As unlikely as it seemed at the time. You know, all, all big things start as small things. All great initiative started as small as a small ideas.

Mike Cooper:
The last thing I'll mention on the subject I have in my office an all company photo of Microsoft from 1978. It's one of my favorite photographs because it's got 11 people in it and it was taken in a garage. And most people can't picture Microsoft Corporation being a startup. Microsoft Corporation was a startup and not that long ago. All big things begin as small little nuggets. And I think when we build a culture and we look to inspire ourselves, we've got to think big and remember that we can think big even when it doesn't look like we can get there. Nelson Mandela said it always seems impossible until it's done. I think a, another way people say that is, you know, when you're going through hell, keep going. You know, keep pushing, keep pushing, you'll get there. And, and, you know, a big part of culture is a reminder that we've got to put our stake in the ground and get fired up and work towards it because we can do much more than we think we can do when we, when we begin working.

Host:
Yeah, absolutely. And, and that kind of you know, it's, it's interesting because I think there's always in organizations, there's always a drive or a desire by a number of people to try to, you know, shoot higher to try new things. And they might not have the immediate tools to do that or they might not have the confidence because they've never been in a position to do that or they're a little bit, you know, afraid of the blow back for maybe trying something different or suggesting something. That really comes with just like you said, professional development for a firm of varying size. I mean, if you're a large firm, you can easily invest in, you know, expansive leadership development and coaching and things of that nature. But how important do you think it is for firms of all sizes, quite honestly, to have some sort of structured professional development program internally or even retaining the services of a coach or some executive out there who can help groom talent.

Mike Cooper:
You know, I think it's critically important. You know, and so everybody can gain from seeing how other people do things, from seeing how other industries and professions do things, the other perspectives that are out there. You know, we can't grow if we aren't learning, if we're not being educated, if we aren't being exposed to new things, different things. And so you know, not certainly smaller organizations may have less resources than very large ones, but they have resources to to do this. And there isn't a right way or a wrong way. But helping our people continue to learn is what is what fosters their growth. And so you know, pairing people up in apprenticeship kind of a model. It's an old school thing, but it's incredibly effective. If a young person is paired up with somebody who's more experienced in the field and they're working together on a project, but they're taking some time to spend talking about what we're doing and why we're doing it and how we're doing it.

Mike Cooper:
And a little bit of the background. You know, it always, it surprises me, but it shouldn't, how fast somebody newer to the profession can grow when we take the time to help them. The folks that come into our profession are really smart. They're really smart, they're really committed, they're hardworking. If we put in a little bit of time to help them they can grow very quickly. And then I think you mentioned something which is, you know, let's take advantage of some of the opportunities that are, that are out there where we don't have to do it all ourselves. So, you know, ACEC as an organization provides lots of opportunities for growth. Some of them in the form of webinars which are inexpensive and very easy to engage in. Others are in the form of more structured classes, which are a little bit more of a commitment, time and money, but you probably get a little bit more out of that. You know, that way. But there are organizations out there and places where we can find, you know, whether it's an executive coach like you said, or an organization that has educational programs where we don't have to figure this out or invent something, we can simply leverage the tools that are already out there that were created by somebody else and we can put them to use for us.

Mike Cooper:
And I think in some cases we, we learn from, you know, other industries and other professions and other organizations who show us new ways of doing things. We always take the biggest leap in our organization when we, when we're able to learn something, something that our profession isn't doing and we're able to adapt it and we're able to leapfrog a lot of what's happening and get into a new place be able to offer a different kind of a value proposition, maybe one that's unexpected and that's new.

Mike Cooper:
But then our clients who are really clamoring for and just didn't see being offered anywhere else. That opportunity comes from professional development. And in particular getting exposed to, to things happening outside of your organization. A long way around saying it's absolutely critical and there's no, there's no point in time where you reach a level where you don't, you don't need to continue to grow. You don't need to continue to learn. I think it'd be a sad day to wake up one day, you know, and say, you know what? I've plateaued. This is as good as it gets for me. You know, I come to work every day, you know, looking for those opportunities to learn something new, to do something new, experience something different to grow to, you know, I'd like to think that tomorrow I can be more effective, be better than I am today. I believe that's true, but only if I'm still learning.

