Culture: Setting the Tone

Gallup’s article on Setting the Tone for Workplace Culture reminded me of three great things that happened at one of my former employers, HGA Architects and Engineers.

    1. Accessible and Respectful Leadership.The leadership team was always accessible to every employee, no matter what questions they had and it had a huge impact on all employees. During my time at HGA, the then-COO, Steve Fiskum, allowed me to interrupt one of his days for two whole hours as I ran questions by him regarding a class I was taking, Organizational Negotiations. It was so invaluable to have his ear! He made every employee feel as if they could come to him with any question in the world – we were all of great value in his eyes. Steve has since become one of my most-valued mentors for my business and I’m deeply grateful for his wisdom and knowledge.


    1. Good Communication – Even in Bad Times.Our leadership team always communicated what was happening in the firm – no matter if it was good news or bad. Many companies will communicate the good news with their employees, but HGA went out on a limb to communicate with employees during the 2008 recession. Many of you know that architectural design firms are some of the first to feel the pinch of recession and HGA was no exception. Instead of doing drastic cuts that would impact projects when they came back on-line again after the recession, HGA found a way to keep as many employees as they could so that they wouldn’t lose intellectual capital, valuable employees, or project momentum. But more than that, the leadership team let everyone know just where the company was, even to the point of letting us know that layoffs may have to happen in the near-future. We walked the halls, saddened by this information at first, but fully aware of what was happening and the fact that our leaders were doing everything in their power to keep as many of us as they could. We always knew that they viewed us as an entire team, even when the team might have to say goodbye to some of our members. Even information that was hard to hear early-on was easier to accept when the layoffs eventually had to be made – and it prepared us for what was to come. During other times and changes, the leadership team solicited input from many areas to make informed decisions to move the company forward.


    1. Promote Accountability and Fairness.In a matrixed firm, departments and divisions can sometimes vie for important resources, whether monetary, time or personnel. In some instances, when personnel resources were scarce, firm leaders, principals and project managers reached out to others that could fulfill the needs of the project in one or another of the smaller offices. Working in the headquarters of the firm, I noticed that the collaborative nature of resource-lending across offices had a wonderful additional effect on the company even when we started acquiring additional offices: we were “one” with each other, or we tried to be. We celebrated wins together, we maximized teams to get the best of everyone’s thoughts and time for projects, we shared our lives through our intranet, we shared change management roll-outs, we shared knowledge and never withheld it. Yet, people were held to high accountability standards – even across offices. In some instances, where enterprise responsibilities lay with individual gatekeepers, those gatekeepers were protected for their knowledge and expertise – from all offices. As a result, people stayed late to finish something because they didn’t want to let other teammates down, projects were done on time, if not before, as much as possible, and barring “scope creep,” within budget. Those projects that went off-budget were flagged as early as possible and new measures enabled to steer it back to a better finish. I will never forget someone from another company mentioning to me that our IT personnel were “one of a kind” – not only did they have the exact knowledge to help most problems and situations, but they had none of the arrogance that their own people had in their company. Instead, these people developed a great respect for our IT personnel as they worked with them. We shared our expertise with open hands – no matter where we were in the firm. All done with fairness, in deep respect for one another, and with a view to accomplish things as one whole team, no matter what level of employee you were.


There was so much to learn at HGA, but so many greatly respected leaders that led the charge to cultural wellness, that everything gained was beautiful and worthwhile for the employees. I’ll never forget my time there – or the people that called HGA “Home.”