Coffee With a CEO: Joel Storrow of McGill Associates

We are so excited about the launch of our new newsletter. We hope you will enjoy it and you will gain valuable insight and industry information!  In this inaugural edition, we are also launching the first of many ‘Coffee With a CEO’ interviews specific to the AEC niche. Why is this important? It’s an inside look at the career path into a leadership role for those of you who are currently early or mid-point in your careers.  For those of you already in leadership positions, it’s a chance to gain information and best practices from some of the best in the business. My relationship with Joel Storrow is a special one and one that has spanned more than 13 years. It is with great pleasure that I introduce our new newsletter with an old and dear friend, Joel Storrow who is the President of McGill Associates.

Juli: Tell me about your journey to become an engineer? 

Joel: My grandmother was the secretary for the Dean of Civil Engineering at the University of Kentucky and she would take me to the exhibits in the civil engineering department when I was a kid. It all just fascinated me.   

Juli: How did you select your school?

Joel: I wanted to go away to college and Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Purdue were my choices. Purdue won out because a buddy of mine went there too and we roomed together. You think about going away to school today, it is so expensive. It was $600/semester for tuition! Can you imagine that now? 

Juli: When you were graduating from college, did you ever think you would be leading a firm as the President?

Joel: No of course not. I was only thinking about getting a job with an established firm. It was tough times in the early 80’s. I went back to my hometown of Lexington and got a great job under so many really good seasoned engineers. My first job was with Howard K Bell Consulting Engineering – the oldest firm in Kentucky. The founder’s son Grant Bell would always walk around and mentor the younger engineers – the man was brilliant. My colleagues and I could not have had a better start in our career. He wrote a design manual for the company that became our Bible. Mr. Bell lived and breathed civil engineering and I was in the right place at the right time. But no, I just wanted to be a good engineer. I never envisioned leading a company one day.  

Juli: What things were you involved in as young person that prepared you for your role today? 

Joel: I could answer that in a lot of different ways. Boy Scouts was really huge for me in helping develop me. I was in an active troop and I became a summer camp leader. I was in some leadership roles and had the chance to mentor younger kids. I became an Eagle Scout; it really was a really important milestone in my early years. 

Juli: What advice would you tell your 25-year old self?

Joel: Stay technical in your focus and volunteer for a variety of assignments – it’s why Bell was a perfect first job. They did a variety of things and I was afforded the opportunity to get a broad exposure to lots of different projects. 

Juli: How would you describe your mindset as a leader?

Joel: I am a consensus builder… probably to a fault sometimes. I try hard to gauge everyone’s opinions, but I am decisive if I need to be. I am approachable, any employee can come and talk to me. How I want to be remembered as President is the guy who knew everyone’s name. I try to stop by each and everyone’s office and say hi even just for a few minutes. I enjoy little things like, when we rebranded the website we had a big launch with a webinar and breakfast for the whole office. Before that, the marketing department gathered inspirations from people within the company about what they like about working for McGill. One of the younger employees said when it comes to the President, he didn’t know how I can know everyone so personally. That inspired me to try and live up to that. 

Juli: As I look back on my own career, I feel like each decade is filled with new lessons.  What’s one of the biggest lessons you have learned in the past decade?

Joel: I have become more accepting of disappointments of projects that we didn’t get, recruits we couldn’t hire and acquisitions we didn’t close. The biggest lesson though would be to stop long enough to celebrate the wins. It can be a lonely place, a lot rests on your shoulders because you have people’s livelihoods depending on you. I started here when we had 40 employees and 2 offices and now we have 165 employees and 10 offices. 

Juli: How did the Great Recession change you?

Joel: It caused me to be more cautious in big picture growth. When it happened, we were poised to be a $20M company and we were really doing well. Then that first quarter everything tanked and we got busy trimming. It really caused us to be much better at budgeting and doing a top-down budget. That became a more realistic approach to budgeting. I became more deliberate in some of my decision making.

Juli: What’s the thing that keeps you “up at night” with regard to leading your firm?

Joel: Positioning ourselves to be competitive. It’s SO competitive now. There are so many firms that have come into the market. Also, are we recruiting effectively to staff the projects? 

Juli: What’s a piece of advice you would give a younger engineer who has just gotten their first leadership role?

Joel: Work hard to earn the respect of your peers but, don’t forget where you came from. Don’t get a big head. You have to command respect and you have to give respect to the people that you work with. Don’t be “that guy”. Get involved with civic and volunteer programs in your community. It has really helped me gain perspective on something other than just working the day job. 

Juli: What’s the best book or the best movie you have seen lately?