Host:
Yeah, absolutely. I think that that's kind of ties up almost all the stuff that you said because if you have a strategic goal and a mission and you're able to foster a culture that pretty much enrolls everyone into that that mission. And you create, like I said, the culture that allows people to think maybe outside the box or look at opportunities that might not be readily present. And again, this also goes with the whole idea of an engaged workforce and a diverse workforce with different perspectives and different backgrounds who may be able to see things other people don't. You're able to look at new opportunities in the marketplace and like you said, offer things to clients or open up new client sectors that you never thought you had, which is the key to growth.

Mike Cooper:
Absolutely. And it is - a lot of these things tie together cause you know, you talk about some of these things in the context of you know, of culture and a learning organization. It's, it's, it's part of culture. The, the other, the other thing that learning does, I think is it's, it sets a foundation that says it is okay to experiment. It is okay to explore. It's okay to fail. In, in, in design and engineering we know that the first solution we come up with is very, is rarely the one that actually gets built. The one that actually is constructed. There's an editor of process that goes along. We get better, we get stronger.

Mike Cooper:
And one of the favorite stories that I heard when I was in school was the story of WD 40. Right? We all know what WD-40 is. The name WD-40 stands for water displacement formula number 40, the inventor so strongly about the 39 attempts that came before that that he named the product to celebrate that. His story was there was no way to go from one to 40, you know formula number one taught him something that he used to develop number two, which taught him something he used to develop number three, and so on and so on. And you get to 40. There's no way to go from one to two to 40. It was a scientific process, a process of discovery. He realized that one through 39 weren't failures. They were steps right on the way to success. And a learning organization I think frees up people to explore and to look for new ways. Understanding that if, if this one way, if this thing doesn't work out, that's not a failure, we'll learn something from it, we'll come back stronger and we'll get there. But that, that trial and error mentality often gets us some of the products to rely on every day.

Host:
Yeah, absolutely. I'd say it's always interesting to look at what we actually use every day and realize that the end product wasn't actually the goal of the company or organization actually doing something that's just a byproduct of it. It's, I think a it wasn't oh, I forget what I remember in the, in the early, you know, early 20th century when, you know, the rubber manufacturers and, and the, and the, and the petroleum manufacturers. And I think some of the things that we use, I was some nylon derivative, I think was a complete mistake. And, and that's, you know, something that, that, that we know today and I forget exactly what it is, but it's, it's interesting to look at that kind of history. So really, I, you know, coming in and looking at all of these different ways to organize and develop you know a firm - when you, when you acquire talent, how critical is that onboarding stage and how important is it to start laying the groundwork for this kind of more inclusive and open a workplace that, you know, puts an emphasis on, on culture, on mission? How critical is it in that first 90 day period to really get someone into that system?

Mike Cooper:
Yeah, it's, it's sorta like the story of the first impression where you, you know, you've got one chance to make that first impression. And in a lot of ways that sets the tone for the relationship moving forward. It's really, really important. We talk a lot these days about the difference between engagement and employment. And so if, if you want people to be engaged, if you want them to really feel like they're a part of something bigger and act that way, then it starts with the recruitment. Just as you said, we, you know, you to you want to get them engaged in the organization, even through the interview process. You want people to feel like this is a place where they could find a home where they could be a part of and would give them a real satisfying, rewarding kind of an experience.

Mike Cooper:
And boy, when you're in, when you're in a 50 year low in unemployment I don't know that I can emphasize enough the importance of recruiting new talents and pulling out all the stops. It has never been harder to find people because we are so over employed, right? As a country. And so you know, we want to begin on day one. In fact, even, I'm looking at interns differently. If you can bring interns into the organization and maybe not just for summer, but maybe they work year round part-time and they work full time in the summer, but we're, we're building a connection. And we're building a relationship. So that when they, when an intern is ready to begin looking for a full time job, they don't really have to look. They already have a home. They already understand. And that's something that our organization does. And I know a lot of organizations are looking at.

Mike Cooper:
You know, bring people on, making that first impression. Jeff, as you said we want our staff to stay. We want them to recruit their friends and people that they know perhaps to come to our organization. And the way to do that is to really get them engaged. You know, you've got to, you know, we're asking people to work hard in return. We've got to communicate with them and we have to share information. If you want somebody to feel a part of the organization, they have to know what we do, why we do it, how we do it. There's very few things out there that that for me are, you know, out of bounds that we don't share.

