ACEC Vice Chair and President of HED Design, Michael Cooper, stopped by the program to discuss how engineering firm executives can lead their firms through the COVID-19 crisis.  

Transcript:

Host:
Welcome to another edition of the Engineering Influence podcast from the American Council of Engineering Companies. Today. We are very pleased to be joined by Michael Cooper. He is the president of HED Design out of Southfield, Michigan. We had Mike on the program a few months ago to talk about leadership and of course that was a very different world than we are living in at the time. Now we find ourselves in a socially distanced remote work focused pandemic, which changes the way that leaders lead their firms, especially when they can't physically be there with their teams. So having Mike on to talk about this and really how to approach it and how do you deal with it is, is really important topic. So Michael, thank you so much for coming back on the show and, and hopefully you're safe, healthy, and remote.

Mike Cooper:
Gotcha. Thanks for thanks for having me back. Yes. Happily we are safe. We are healthy, we are remote and and like a lot of people, we are working through our circumstance as as best as we can. I'm hoping that we get through it quickly and painlessly. That's for sure.

Host:
How has it been with your firm to go from you know, your day to day normal operation to this new reality that we're living in? Was an easy switch to, did you already have a lot of remote working going on or, or was it a completely new thing?

Mike Cooper:
No, I think the answer is yes and yes, we did have a lot of remote working going on. We've got projects all over the country. We have people who are traveling routinely between our office locations. And so there's a, there's a a base level amount of remote work, travel and such that is always happening and probably been increasing for us. And then and then when, once, once we're in this situation, I think like a lot of people were forced with having to go to a virtually 100% you know, remote work environment overnight. And I'm happy to say our, our people were able to adapt to that very quickly. The technology was in place to be able to support that. And, and in talking to my peers at firms around the country, I'm hearing a similar story and maybe simply chocked up to you know it seems, it's probably easier to do these kinds of things than it seems when you don't have any other options. And I think for most of us, we really didn't have other options as, as it became apparent that that working remote and staying home was going to be the way to protect our people. That's just what you have to do and you have to find a way to do it.

Host:
Yeah. It's just being forced to adapt and you know, that creates a lot of opportunity for creativity, finding work arounds. And just making it happen. And that's what happened to us. I mean, you know, as an organization, ACEC is very, you know, focused on physically being there. We have a very tight knit group in the office. And to go from one day essentially coming into the office to the next day going to centralized. It was a shift and it worked because we had no other choice. But it does after a while, you know, you get caught into this Groundhog day kind of thing. And I know one of the, one of the things that you always talk about is looking at that big picture from a leadership perspective. It's that whole idea of, of you can't be focused on the day to day, still gonna get that big picture view and, you know, what, what are your thoughts about, you know, what a leader should do to stay focused on the big picture?

Mike Cooper:
Yeah. I think you've, you've got, you've got to start with, with identifying some core principles that, that that, that you're going to, that are going to ground you and that you're going to use moving forward. You know, there, there's no playbook for a global pandemic where we're, we're almost overnight. We see the revenue drop, we see our customers having difficulties projects going on hold and the economy really struggling. And so, you know for me, you start out with the understanding that that safety remains and is always job one. You know, you talked about people before we were in this circumstance. You know, our success, the success of our organizations is driven by people. And I will tell you that through the circumstance that we're currently in the same holds true. And let's begin by saying that, that, that the safety of our people, the health of our people is gonna remain job one.

Mike Cooper:
And then we've got a, we've got to look at two things and we've got to look at them simultaneously. We've got to look at the current situation we have to look at today. And we've got to find a way to work together to get through, let's say the next four to six months. You know, we know that we've got a you know, we've got to safeguard the physical and the psychological safety of our people. Got to help them get through the stance because there's a lot of anxiety be being created here, whether it's financial anxiety or job stability or health anxiety or the anxiety of being at home with a young family when, when school is, is suspended, whatever that is. We've, we've gotta be paying attention to our folks. We've gotta be working to position our firms to weather the storm and to come out on the other side.

