How Wight & Company’s culture created a highly functional dynamic throughout the entire company.
By Mark Wight, Wight & Company
October 28, 2020
In last month’s article about how Wight & Company’s design principles advance our mission, I wrote about how the cultural practices we employ invigorate and inspire us. These cultural practices also aim to instill in all of our employees a set of shared values, starting with honesty, transparency and positivity.
We like to boast about the culture at Wight & Company because it is an important part of our success. We pride ourselves on having cultivated the kind of environment that uplifts and empowers employees to create meaningful impacts in the world today, and in perpetuity.
The unique Design Led-Design Build model of project delivery that our firm pioneered centers the collaborative process as the key to discovering the most creative and responsible solutions. This integrated, multidisciplinary model allows us to fulfill our mission by having one team from our firm working together to drive quality and value throughout the entirety of the project. At the foundation of this model -- and the reason it is so successful for our practice -- is a company culture that is at its core honest, transparent and positive.
That powerful collaboration, which is at the center of our philosophy, is only possible when you have a healthy company dynamic. The functionality of the team is what matters most when you have architects, engineers and builders all working in one company, with record time and unprecedented cost savings.
So, how do you get to that highly functioning team dynamic, not only for senior leadership but throughout the entire organization? The answer is to hire people based on character and fit in addition to talent and intellect.
I learned this lesson the hard way. When I took over the company in 1987, I was 34 and it was not in great shape. I formed a small team and together we figured out a model that worked for our early years. As the firm grew, I started to hire more and more talent. I was only looking to hire the best and the brightest people. I thought I didn’t have room for anything else.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that there was a major issue brewing under the surface. I started to look around the company carefully and realized that the environment was “cliquey” and judgmental. There was an in-crowd, and a not in-crowd.
In my quest to only hire the best and brightest people, I discovered I was neglecting to consider the importance of character and fit. I hired a bunch of Type-A personalities. They were really smart people, but I quickly learned that a firm full of Type-A personalities doesn’t function.
I realized that I needed to take a step back from the hiring process. So I hired a professional with a method of interviewing for consistent character traits. Her name is Mary Deibert and, ever since then, nobody - and I mean nobody - gets hired that doesn’t talk to Mary. She interviews our job candidates for character and conducts a background check to determine if they will make a good fit into our culture. It’s remarkable how Mary ferrets stuff out that I wouldn’t see.
Through this one-of-a-kind character trait assessment that Mary provides we started to build the blocks of what character meant to Wight & Company. Where we landed was with a list of shared values which turned into a clear roadmap for communication, expected/acceptable behavior, and performance across the organization.
When we do an orientation for new employees, we ask each one to pick from a list of values displayed on the screen at the front of the room. Then I ask the group to discuss why a word might be included on this list. Here are a few of them:
Honesty. Fairness. Fun. Improvement. Mistakes. Frugal. Profitable. Surprises. Communication. Listening. Disagreements. Goals. Always Look Forward. Passion. Positivity. Empathy.
Take a word like “disagreements,” for example. We can’t advance the company without disagreements. It’s very difficult to get to the right decision unless there is debate. And debate, by definition, involves disagreements. So disagreeing is important. You need to be present, you need to participate, and you need to speak your mind and not be afraid.
On the other hand you need to always find a positive way to make your point. You don’t have to go negative to disagree. Disagreeing is important, so long as you are doing it in an agreeable and constructive way.
“Mistakes” is another word on the list. Mistakes are going to happen. Actually, they are encouraged. Imagine that you are being oriented into a company and the CEO says to you, “it’s okay to make mistakes.” We are in a professional practice and chances are you’re not going to be able to advance yourself within your practice without making a mistake. The worst thing a professional can do is design with fear of making a mistake. A positive, healthy environment removes fear, so that the team can do their best work.
So making a mistake is acceptable. But covering up a mistake, not talking about it, or blaming someone else is not allowed. So don’t worry about making a mistake, but when you do; own up to it and then get together with your team to determine the best way forward. There is no room for blame in this business.
We have several members of our team who have worked at Wight & Company for more than 20 years. It’s a comfortable place to work, and yet people are constantly challenged. We have built a reputation for being demanding, yet fair. We give younger team members authority which builds a stronger, more capable team. Rarely do we lose somebody over not being able to advance their career.
Every person who leaves the company participates in an exit interview, and I read over every single one of them. What I look for in these interviews are the reasons a person is leaving. There are good and bad reasons. A good reason might be because someone got a promotion and they’re going to make a lot more money leading a group somewhere else. Sending the people that you’ve trained and mentored into the world can be a good thing for a company, although we hope to have a good enough relationship and communication level that they would come and talk to us about it before they leave.
On the other hand, when someone says they just don’t like working here, or they don’t like their boss, or they feel the environment is not sustainable, I want to know about it so that we are aware of our weaknesses and can work to address them. If there is ever even a hint of a bad reason, we immediately start to understand the issue and solve it.
Annual reviews are important. People want and deserve feedback about their work and to help chart the course of their future. I try and read every annual review. This gives me the opportunity to evaluate, from a macro level, if there are any issues cropping up. For example, an issue that arises occasionally is somebody has aspirations that they’re not being allowed to achieve. When we see something like that, where there’s a bit of a disconnect in the annual review, then we begin by talking to their director or supervisor and develop a solution to make sure the team member feels connected and fulfilled by their work.
I’m very proud of the culture Wight & Company has built as a team. Every employee at our firm operates under a set of shared values, starting with honesty and transparency. That is the key to collaboration for our integrated, multidisciplinary firm… and it’s what makes us a highly functioning company. If you ever go to congratulate somebody on a job well done, without exception that person will deflect praise to their team. They’ll say, “Well, thank you, but the credit goes to our team.”
It goes without saying, but the exceptional culture at Wight & Company is entirely the result of a really good team.