Joel: I read a lot. The book I am reading right now is First Man by James Hanson. It’s a book about Neil Armstrong and they have since made a movie out of it. It’s fascinating. He’s historically as good a role model for leadership as anyone. We could learn a lot from Neil Armstrong about quiet leadership. 

Juli: If you had another hour each day, what would you do with it?

Joel: That’s easy! I’d go for a trail run. I don’t get to do enough of it as I’d like. Going running allows you to think, it clears your mind. It makes me happy.  

Juli: Any professional regrets?

Joel: I wish I’d written more technical papers. I worked on some cool projects as a young engineer but didn’t formally write about them. You need to stay as technically relevant as you can as a CEO. 

Juli: What’s one career achievement you are most proud of?

Joel: I designed a water treatment plant for Woodfin, a small community near Asheville, in the early 90’s to comply with an EPA rule. It actually became a template for the company’s water treatment plants in the region. It’s so close to town and when my kids were young, I’d take their elementary class to see it for career day field trips. 

Juli: Thank you Joel for sharing your wonderful wisdom & knowledge with us!

Download a copy of Joel’s interview here.


Interviews: Faberge Egg or Soccer Ball?

As an executive recruiter, I talk to a lot of candidates. Hundreds in a weeks’ time so it continues to amaze me (to the point of scratching my head) why a company would treat a potential candidate in the manner that they do. So, if you are in the position of recruiting and attracting candidates for your firm ask yourself this question: Do I treat this candidate like a beautiful and potentially valuable asset to our firm (think Faberge Egg) or do they leave our firm feeling like a soccer ball being kicked down the hall?

Clues you might be a ‘Faberge Egg’ interviewer:

You sell them: You spend the first 30 minutes sharing the wonderful attributes of working at your company and why it’s a great place to call home
It’s easy: Your online application process takes less than 10 minutes to complete
You keep them in the loop and follow through: You make every candidate feel welcome and valued throughout the interview process by constant communication throughout
You send THEM a thank-you for taking their time to consider your organization
You close the loop: You follow up with every candidate that you do not hire with a call or an email to let them know you have hired someone else

Clues you might be a ‘Soccer Ball’ interviewer:

Your first interview feels like a trip to the dentist: You spend the first 30 minutes grilling the candidate on their reasons for leaving each job and you have a 5-part interview process that includes a 2 hour panel interview (think firing squad)
Your application is onerous: Your online application is more complicated than filling out the FAFSA
Your process takes forever: Your interview process drags on for weeks and months as you work through “your process” of “screening out” candidates who are not worthy
You leave them hanging: You end the interview with “We’ll be in touch if we are interested” and never get back with the candidate
You are discourteous: You bother don’t respond to an email from the candidate thanking YOU for taking time to meet with him
You are rigid: You make no accommodations for before work or after work interview times (if they want to work for us badly enough, they should take a vacation day to meet with us when it’s convenient for us)
You don’t value their time: You check your smart phone and respond to messages during the interview

These may seem like silly things, but all of these are examples of feedback I have heard from candidates. If you continue to do what you have always done, you will continue to get what you have been getting. We are at war, a war for talent. The number of contacts it takes to engage a candidate to come and meet with you has gone up exponentially in the past several years so that speaks to the point: Interviewing is essentially like dating…are you treating this person with kid gloves like you are handling a Faberge Egg or are you treating them like a soccer ball and kicking them through the process?



Creating a Culture of Confidence

Turns out, there are benefits that come from being a cocky teenager. Although your parents might have been counting down the days until you flew the nest, that swagger means you’ll likely end up earning a higher salary than those of your more modest friends. According to the Journal of Economic Psychology, their “Self-Esteem and Earnings” study showed that your level of confidence is at least as important as how smart you are when it comes to how much money you end up making. In fact, self-esteem can affect salary as much as cognitive ability.

So, besides providing a silver lining for parents of arrogant adolescents, what does the Journal’s study mean for the workplace?

Confidence increases productivity and causes you to choose more challenging tasks, which make you stand out amongst your peers. You naturally create a more cohesive workplace environment; confident people celebrate the accomplishments of others as opposed to insecure individuals who try to steal the spotlight and criticize others in order to prove their worth. Speaking first and often (a sign of high self-esteem) makes others perceive you as a leader. In fact, over-confident people are more likely to be promoted than those who have actually accomplished more.