Mike Cooper:
You know, we don't share, I wouldn't share health history of, of our, of our employees. I wouldn't share compensation or salary information. I certainly wouldn't share information that I'm contractually prohibited to share. But, but beyond that we should be open and honest. We should be authentic and make sure people feel like owners, they feel like they're a part of this thing because that's when they're going to buy in and they're going to rally around our purpose and they're going to do the work that needs to get done to help the organization succeed. Sort of goes back to what we talked about earlier. People do everything in an organization, so the more engaged they can become, the more a part of the organization, the stronger the emotional connection is. That's going to translate directly to the work.

Host:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's a lot of really good food for thought. For leaders, organizations and, and kind of how to approach just people and people management. And just getting everyone together on the same page, bought in on the same mission and, and just following through to success.

Mike Cooper:
And Jeff it's more fun.

Mike Cooper:
People that we ask people to work really hard when you're part of a winning team and you, you know, you like the people around you and you and you, you're working well, a cohesive unit, then those are the people who wake up in the morning and look forward to going to work.

Host:
Yeah

Mike Cooper:
Absolutely. And that's a part of this too. We work really hard, you know, there's gotta be a part of this that we really enjoy.

Host:
Yeah. And when you have that sense of ownership that that organizational success becomes individual success because you are part of that process and if you're part of that team, yeah. That, that, that really makes it personal. And it's beyond the, the numbers of course, you know, benefits and all that. And of course, salary, everyone you know, is working not just because it's personally beneficial and enriching, but also because, you know, you have to pay the bills. But that other intangible quality, that you're accomplishing something and that you're moving the ball forward and you're doing something greater than just, you know, on its face it could just, you know, be a a design task, could be an administrative task to be anything like that. But and I think the other, the other story right, is, is for NASA, you know, when, when they brought people down to Kennedy and they were talking to everyone about, you know, the space program and you know, a guy, a janitor was, was, you know, you know, sweeping the floor and, you know, the, the government people said, you know, what do you do here? And the janitor said, I'm, I'm putting somebody on the moon. Because he wasn't, that was, that was the overriding purpose of their existence there all the way down to the person who is sweeping the floors, they're all part of the same team that's going to put a man on the moon. So I mean, if you can get that into an organization that just leads to success.

Mike Cooper:
That's a great, it's a great story. You know, I, I sometimes I look at the organization like a jigsaw puzzle in that there's lots of pieces and if one piece is missing, it's not complete. And it doesn't matter which piece it is. And I think it echoes your story really well. We all are and we need every one of us to get where we want to go. That's a, it's a great story and I, and you hope that all of your people will, will feel that way, that we've done what we need to do so that the people who are part of the organization really feel that way. That that's, we're all, we're all here for that single purpose. That's great.

Host:
Absolutely. Well, Michael, thank you very much for, for taking the time today. There's a lot more to go into and I want to come have you back on the show because there are other aspects to this which we need to cover because I think the next time we should talk about how that new generation of engineers coming out of universities, the way they view work, the way they view their purpose. Like you said, it's moved into more of a purpose driven field. And how firms are kind of changing to meet that because it's not just a goal of people management. And then you get into the other issues that are equally important for clients to look at, which is, you know, CSR programs and things like that, which you know, potential clients are looking at more than just delivery. They're also looking at the type of organization that they're contracting with to do work for them. And that's a whole different, different conversation to have, which we should have pretty soon.

Mike Cooper:
Well, I would love to come back. I would look forward to that. There's an awful lot to talk about and all of it is really important. The next generation are not just going to be, you know, our employees. They're going to be leaders of our firms. They're going to be our clients. They're going to be leaders in government and in community. And so understanding, you know, their sensibilities and where they're coming from and leveraging that is going to is help all of us get to a better place. Got to start the conversation. Oh, that's great.

Host:
Yeah. Well, Michael, again, Michael Cooper, he's managing principal of HPD out of Southfield, Michigan. And he is a new vice chair on our executive committee at ACEC and look forward to seeing you, of course, at our conference coming up in in April. And hope to have you on sooner than that. Thank you again for being on.

Mike Cooper:
You're welcome. Thank you, Jeff. Have a great day.

Host:
You too.

 

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