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The Road Less Traveled

The Road Less Traveled

By Chad Clinehens

The phrase “the road less traveled” has been used many times. There are at least 10 albums as well as several television shows and movies that are titled using the phrase. It’s also a book by M. Scott Peck, given to me by the late Larry G. Pleimann (1934-2020) who has my structural engineering class professor at the University of Arkansas during my undergraduate years. 

Looking back, I now realize that Larry was the first person I would consider a mentor in my civil engineering journey. Structures was not an easy class for me, and so I used those office hours to get the help I needed. What I ended up with was more than just help on structures, but insight on the structure of my career and life. Our conversations were the first where I realized my interest in being a civil engineer was not for the traditional role, but rather an interest in a profession that was largely unknown to much of the university population and beyond. If you polled the 15,000 students at the University, engineering was the college where kids that liked math and science tended to go. Civil engineering was one of the five or so primary degree programs and also, the one with the lowest starting salary. Once I was in the program, I realized the full impact of civil engineers, essentially designing the world around us. How could this not be one of the most well-known and sought-after career choices. How could it not be the highest paid? 

Despite some of the challenges in the “CVEG” curriculum, Larry Pleimann started the conversation about what the road less traveled might look like and finding the “why” of my choice to become a civil engineer. After I graduated, the first 14 years of my career were spent at Garver, a firm well known for transportation and bridges in Arkansas and the surrounding states. The first 6 years of my career was spent in the design of municipal and state DOT transportation projects with some aviation projects as well. Those early years were certainly on a path that was well traveled and highly structured as the focus was on earning that professional engineers (PE) license. Early in my career, I was fortunate to find new mentors and to get the support I needed for my career to evolve and to find new roads. Since then, my roles evolved from marketing to strategy and now to an overall business resource for engineering firms though this awesome platform called Zweig Group.

Today, the generations have evolved significantly since my time sitting in Larry Pleimann’s office in the mid 90s. The current generation wants purpose more than ever, and civil engineering is one of the most purposeful careers, in my opinion. They also want training and development as it is now the number one ranked benefit from our Best Firms To Work For data. Training and development is not about putting everyone on a linear path to the same destination, it is about helping people find that road less traveled where they can contribute in a unique and powerful way. Here are some of the things I’ve discovered working with a number of firms over the past eight years:

Your people want mentors and role models. I hesitate to use the word “mentor” because it’s been so overused in most discussions of management in our industry. However, true and natural mentoring is a powering thing as I testified to. This is not a once-a-year lunch with someone that lacks interest or effort. It is taking the time to really get to know someone as an individual and then giving that person a lot of feedback and advice such that they become successful. That’s what real mentoring is all about. It is two-way as well– those who want to be mentored have to face their responsibility to seek out a mentor. Likewise, mentors have to do their part by being accessible, showing interest, and making time to build a relationship of trust. This is not a process that can just be mandated by top management. I highly doubt Larry Pleimann was handing out copies of “The Road Less Traveled” to every student. He took the time to get to know me and give me more than help on structures. He went beyond and gave me something that would serve me in the real world for the rest of my life. 

Your people want training. I am not just talking about computer and technical design training. Instead, they need training in the business of our business. The schools turning out the new grads aren’t, for the most part, providing this type of training. That is what attracted me to join Zweig Group eight years ago. In fact, our most recent data from our Principal, Partners, and Owners survey shows that only 41 percent of firm principals have ever had any college level business education. It’s up to leaders to show the next generation how to actually run an engineering firm. Spend some effort on this. It’s worth it to do it well as it will make your firm far more competitive.

Your people want a commitment from you. With the industry being so busy right now, “Employees’ sub-par work is addressed” is one of the lowest rated areas of the Best Firms To Work For data. Employees want us to be committed to their success and to inspire performance. When we do not confront people for being toxic or for underperformance, we are sending a dangerous message.  This management practice reinforces the idea that companies have no loyalty to their best employees— so why should the best employees be loyal to the company? Commitment to people means a commitment to management practices that send the right message.

People want to work in a well-managed organization. Related to the above, people want to work in a company that has a vision for excellence. That means that you operate at a profit, collect your money, do a business plan every year and follow it, invest in the necessary IT and marketing, the employee experience, and a whole lot more. One of the most powerful things you can use to market your firm to recruits in this highly competitive market, is a clear, written strategic plan that outlines where the company is going. Organizations like this share more information with their employees and are transparent. The “business of the business” is more important than ever in AEC.

As we look at what it takes to build a firm driven by purpose and performance, we can see that it is a lot of things. Evolving beyond a firm that is a “multi-discipline, regional firm that is client focused and provides solutions” and all that jargon requires finding the road less traveled and requires many of the things discussed here. Commitment to training and development is more than just lunch and learns. It is a true commitment to developing people on unique paths where they can soar. Mentoring is not just a formal program of check the box, it is authentic interest in growth and change. M. Scott Peck’s book is just that, an in-depth journey that makes for a fulfilled human being. Engineering firms are also a “being”, made up of the people. With a culture and personality that reflect the collective, when we invest in our people and help them find the road less traveled, our firms will evolve beyond the status quo – one that is filled with purpose and performance at a higher level. Larry Pleimann invested in me early by listening to me beyond just the help I needed with structures. He got to the “why” I was there in civil engineering. It was the first step of a transformational journey for me where I love what I do. Now that I reflect on those discussions, Zweig Group’s Elevate The Industry™ vision probably started there. As many of our readers may be experts in designing the actual roads we use everyday, let’s consider the roads of our lives that we can design. What can you do today to elevate your firm and find that road less traveled where purpose and performance of your people and the firm soars.

Chad Clinehens, P.E., is Zweig Group’s president and CEO. Contact him at cclinehens@zweiggroup.com.