“This is the classic definition of self-efficacy, and it may be the most central belief driving individual success. People who believe they can succeed see opportunities, where others see threats. They are not afraid of uncertainty or ambiguity, they embrace it. They take more risks and achieve greater returns. Given the choice, they bet on themselves.”
– Marshall Goldsmith, “The Success Delusion”

The fact that successful people tend to be delusional isn’t as bad as it sounds; our belief in our own eminence is what gives us confidence. Even though we are not as good as we believe we are, this confidence actually helps us become more than we would have otherwise.

Even for the most tenured of individuals, this applies. How do successful people wake up each morning with zest and enthusiasm to tackle another day? It’s not because they are reminding yourself of the mistakes they have made and the failures they have endured. On the contrary, it’s because they edit out those failures and choose to run the highlight reel of their successes. When actions lead to positive results that make us look good, we love to replay it for ourselves – and we should! That optimism is what gives us the ability to stay the course and not buckle when times get tough or challenges arise.

Now, the intent of this article is certainly not to encourage narcissistic self-obsessed behavior impervious to external criticism; rather, to be the best at anything often requires you to be your own harshest critic. But if confidence makes us feel good, gives us grit, and makes for a more productive workplace, what can we do to instill confidence in those we lead? Of course, the phrase “fake it until you make it” offers one approach; forcing a smile can lift one’s mood and striking a powerful pose can make you feel more commanding even when in doubt. As a leader, how can you create a confidence-boosting environment?

First, set reasonable expectations. Set the bar where it really is on an individual basis, as opposed to universal standards that may not be met. In other words, redefine what it means to be competent and highlight the small incremental gains needed to build a bridge from current achievement to future potential. Focus on small wins each day; authentic confidence is a result of success, not a cause.

Second, consider retraining the brain on how to interpret fear of failure. When facing a daunting task that incites insecurity, replace negative thoughts of intimidation with positive ones relating to the opportunity at hand. Ask “I know this is a big project to tackle – what are you most excited about?” or “What are you most interested in learning as a result of taking on this new assignment?” Adrenalin is the same for fear and for excitement; by replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, you let adrenaline work for you instead of against you.

Third, focus on learning from failures. Believing in yourself is good; forgiving yourself is better. Even the most successful, competent people are constantly making mistakes – that’s how we learn.

“The responsibility of a leader is to provide cover from above for their people who are working below. When the people feel that they have the control to do what’s right, even if it sometimes means breaking the rules, then they will more likely do the right thing.
Courage comes from above. Our confidence to do what’s right is determined by how trusted we feel by our leaders.”
– Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last

To see failure in a positive light, keep a running list of lessons learned along the way. Every time you make a mistake, write down what you learned and how you will avoid replicating the mistake in the future. Although this might seem counter-productive (who wants to see a checklist of what not to do), it will serve as a historical log of how skills have improved and how those lessons helped shape who you are today.

Finally, keep in mind that confidence and competence are closely related. In nature, plants either grow or decompose; they do not stay the same. In an organization, nourishment is supplied by the broad term of training, but a more accurate term is learning. What is being done within your organization to foster learning, growth, and new perspectives each week? To increase the confidence of those in your charge, it is imperative to nurture an ongoing learning environment through access to courses, conferences, or take on a pet project they are passionate about. The aggregation and implementation of these various tips can serve to boost confidence and thus performance of the organization as a whole!

—Karen Schmidt


Driving Your Own Career

Lately in this incredibly candidate-driven market, I have seen posts outlining “Hot Jobs” and “We’re Hiring” (yours truly included in this mass) but as I was thinking about this it occurred to me, how many of you have really sat down to chart out a career strategy for yourself? Are you just cruising along waiting for something to happen TO you or are you being intentional about making solid career decisions FOR yourself? Is your career in an autonomous vehicle or are you at the wheel?

More than 80% of the candidates I have placed in the past 3 years (since I started tracking this metric) were not actively looking for a “hot job” when I called them. They weren’t actively looking but they were not necessarily planning to retire for their current firm either- most were just cruising along, “making the donuts” and not being intentional. My conversations start out as a soft inquiry about where they are in their career today and more importantly where do they want to go? What challenge do they want in the next position that they may not get if they stay where they are? How many people are in line ahead of them for that next career move? Are they getting the proper career mentoring from someone within the walls of their company? What shocks me so often is how complacent some people are about their own career. It’s as if they are waiting for someone else to be driving their career and not them.

It’s a good thing to be thinking about this at least once a year. If your company does regular annual reviews I suggest sitting down in a quiet area for an hour or two with a notepad and really thinking and reflecting about what you accomplished in the past year. What hurdles did you overcome? What have you accomplished? What is the next career challenge for you and what’s the timing on that? Does the next step include more education whether formal (as in a Master’s Degree) or informal such as getting a certification in your area of expertise? Will your company support and encourage this effort?