Mike Cooper:
You know, I think in the short term, we're looking at cashflow impacts as we try to weather revenue reductions and, and so we've gotta be looking at how we can position us and make it through the circumstance too so we can get back doing what it is that we do. And then we've got to find ways of minimizing the impact of this to our staff. We've, we've made huge investments as organizations in our people. You know, the, the cares act and, and the stimulus initiatives that the federal government has, has has, has rolled out are and will continue to be very helpful to our companies. And we've got to work to make sure we're taking full advantage of that and doing everything in our power to try to get through this, try to get through it safely and try to get through it, you know, minimally impacting our people.

Mike Cooper:
And then while we're doing that, we've got to remain committed to the mission of the organization. We will get through this. And, and we have to be thinking about the future and thinking about how we position our firms so that when we do get through it, we are prepared for what the markets will look like that and what our firms will look like. And, and because things are gonna change and we've gotta be prepared to get back to business. But get back to business and potentially a new or modified marketplace a new reality for us.

Host:
Yeah, that's the thing. I mean everybody's kind of in this area of uncertainty together because we know that there's going to be a change. We know this is going to and can go on forever, but the world of that will, you know, we'll walk into after this is over is going to be quite different from the one that we had just a few months ago. The market's going to be different. The marketplace, the demand, the focus is going to be different. And having that focus on mission of an organization is very important because as people are working decentralized and remotely, they still have to be driven by that organizational mission. And at the same time they're also working in a different way because the way that they work is just fundamentally changed. It's not just physical distance, but it's also the fact that work is omnipresent because it's right there at your doorstep. It's either in an office or your living room or kitchen table. Timeframes are different. Challenges are, you know, technology focused, but not the question of work life balance, all things get thrown into the mix. As a leader, how do you manage that? How do you address that and try to get your people still focused on mission but still effective in getting that mission accomplished?

Mike Cooper:
Well, I think we start out let's start out by, by understanding, you know, sort of where we are and how, how work has changed for us now, right? So remote work is now the rule, not the exception. And so we've got to make sure that we understand what impact that has to our staff, to our partners, our contractor partners, our clients. The greater reliance on technology says that we've got to adapt to what, what always has been in person activities and in our world and design in engineering, you know, planning of projects and quality assurance are, have always been things that we get together and do. So now we've got to rely on our infrastructure. And that means you know, enhanced security and redundancy. Greater reliance on the cloud.

Mike Cooper:
We've got a we've got to address challenges that are not solved through technology. You know, like I said before, schools are closed. So what do you do for folks who are home because their kids are not in school. And even if the stay at home orders are relaxed, it doesn't solve all of it, those problems. So we're going to have to look at a more flexible environment. What we're seeing now is project work. Perhaps it's being done out of sequence, right? If field activities are when we can still advance projects, but we have to do it in different way. The way that we work through tasks and projects previously is not necessarily the way we're doing it today. And then you brought up something which I think is really important, which is work life balance when you're working in your life are happening in the same place.

Mike Cooper:
It is hard to have balance. And so we've got to set expectations for people to help them. Because it can't be, you know, that work, it happens, you know, from six o'clock in the morning until midnight because your computer happens to be open and it happens to be right there on your dining room table or you know, when you're walking by every 30 minutes, we've got to help them pull through that. So you know, Jeff, step one for me is what's let's build priorities as a leader. Let's build some priorities for ourselves and what was I said before. We're going to start out with safety first and make sure we're focused there. And then let's make sure we're educated. Excuse me, as from leaders. Are, are we, are we looking at, at what's being put out by the world health organization, by the CDC so that we understand what is happening with the situation, which is evolving.

Mike Cooper:
Let's make sure we're being decisive because things are changing quickly. We need to make decisions move. Maybe we need to move on to the next thing. And these are all things I think that we directly to, how do your, your question of how we help our staff you know, because you know taking care of our company and ensuring our future viability, prosperity or relevancy is one of the best ways that we can take care of our staff. And so you know, understanding the macro implications for the business for the market sector. So as I said, and this is going to change things and let's make sure that we're understanding what forces are acting on our business, both, both internal forces and external forces. You know, as an example, the construction industry and what's happening there is greatly impacting what's happening in the design industry.

