All posts tagged interview

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.


But I don’t want to take a cut in pay…

As an executive recruiter specializing in consulting engineering placements, I hear this quite often.  It generally relates to relocation from a high cost of living area to a low cost of living area.  If you are moving from Washington, DC to Charlotte, NC you will have to “take a cut in pay.”  The salaries are lower but what that money buys you at the end of the month costs less, too.

So, let’s do the math.  In Washington, DC if you are making $100K, you only need to make $70K to have the same standard of living based on a basket of factors with housing being the largest factor.  Housing is 65% less in Charlotte, NC than it is in the DC area.  Based on CNN Money, groceries are less, transportation is less but utilities and health care are slightly more expensive, but with a 65% reduction in the cost of housing, are you really taking a cut in pay?

A recent article on talked about how much $100 buys in all 50 states.  In Virginia, $100 only buys you $97.09 worth of goods while the same Ben Franklin in North Carolina yields you $109.05 at the end of the day.

If you are considering a relocation for a new job and you are given an offer that is less than you are making now, do the math and run the numbers and you will probably find that taking a “cut in pay” makes good “cents”.


How Companies Invite Candidates to Reject Their Opportunity

You’ve probably heard this saying before: “Nature abhors a vacuum.”

The fact of that matter is that candidates looking for their next great career opportunity abhor a vacuum, too . . . and I have a recent experience that illustrates this.

One of my clients conducted both a telephone interview and a face-to-face interview with a candidate.  Afterwards, company officials said they loved the candidate and wanted to have them return for another face-to-face interview, and most likely, an offer of employment.

However, after the second face-to-face interview, I encountered “total radio silence,” so to speak, from my client.  It wasn’t until four weeks later that the hiring manager called to inform me they weren’t moving forward.  I passed that information along to the candidate, who said the following:

“Yeah, I was already starting to think that the location wasn’t that great and maybe it wasn’t the best fit for me.”

So how did a candidate who went on two face-to-face interviews with a company effectively talk themselves out of the opportunity?  Because the company did not provide timely feedback.  In fact, after a certain point, the company did not provide any feedback at all.

In a situation like this, the candidate “abhors a vacuum.”  In other words, when presented with no feedback or new information, their mind begins to search, subconsciously or otherwise, for reasons why the job is NOT a great career opportunity.

And the longer there’s no feedback, the more reasons the candidate comes up with.

This is a lose-lose situation for the company, regardless of whether or not they decide to move forward with the candidate.  Here’s why:

  • If the company does decide to move forward, they now have a half-interested candidate at best.  At worst, they have a candidate who has already accepted an offer from a competitor.
  • If the company does not decide to move forward, the candidate feels that they’ve been strung along and they’re left with a “bad taste in their mouth.”  As a result, they’re far less likely to speak highly of the company in the future.

When the interviewing and hiring process drags on too long, candidates start to mentally protect themselves against possible rejection—especially if the company does not communicate or provide timely feedback during the process.  Candidates fill their own heads with what might or might not be going on behind the scenes, and regardless of what is actually happening, they talk themselves out of the opportunity.

So effectively, companies are inviting candidates to reject their opportunity.  And in the majority of cases, candidates are accepting that invitation.


The Danger of Interviewing One Candidate at a Time

I was recently reminded of the dangers of interviewing one candidate at a time through completion.  While you may feel that one particular candidate has more of what you are seeking in terms of experience, cultural fit, qualifications, etc., the danger lies in putting all of your eggs in one basket.  Recently, I presented two candidates to a client and they fell in love with one and instantly started the courting process with him.  I suggested that they also interview the other candidate just to keep their options open but he was a little less experienced and they felt like they really wanted the other candidate as their first choice.  Fast forward 4 weeks…

The prime candidate turned the job down because he had another offer that he felt was a better match for his career goals.  When the client (very frustrated now that they had “invested” 4 weeks of time and energy) asked me to go back to the other candidate, it was already too late.  The second candidate had two other offers pending and it was too late in the process for him to start with another firm.

The economy is heating up in many parts of the country and we are seeing a return to pre-recession hiring trends where candidates have more than one offer from which they can choose.  The moral of the story is keep all of your options open so that you have options.


The Increase in Video Interviewing

As we all get more comfortable with technologies it appears that even the traditionally conservative engineering and architectural firms are moving towards conducting more initial interviews with a video connection rather than the telephone.  This is a positive thing in my opinion as I have never felt the telephone interview was a good measure of whether a candidate was a strong contender to be worthy of a face-to-face interview.

With the rising cost of air travel, it is becoming more common in my practice.  As a recruiter, I have developed a special prep for my candidates to help them prepare for a video interview.  How do you handle a video interview?  Have you have encountered this in your job search or are you using this as a screening and interviewing tool if you are in a hiring manager’s position?

Some very simple tips:

  • Make sure your background that the company will be viewing over your shoulder is clean and free from distracting clutter
  • Make sure you look squarely into the camera when you are talking to the interviewer
  • Make sure the lighting is bright so they can see your face
  • Turn off your cell phone

Tricky Interview Questions Part Two

Why Should We Hire You?

