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Creating a competitive advantage for your firm through your work culture!

By Heather Polivka


It’s not just a buzzword; it’s the secret sauce that turns a workplace from ordinary to extraordinary, and a firm’s reputation from “cookie-cutter” to “in-demand”.
In the wild world of AEC, building a culture that sets you apart and rocks, especially in the age of hybrid work and multi-generational teams, is like navigating a complex construction site. Fear not, because we have an upcoming three-part webinar series to help you and your leaders roll up your sleeves to help you crack the code on cultivating an epic work culture.
Let’s Begin with Two Truths
First, culture is the superhero your firm never knew it needed.
Second, while your firm’s leaders know that culture is important and they play a role in leading culture, most leaders do not know what culture is, how to lead it, or how to use it to fuel your firm’s future.
Our upcoming series is your backstage pass to not just understanding culture but evolving and molding it into something that makes your firm the place to be. A place where great talent stays and people are engaged. A firm that can talk in a meaningful way about what makes them different to stand out from the crowd when responding to RFPs.
There are three aspects to culture, comprised of multiple dimensions. The three aspects are alignment, belonging, and functionality.
Alignment — Crafting a Culture with Purpose
When we say “culture”, what immediately comes to mind? Nap pods? Free meals? Not exactly.
For many, when we say culture, they instantly think of mission and values. That is a great start, and it is just a start. Mission and values are part of the foundation of your culture dream house.

We’re not talking about those dusty statements on the office wall or firm website; we’re talking about a mission that helps everyone internally and externally understand the reason the firm exists. A mission that is compelling, inspiring, and differentiates you from every other AEC firm you are competing against.
While we are talking about the mission, pause reading this article and do a quick pulse check. Go to three competitor websites and read their mission. If you cover up the name of the firm, does their mission tell you who they are, what they do, and why they exist in a way that is so clear and so distinctive, do you know who the firm is without seeing their logo? Read your firm’s mission and ask yourself the same question. The mission is where alignment throughout the firm starts.
Another important aspect of alignment is a firm’s values. Values are how a mission gets fulfilled and how we need to behave to realize our mission. Values are also one of the most under-utilized tools in most firms. Instead of a checkbox, values are our measuring stick for every decision, the implementation of every decision, how we go about our work, and more. Values ensure that how everyone within a firm is working is like a choir singing from the same sheet music; together, in tune, and complimentary.
Alignment also includes what behaviors are rewarded or recognized within a firm, what behaviors are punished, and what behaviors are tolerated that shouldn’t be. When we reflect on these three groups of behaviors, we also need to ask ourselves if these behaviors are aligned with our values. We’re talking about behaviors that not only talk the talk but also walk the walk of a firm’s values.
The last aspect of alignment is ensuring that everyone understands what matters most to drive the success of your firm, and what to prioritize. For example, on-time delivery versus on-budget. What is most important? Can everyone in your firm answer that question with 100% confidence? Clarity about what matters most becomes your BFF, empowering everyone in the company to make decisions like seasoned pros.
Belonging — Where Everyone Feels At Home
Now, let’s talk about something we all crave – belonging. Why does belonging matter? It is how a firm ensures that people don’t just show up for a paycheck but choose to be present, contribute, and grow.
To belong, we need to feel psychologically safe. Safe to ask questions. Safe to surface ideas that might be a little unusual. Safe to challenge. Safe to take calculated risks and make thoughtful mistakes without fear of losing our jobs. With mental well-being a top concern among Millennials and Generation Z, psychological safety is where it starts in the workplace. Before your leaders roll their eyes, it is important to understand that psychological safety isn’t just a cushy, nice-to-have. It’s smart business. Studies show that psychological safety is critical for innovation, collaboration, and problem-solving.

To feel like we belong, we need to feel like we are valued, known, and seen. This is where recognition, feedback, and development come into play. When a firm and its leaders see our great work, tell us the many things we are doing well, and contribute to us through their time and investment in our growth, it tells us we matter. Leadership isn’t just about fancy titles; it’s about creating an environment where everyone’s talents shine.
The last aspect of belonging? It’s a tool so simple, yet so powerful. It creates stickiness. It differentiates our work experience like no other. Session two of our upcoming webinar series will spill the beans on creating a work experience that’s not just a job but a journey that teams take together.
The Functional Workplace — More Than Just Coffee Policies
Culture is about how stuff gets done.
In our work with many AEC firms, we discovered that most have focused on the functional aspect of culture more than any of the others. Even so, we discover ways of operating that leaders are unaware are getting in the way of, or could further, a firm’s success.
The truth is, your firm may have a lot of policies and procedures, or they may have few. As much as these may guide how work gets done, the reality is that the unspoken norms and rules are the not-so-behind-the-scenes reality of how firms really work. Do team members need to arrive before the partners and leave after? Do people need to be available 24/7 via cell phones or Slack? Do people only speak up if they agree with one of the Sr. Leaders? Is Slack or Teams used by everyone or everyone except the Sr. Leaders? Uncovering the unspoken rules and norms is a great first step to understanding the functional health of your firm.
Another big part of getting stuff done is decisions. Decisions, decisions! In some A/E/C firms, all decisions are top-down. In others, it’s like unraveling a mystery to figure out who holds the authority, how decisions are made, and why it matters. There are seven different decision-making models, and yet many firms lean into just two as a default, versus a conscious choice. Many a bottleneck and fire drill comes down to decision-making.
Last, but not least, how we convene and collaborate is a big part of the functional aspect of how our firms operate. This is an area that has proved one of the most challenging with hybrid or multi-location work. The way we collaborated or shared information in person may not translate as effectively to video meetings. Does that mean, as some executives have asserted, that we need to be in-person for our culture? No. It means we need to be intentional to reflect on, design, and evolve how we work so that it functions in hybrid or multi-location workplaces. It also means that everyone needs to be willing to adapt. Sharing meeting notes or client updates on Slack or Teams is only effective to keep everyone on the same page if everyone is willing to use the tools.
In a world where change is the only constant, building a compelling culture is your firm’s superpower for continued success.
Ask yourself, as a marketer, can you make a compelling and concrete statement about your firm’s culture? As an employee, does your culture make you want to give your best and support your growth? Does it attract and retain the best people to work with, employees and clients alike? How strong is your culture in its alignment, sense of belonging, and how it works? Do the leaders within your firm understand your firm’s culture in a tangible, actionable way and are they accountable to lead it?
Depending upon the answers to these questions, consider attending our upcoming webinar series. This webinar series is your guide to moving well beyond mission statements to cultivate cultures that create differentiation and competitive advantage. Because in AEC, it’s not just about building structures; it’s about building a culture that stands the test of time.
Heather Polivka is the Founder and CEO of Awesome People Leaders, a neuro-science-based manager development experience focusing on EQ, healthy work behaviors, inclusion & belonging, and power skills for STEM industries. Awesome People Leaders (APL) was recently named to Inc Magazine’s 2023 Power Partners list as one of the best B2B providers for small and mid-sized businesses.
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