Mike Cooper:
You know, we're not a construction company, but I can, I can tell you that what's happening out there with construction companies is impacting us. So it's important that I'm aware of it and I understand it. I said earlier, you know, build a, build a plan to get through the next four to six months and follow it week to week. Like it's a project. This is the most crucial time for our organizations. And so we've got to make sure that we navigate this period. So we get back to doing what it is that we do. And then now we start to transition into, okay, so, so for our teams, let's make sure, number one, we're leveraging our teams. All of us are smarter than any of us and so let's communicate our plans and let's make sure that there's buy in so that they feel like they're owners of the plan and their stakeholders because ultimately it's our people that will drive the plan.

Mike Cooper:
Any plan that we put together is going to be driven by the individuals. And so let's make sure that our individuals, that our staff is on board to make sure they understand what we're doing, why we're doing it, how we're doing it. Make sure we're over communicating in a world like we're in today. You over communicate, you be positive, but be realistic. Credibility is everything right now because there's so much out there. Being, being delivered to people. There's so much news and so much chatter, so much commentary. Our staff has to trust that we're, what we're delivering to them is, is the honest, current way to information that is available. Again, so that they, that they're, they feel part of what's happening and they can help us navigate this. And then for leaders, one of the big things that we forget is we have to manage ourselves.

Mike Cooper:
We feel stress. We have the same work life balance other people have. We need to stay focused. And if we don't take time out of our day, if we don't exercise and we don't get outside and walk around the block and we don't take a minute to get away, then we're not going to be effective at our jobs either. Yeah. We, we, we talk about this with our staff. We've got to also remember this when it comes to ourselves. We don't do anybody any good. If we're strung out and we're, we're running on no sleep caffeine, trying to do everything. It's, you know, we've got big responsibilities, but we've got to take care of ourselves to make sure that we can do those things successfully.

Host:
Absolutely. I mean, yeah, you said there's no guidebook for this. There's no playbook that says this is how you manage during a pandemic when you have not only the work disruption of not physically being able to be there, but then also this greater, you know, overarching threat of this pandemic kind of looming over everyone's heads and everybody has their own reaction to that. And that all kind of feeds in to the day to day work life and then, and then the, you know, the personal life. And it's, it's interesting because, you know, as a president of a firm, you have a a whole umbrella of challenges and concerns that you have to deal with on a daily basis. And a vice president or even a manager who is, you know, now in charge of a team has a, has a number of direct reports is you know, the client lead on some projects, you know, they might not have the benefit of experience of going through a trauma like this. What are some of the, like the top line things that you would recommend or you would give advice to someone who is in an early leadership role? And has to deal with this? Both. Both, you know, we kind of addressed the team, but almost managing up of setting expectations, talking to from leadership and, and just making sure that, you know, they're adequately meeting their responsibilities in this, this time we find ourselves in.

Mike Cooper:
So yeah, it advice to them, you know, number one boy, a heck of a time to take out a new leadership role. But it's vitally important. Yeah, and I, and I, I would start you know, by understanding how vitally important those those supervisors are right now. Because the, the, the engagement, keeping our people engaged, keep you know, keeping them feeling like they're part of the organization, we're continuing to move forward when we feel so isolated is so vitally important to our ability to continue to serve projects and clients. So the top line things you tell them, the newer supervisors, number one you know, communicate, communicate, tell us what you need. Tell us what's going on at, at, at, you know, at ground level from, from your perspective. Let's make sure we're talking about this.

Mike Cooper:
Let's make sure we're talking about what's necessary every day. So that, that, that number one may feel like we, we, we care about what they're doing. They're people and, and them and what they're going through. And, and, and so number one is if in managing, you've got to communicate and, and let's make sure we're talking. And then secondly you know, there's this notion of, of, of truth to power. You've got to be truthful. If there are issues you've gotta, you gotta you gotta speak up and you gotta talk about them so we can solve them in any world. You know, issues don't get easier to solve as time goes by. But right now in this circumstance, you, nothing can fester you, we've got very little room to retreat right now. And so if there's an issue, we've got to jump on it right now.

Mike Cooper:
And my, my advice there would be, you know, be as transparent and honest as we can be and if there's an issue, let people know there's an issue and let's talk about how we resolve that issue so that we can move on to the next one. And then the last thing I would say is, is make sure that you are engaging your staff every day. Reaching out, you know, getting groups of people together, reaching out to them. And this is especially true perhaps for the younger, for the newer staff to the organization. They don't know as many people. They're not as knowledgeable about the company and they're going to feel more isolated than others will be. And reaching out to those folks in particular. Well and making sure that they feel like they're like, they're still a part of the organization, that we're still thinking about them and we care about them. We'll, we'll pay big dividends down the line because those folks, while while learning today and building their knowledge base today, you know, those are going to be the leaders of our firms tomorrow.