I believe that sometimes when you speak to a recruiter, some of these thoughts and ideas begin to bubble up to the surface and that’s never a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that you are going to go run out and look for a new job (although it might). Rather, it’s a careful, thoughtful and self-reliant way to take your career by the horns and drive it where YOU want to go.


Juli Smith, President of The Smith Consulting Group, Featured in Engineering News-Record


Juli Smith, President of The Smith Consulting Group – A member of the Sanford Rose Associates® network of offices, Featured in Engineering News-Record, How to Achieve Consistency in Finding and Developing Talent

By: Jim Parsons

Plano, TX 4/23/2018

Talent may be the most coveted commodity for contractors today, but a new study says that many firms have yet to craft strategies for attracting and developing individuals who will make up the next generation of leaders. And that, experts say, increasingly threatens those contractors’ ability to compete and ultimately to survive.

Admitting the dangers of making overly broad generalizations about large groups, Jackson, Mich.-based recruitment consultant Juli Smith nevertheless says millennials do want to be managed differently from their predecessor generations. Where baby boomers were happy to have a job, for example, millennials and younger Gen X workers won’t sacrifice themselves for a company.

“Having seen what their parents went through, work-life balance is very important,” Smith says.

Read more:


The New Golden Handcuff: Employer Contributions for Student Loan Repayment

Trying to compete for talent?  Perhaps thinking outside the box and to create a new program to attract AND retain talent are the way to go.  40% of employees rank student debt as their #1 financial concern. This personally came to light for me as a business owner recently while interviewing candidates for my own firm.  Talking with these sharp, young graduates it became apparent that having a company match for retirement was not the least bit attractive to them at this stage in their lives.  A Student Loan Paydown (SLP) program however, caused their eyes to light up and appears to trump all other benefits.

Companies such as Gradifi and SoFi set up plans for employers to pay money directly towards their employee’s student loans.  With the mounting debt across this nation, some estimate this nation’s student loan debt to be as high as $1.5 trillion dollars according to a recent Forbes article. Many firms see this not only an employee perk, but just good business sense.  According to Gradifi, 58% of employees are more likely to stay at their current job with an SLP than one without.  Even more eye-opening, 90% of those they surveyed said that having an SLP would impact their decision to accept a job offer.  This could be a game-changer in the war for talent.

The costs for an SLP are so minimal to the employer, it really makes sense to be able to offer a program like this and get a step ahead of your competition.  You don’t have to be an AECOM to have a great program that could improve your firm’s ability to attract and retain top talent and improve the quality of their lives at the same time!


Working Remotely

I get this request from potential candidates more often than I care to count: “I’d love to find a position that would allow me to work remotely a few days a week.” Most recently, I had a very enlightening conversation with a very sharp Millennial who said, “I have been looking for a position where I could work remotely part of the time and if I don’t find it in the next 5 years, I am going to start my own company and create it.” He went on to say with WebEx, Skype, email and cloud-based file sharing and software along with putting good reporting systems in place, why do I physically need to be sitting at my desk from 8-5? He even offered that in his personal situation, he could be more productive outside the office than in based on the number of mindless interruptions he faces with people walking by his office to shoot the bull.

He continued with the following example: Last week, my boss asked me about a specific design standard and I shared with him how I did it. He said he wanted to research it further so he went back to his desk, he researched the design standard and found it. His boss then printed it and walked back into my candidate’s office and handed it to him stating that he was correct and wanted to share it with him. So, my candidate said to me that he folded the piece of paper and put it in the recycle bin and said to me, “He could have emailed that to me.”

Next conversation with a VP of HR for one of my best clients regarding telecommuting that started after I shared a candidate who was looking for telecommuting a few days a week so that he could be with his family a few hours away until he could relocate next year. “None of our senior guys like it and it’s a very tough sell for anyone in our organization unless there are extenuating circumstances and even then, they really don’t like it.”

So, we are closing out on 2017, almost 2 decades into the 21st century. We have a major talent shortage. We have congested highways that make work/life balance a challenge when you add 2-3 hours of commuting each day to a 10-hour work day. We have all this fancy technology but no one seems comfortable breaking out of the “This- is- the- way- we- have- always- done- it” mode. Architecture and Engineering firms are competing and fighting for employees. In most markets, it’s akin to trying to fill a swimming pool by dipping water from one end of the pool and pouring it in the other. It begs the question: Do A&E firms shy away from setting up more remote work situations because there is a solid reason for it, or is because “we’re old-school” and that’s the way we have always done it?