This is another tricky interview question but only if you aren’t prepared for it.  In my last blog, I talked about answering those tough interview questions that leave a hollow pit in your stomach and this one ranks right up there as one of the toughest.

Why should we hire you?  In my opinion, the best way to answer this is to do your homework on the position and make a list of reasons that are key features in your background that mesh with the position.  What qualities do you have that can bring value to their organization?  Typically, experience and qualifications are only the tip of the iceberg.  The intangible assets of an individual are the ones that make or break their success: their drive, their passion for their work, their work ethic, their ability to get along with diverse groups of people, etc.

Did you make a project successful at your last job because you were willing to sacrifice a few weekends on your own time to make sure the project was completed on time and within the budget?  Everyone says they have a strong work ethic: show a concrete example of how you used your work ethic and personal drive to achieve success in the workplace.  Know yourself and don’t be afraid to make a list of your intangible assets.

Prepare for the interview and know what strengths and personal attributes make you a valuable hire.


Tough Interview Questions

We have all had them in our career.  The tough, direct question that we should have been prepared for and weren’t.   Did you ever leave an interview and feel like you weren’t at your best?  What were the questions that threw you off balance?  In a previous blog, I wrote about answering the “ Tell me about yourself” question that can cause you to stumble and there are others as well.  Have you ever been asked to resign?  Why have you had so many positions in the past 3 years?  What were you doing during the 6 months between your last two positions?

If you have a gap in your employment or you were asked to leave a job in your past it doesn’t mean that you can’t get rehired in another position that is a better fit but you better be able to articulate why you have had 3 jobs in the past two years or why you were fired.  A good offense is the best defense.  Be upfront about it.  If everyone that got fired from a job was no longer employable, there would be a LOT of unemployed people.  Sometimes people make poor decisions choosing an employer and accepting a job in the same manner that some people choose the wrong mate and end up getting a divorce.  The key is to learn from it, be able to verbalize why it was not a good fit for you and in such a way without badmouthing the company.

My suggestions are:

  1. Never lie.  Tell the truth and people will forgive you- lie and they’ll never trust you.
  2. Be prepared- don’t cross your fingers and hope it won’t be addressed during the interview.
  3. If you were fired, share the reason and what you have learned from the experience and how it will help you in your professional growth in the next position.
  4. If there is a gap on your resume, fill it in with the reason you did not work- took care of a family member during illness, actively looked for work and worked part-time,  etc.


We have all had positions that have not been a good fit or a personality conflict with a co-worker or boss- life happens.  We have deaths in our families, we go through divorces.  If you take the time to prepare for the interview and anticipate the tough questions, you are much less likely to stumble.   Being prepared is the key.


Personality and cultures in the workplace

I often tell my clients that one of the key things we focus on besides just skills and experience is finding the candidates who will mesh well with the rest of the team.  Studies have shown that chemistry is 60% or more of the hiring decision.  On the flip side, as a candidate looking for a new career opportunity, this should be 60% or more of your focus as well.  This becomes even more crucial in smaller companies where the wrong mix of personalities can make or break your happiness quotient.  How many times have you left a job because of co-workers who just drive you to the liquor cabinet when you get home?

A few things to keep in mind during the interview:

  • During the interview process, it is critical to “look around”.  As you are getting the tour of the office, do people look up and smile when you walk by or do they look like prisoners of war?
  • Longevity of the team is also a good indicator of the office “happiness quotient”.   If everyone you meet has been with the company less than a year, you may want to ask some probing questions about that.  Growth and expansion could be one factor or it may be something more sinister like a revolving door culture.

As a candidate evaluating a job opportunity, you need to ask these questions and follow your gut instincts- they usually are correct.


Interview Tips: Mastering A Video Interview

With the price of airline tickets skyrocketing, many companies are choosing to utilize video conferencing and Skype to interview potential new hires.  There are many pro’s to this method but there are also just as many pitfalls to avoid.  A few things to keep in mind:

  • Make sure the lighting is good in the room that you will be sitting- bad lighting can make you look like a shadowy sinister figure
  • If you have a wireless router that handles your internet, reset your router and modem so that it is running smoothly before the “call”

  • Make sure you look directly into the camera on your laptop or desktop and not the person’s face on your monitor- this gives a shifty impression.  It takes a little practice so I always do a practice Skype run with my candidates to make sure they see the difference.  Call someone you know on Skype and do a practice run
  • Your backdrop is very important as well- sit in an area of your house or office with no distracting objects or pictures in the background- you want them focusing on you and not the funky wall hanging you’ve had since college over your shoulder
  • Make sure there is no background noise such as children playing or dogs barking
  • Dress appropriately- if this is with a professional organization, men wear a dress shirt and tie and women wear a plain blouse with a jacket- (think “headshot” photograph)
  • If you are inclined to wear only your boxers or underwear around your house it isn’t a problem unless you decide to stand up during the interview


Video interviewing is going to become much more common than telephone interviews and many people do better “in person” than on a telephone so you could also suggest a Skype interview to the person you are interviewing with.  If you don’t have a video camera on your laptop, Logitech makes a great inexpensive video camera that plugs into your computer with a USB cord.  Once you get over the pain of seeing yourself on camera, they can actually be fun!

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