Host:
Yeah. Those are the three bedrock kind of qualities of leadership and communication, transparency and engagement. And they're important every day, but more so in a crisis. And it all boils down to that. It's just being open, telling your people what it is and you know, how things are and then being open to hear their concerns and, and, and being engaged with your team. And then also the leaders of the firm that, that you report to. Those are those, you know, it's kind of interesting because it's, it's fairly you know, like I said, it's the building blocks. It's kind of the basic thing. It's just, it reinforces how important those building blocks are because they just get amplified in a situation like this.

Mike Cooper:
Jeff, in times like this, you do, you go back to, to the fundamentals blocking and tackling and you know, you'd be amazed at how far a personal phone call to just say, Hey, how are you doing? I was thinking about ya. How much that means to people. When, when they're not seeing their coworkers and they're feeling a bit isolated and they're worried about the circumstances that, that are, that are at play, those, those fundamental things, they mean a lot right now. And I think if we get those things right we, we end up with a team of people that are all pulling the same direction, working us through the circumstance we find ourselves in.

Host:
Absolutely. So let's, let's, I guess, flip the coin and talk about, since we've already covered kind of the firm side, the employee side, let's talk about the client side. You know, they're having their own issues. They're having their own challenges in dealing with the pandemic. How would you suggest a firm right now deal with client expectations, client communication, the critical things that need to happen to keep the business afloat. You know, that's, that has its own see of challenges. But what are some of your thoughts on that?

Mike Cooper:
Well, I think let's, let's recognize that if you're talking about, you know, clients and projects, it's a little bit more challenging to be, to be doing this when we can't be together in, in one place. So, you know, sort of going back to the old mainstay of communication, you know, we're telling our project teams, make sure we're getting, you know, that we're pulling together now multiple times a week, sometimes every day. Just to make sure that people are connecting and, and, and that communication wants to include the client. We want to make sure we're talking to our clients on a very regular basis. We want to understand what their situation is. Because like ours, their situation is also changing rapidly. And we want to understand what they need and cause again, because their needs are also changing. So because we asked them today doesn't mean that a week or two down the line those things haven't changed.

Mike Cooper:
And so let's stay in contact with our clients. Even if it's just to say, Hey, how you doing? You know, what's going on? How can we help? What do you need? Those things go a long way. You know, they're trying to maintain their focus as well. So we want to continue to find ways to support their projects, to support their initiatives, to navigate through these challenges. Even if we have to, as I talked earlier, maybe take a different road or go a little bit out of what a normal sequence would be. But let's make sure that we're doing what we can do to support them, to advance their projects, to help them get through this to continue to show value. You know, I in the big picture, you know, by continuing to show value, by continuing to support our clients it makes it easier for them to continue to keep us engaged with them and it makes it easier for them to continue to pay for design services.

Mike Cooper:
And I think, you know, we're in a world where where we have financial challenges, we're going to have cashflow challenges. So, you know, being deemed valuable and being relevant and being of service, you know, it not only does it help from a marketing and business development perspective, it helps the financial position as well. Because of our clients continue to pay us, then we can continue to to meet our obligations, to take care of our staff and to be able to continue to serve them. And then Jeff, we've got to also pivot and start thinking about life after Covid-19 and help our clients work through that, you know, trends, worker expectations adapting and preparing and you can look at just a couple of examples that I think most of us can understand. You know, the, the, the education institutions, the institutions of higher education you know, they they often will use larger lecture halls, right?

Mike Cooper:
They'll bring hundreds of people into a space and that space will be infused with technology and they'll have a professor or sometimes more than one talk to a large group of people. And we, we went very quickly from that to an online platform. And, and the question is, are we going to go right back to the large gatherings like we had before or is there going to be something else? Are we going to be maybe looking at more of a hybrid? Are we going to be looking at maybe smaller groups, more online or remote learning? I tend to think that, that we will to some degree. And so you know, there's an opportunity for us to work through some of these issues with our clients to be able to help them understand what's possible, what options they have, how their spaces, how their facilities, how their systems can support different types of, of, of learning.

