Safety, Transparency, and Gratitude: Now More than Ever

Before our restaurants shut down recently, Jeanie and I went out for a quick dinner and ran into Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller Company and a respected advisor to other organizations about transformative leadership. Coincidentally, I was just reading Bob’s book Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for your People like Family. It’s all about the value of people-centered leadership, unlocking the potential for any organization to thrive and grow.

Bob Chapman describes Barry-Wehmiller’s purpose this way: “We’re in business so that all of our team members can have meaningful and fulfilling lives.” The company’s products and services are secondary to that mission. Given the number of design firms that advertise aspirations to “enrich people’s lives,” referring to the people impacted by our built work, it would be valuable to devote some attention internally, to enriching the lives of our own people – especially now.

In the last several weeks, we’ve heard some interesting lessons in our work with leading AE firms. They have different levels of commitment to transparency – sharing of information about firms’ business targets and actual performance. In a few cases, even project managers don’t know fee budgets, expectations, and business results for the teams they’re charged to lead. It’s impossible to be accountable for results you never see or understand – and it’s impossible for talented people to know how they can contribute to a firm’s success if they’re not trusted with key information. As Bob wrote, “Can you imagine people playing a sport with passion if they don’t know the score?”

We’ve also heard from people in good firms about the need for safety – the freedom to speak up, to express individual concerns and ideas that others may share but hesitate to talk about. Simon Sinek refers to the “Circle of Safety,” from which members of an organization are properly focused on outside threats and opportunities. “Without a Circle of Safety, people are forced to spend too much time and energy protecting themselves from each other.” Fundamentally, trust determines how safe people feel and how well they pull together in any situation.

In the last few weeks, the design and construction industry has been challenged to think and work differently than ever before. Everything we do depends on collaboration among team members who may or may not know each other well. Trust, safety, and transparency aren’t just nice things to think about, but essential attributes of any firm or team that will be successful. We’re demanding much more from people who are much less connected in traditional ways.

It’s also a critical time to recognize and thank people for their creativity and hard work. This practice should start at the top and flow through your whole organization. I’m reminded of a leadership group in which I noticed that people seldom said anything good about anyone – it was mostly negative, and it was toxic for the organization. Express authentic gratitude to your people and encourage others to do the same. It will reduce stress from the isolation that they may feel in today’s work-from-home environment.

Take more time to talk with your people: listen and encourage them to speak safely about challenges to your mutual success. Surprise people by sharing more information than they’ve heard before about your vision, plans, and performance. Thank them for their resilience, creativity, and commitment in these unprecedented circumstances. You can emerge from today’s public health crisis with a stronger organization, more dedicated people, and new leadership you might not have recognized within your own team.


Clark Davis, FAIA, LEED AP is a Principal Consultant with Cameron MacAllister Group. He leads services in strategy, leadership development, and organizational change. If you are interested in learning how Clark can help your firm, contact him directly at 636-448-9227 or via email.

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