Does your firm allow telecommuting? From your professional viewpoint, what are the pro’s and con’s? If you enacted this as a perk, do you think you would be able to attract more top talent to work on your team?

Either way, I’ll be following this young engineer who has a broader vision of how things could be!


Have Salaries Caught Up With The Market?

Last week, I had a conversation with a senior mechanical engineer who said that this year, 2017, was the first year that he made as much as he did back in 2008 nearly a decade after the Great Recession. This prompted me to look back at some of the placements I made back in 2007 and 2008. As an executive recruiter who has specialized in consulting engineering and architecture for more than 15 years, I am not seeing it yet in my practice if I compare apples to apples.

Even though EVERYONE is crying about not being able to find talent, the salaries do not appear to have not caught up with the intense demand of the market. I am getting calls and emails daily from A & E firms of all sizes who are calling me, unsolicited, to ask for my help in finding talent. Many of these firms have either never worked with a recruiter or have rarely had the need to do so yet they are at the end of their rope and considering all options, including paying an executive recruiter to help them attract talent.

If I look back to my high school and college economics courses, the incredible demand for architects and engineers should be driving salaries up, yet I am not seeing that.

So, I ask the question: How does your pay compare to 5 or 10 years ago? Is your firm paying significantly more or slightly more for engineers and architects than they were before the recession?

ShareShare Have Salaries Caught Up With The Marke


Always Be Interviewing?

One of my most favorite clients said to me recently, “Wow, I am glad that I invested the time to meet with your candidate even though we didn’t have an opening because we just had a guy put in his resignation today.” Likewise, I had a candidate say to me a while back, “I am glad I took your call even though I wasn’t looking because my boss resigned last week and I am now being assigned to another supervisor who I don’t see eye to eye with..”

Life offers us but one guarantee: Life is constantly changing. To keep ahead of this curve and not be blindsided, it’s in your best interest to always be open to new situations. If you are in a position of leadership then you know that there’s no guarantee that your rock star engineer will be with you forever so you need to anticipate that change can happen. It’s a good thing to always be interviewing talent even if you don’t have an “opening.”

Even if you love your job and your company, there’s no guarantee. Just ask someone who worked their entire career for URS. I am not suggesting that you remain in a state of chronic unease, but rather, remain open-minded and flexible. Life has a way of throwing us curveballs and when that happens and you find yourself being downsized or moved to another department and manager, it’s not the time to start networking. It also puts the power of decision-making squarely in your control and that’s empowering. Don’t fear change, embrace it.

What can you do?

  • Keep your network healthy- ask a former colleague or someone you know from ACEC out to lunch and see if there’s anything you can do to help them
  • Keep your resume updated– when the dream opportunity lands on your doorstep you can investigate it without having to spend your weekend scrambling to update your resume and project list
  • Interview even when you don’t have a need- when HR sends you a resume that looks like an A-Player, schedule a call to “meet” them or schedule a 30-minute coffee- even if you don’t have an opening
  • Keep your LinkedIn profile updated- connect with people you meet at conferences and meetings
  • Keep an open mind!



Trying to Attract Talent? What’s Your Value Proposition?

As an executive recruiter who specializes in the civil engineering and architecture space, I ask my clients the following questions: If I am talking with a candidate who has his or her head down and is making strong contributions to their firm, what is the value proposition that you offer a potential employee? What sets your firm apart from you competitor and how do I sell your firm? The responses vary but these are some of the most common:

  • We have great benefits
  • We have a good work environment
  • We have been in business for X number of years
  • (**YAWN**)

Those things are a given. No one wants to work for a firm that doesn’t have benefits or a good work environment, that’s expected. Where’s the sizzle? Where are the compelling things that will cause a candidate to pause and listen: One who may not necessarily be actively looking but who would be open to hearing about an opportunity that offered them intangibles that they don’t currently have.

The Department of Labor just released the jobs report for February and the unemployment is 4.7% and that figure is probably much lower if you break down our industry in the A&E market. We are at full employment so everyone who wants a job should be able to have a job.

If you don’t have a solid value proposition, sit down with your people and ask them why they like working at your firm. Ask your clients why they continue to work with you. Develop some key features that are unique to your firm about your people, your culture, the pathways for advancement, the professional development, the charitable contributions that your firm makes in the communities in which you reside, etc.

If you want to attract the best and the brightest, you must have a clearly defined value proposition and you need to be able to convey those things with passion and enthusiasm to potential candidates. If you don’t, your competitors will.

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