Mike Cooper:
Things that maybe we haven't seen, but we will see. And I think likewise, we're seeing it in offices all across the country. We, you know, newer offices see, you know, a lot of benching of staff. They see collaboration spaces, they see social spaces built around people coming together, sometimes plan, sometimes spontaneous because you know, idea generation and innovation happens when people come together in groups. Well, when, when, when we go back are we going to feel the same way? Are we going to expect a little bit more distance between individuals? Are, are we going to gather the way what we did before? And, and I expect again, that there are going to be some changes in, in sensibilities and expectations. And this is an opportunity for us to work with our clients to talk about how space can be reimagined because we now know some new things. We've experienced something altogether. People are thinking differently. And how can we respond with systems, with space to, to, to get people comfortable and to, and to, to, to create productive spaces in a new world where there's a new way of thinking and and, and we've got we've gotta be able to, to address the now, but also pivot towards what's coming and, and have those conversations with our clients.

Host:
Absolutely. And you know, it's an interesting time because it's a challenge, but at the same time, as you mentioned, you know, looking towards a post COVID-19 reality, there's also opportunity here where you can help your firms or help your clients rather look to the future and uncover or try to figure out what they might need addressing this new world. And you know it's one of those old, I guess the old adage where, you know, in, in the midst of crisis there's opportunity and it's really important for firms to look at how can we grow, how can we change, how can we adapt to this new reality we find ourselves in? And that kind of ties right into the way that leaders need to be managing the actual business side of the firm to position themselves so that they can emerge out of this crisis, you know, not just whole but potentially with a new opportunity for business growth. How do you manage that side of things? The actual management side of, you know, the keeping the lights on and, and the and the business afloat kind of situation - in a situation like this?

Mike Cooper:
Yeah, I think the first thing we have to remember, you know, it's okay to think, you know, to think that we're in crisis mode, but let's not forget to run our business the way that we know how we have to continue to run our businesses because we will get through this. And to your point. So number one is let's, you know, let's remember that we are problem solvers, right? We are, we are methodical thinkers. This is what we do for our clients. This is what we do every day. And let's take a step back. And number one, we know that, that our world has changed our financial picture, our revenue, our workload. Let's model what we believe is happening and to the best of our ability. So let's see what we believe the impacts are and let's build a plan that we can implement to begin to get us through.

Mike Cooper:
Let's align the organization to the new reality. And that means you know, let's focus on clients and projects. You know, I unfortunately, and I, and I feel terrible about saying this, but we have to make adjustments in our organization and in our staffing in order to in order to align with, with the work that our client, that our, our clients are bringing us in the projects that we have. Let's curtail non essential initiatives and investments. Let's make sure that we're, we're focusing really on the core business, on our projects, on our clients and less on some of the other things. And, and remember Jeff, in these circumstances, it's better to be because there's so much uncertainty. It's better to overreact a little bit than it is to under-react if you overreact and you've got to pull back a little bit early you know and, and, and let go of some things that were done, that's fine.

Mike Cooper:
That's, that's easy to ease up a little bit. But if you under-react, then you end up in a mode where you're constantly trying to catch up to what's happening to you. And it's very difficult to be in that situation. So, you know, my advice there is to take decisive action. We don't exactly know what's coming. We don't have a crystal ball, but take decisive action and hope that we can know that we can retreat from that sooner than later. But if you wait too long you sometimes pay a price for doing it. And that, and then I think had on, you know, you've got to address the immediate challenge. And for most of us it's cashflow. So let's make sure that we are taking advantage of the stimulus funding that's been made available to us. Let's make sure we're utilizing our lines of credit.

Mike Cooper:
You know, effectively and appropriately if we have cash reserves is now the time to begin to think about using those ask for release for some of the larger expenses. It might be rent, it might be insurance but see if, if there's an opportunity to get some sort of a relief, this is something that we're all going through. And I think what, what people may find is that our creditors are more open to working with us than maybe we think they are because one of the things they're experiencing, people are just, they've just stopped paying their bills. They've just stopped. And, and if, if somebody, if you're approached and say, listen, I want to continue paying, but can we modify the schedule a little bit? Is there some way we can get some near term relief? You know, you might be surprised at how many people be open to a discussion like that. In fact, I would tell you with respect to expenses you know, ask for deferment for as much as you can get to shore up your cash position today. You know, you don't know if you don't ask.

Host:
Absolutely. Yeah. Especially in this world. To be in that situation.

Mike Cooper:
Oh, for sure. You know, I think, you know, it, he continue to adhere to what he has has worked. You know, we have proven processes and procedures for planning projects, coordinating quality assurance for monitoring their performance of our work. For business development and marketing strategic hires that may advance the organization. We should continue to run our business and continue to adhere to those proven processes that got us here. You know, we should still do the things we know, lead to success, continue to do them for sure. We're doing them differently. You know, we've got, we're, we're doing them remotely, we're doing the through technology, but that doesn't mean we have to abandon what we know works. And then I would tell you start planning for a return to normality. And share that with the staff. Let your people know that, that you are looking ahead to when things returned to normal.

Mike Cooper:
And this isn't the way it's going to be in perpetuity or we are stuck in the mud right here. We have to work our way out of this, but there is a future for our firms and for our industry. And, and we need to prepare our, you know, for, for our offices to accommodate people. Again, we have to prepare for new ways of working and let's bring our people into that discussion. And, and not forget about strategy and planning. You said earlier you know, you talked about a circumstance like this and opportunities that are born out of it and there is no question that opportunities will emerge. What are they what are the sectors that will recover the fastest? How can I use resources? I may have today that are under utilized to build capabilities in new sectors. You know, how can I leverage where we are today to, to prepare myself for the opportunities to come? And those are the things that besides helping our businesses and our organizations prepare, those are also the things that will help keep our people engaged. It'll give them rallying points. You know, we, we, you don't want to think about all of the challenges and all of the negative things all day long. It's also nice to look ahead and think about some of the opportunities and the positive things that will, will come. And so let's make sure we aren't losing sight of that and that we're talking about those things too.

Host:
Yeah, absolutely.

Host:
All extremely good points and good information for business leaders and those leaders who are, you know, on that ladder towards management or executive management. And it's, it's, it's an interesting time. It's, it's challenging time. There is opportunity to be found, but I think taking into consideration everything that we talked about, it's just that leadership that is boiled down to being open, being engaged and being transparent, looking for opportunities, making the tough decisions. You know, it, that's really what will drive companies forward. Hopefully this does end rather soon so we can get back to the normal business at hand. But without question one way or another we're going to be changed. Definitely because of this pandemic. And the industry is going to have to adapt to it. And hopefully, hopefully we have leaders who are taking these steps and taking this advice to heart so that the industry can come out of it stronger because of it.

Mike Cooper:
So yeah. Well, you know, our industry has been blessed with strong leadership for, for decades and decades. And I think we know, you know, those who have been through these kinds of situations before, you know, let's say the great recession of 2009, 2010, you know, they, they know we're going to get through this and they know that we've got to do what we need to do. Now. We've got to take the actions we need to take to make sure that we get through, but you know, the sun will shine again and we will be back doing the things that we do. To your point, we may be doing things differently, there may be a different environment. And, and we need to be mindful of that. You know, our, our industry is ever changing and ever evolving. But, but we'll get there if we do the things we know we need to do to get through to, to get to the future, we've got to take care of today. And if we do that we'll be okay.

Host:
Absolutely. Well, again, it's been a fantastic bunch of insights from you, Michael on leadership and, and this is a great topic and I want to revisit it hopefully under clearer skies and and more normal operations than what we find ourselves in right now. But I really appreciate the time and the thoughts that you have on the subject. It's just great to have them and hope that you stay safe, stay healthy and that your firm is comes out thriving and poised to take on whatever comes next.

Mike Cooper:
Well, I appreciate that. I hope the same for you and I very much look forward to speaking again when we are maybe through this and on to the other side.

Host:
Absolutely. Well, I will see you virtually the Saturday maybe at the board meeting.

Mike Cooper:
And yes, that'll be interesting.

Host:
And hopefully sooner rather than later in person. So Michael Cooper, Michael Cooper, he's, he's he's great on multiple levels. He's a great leader and his insights on leadership are wonderful to hear. Roy w thank him for being on the show again today. And we will see you next time on our next edition of engineering Influence from the American Council of Engineering Companies.

 

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