Understanding the ROI of having an engaged team

Everyone has been on day one of the new job—filled with the exuberance of a new beginning, passion about the future and overflowing optimism that this career choice is sure to be transformational. Two to 3 years later, apathy sets in. Same job. Same problems as the last place.

“Making the doughnuts” or “riding the rat wheel” become colorful euphemisms to describe an unremarkable career. This is not to say the individual lacks talent or desire. More than likely, the fervor with which the individual began their career was not properly cultivated or developed. In other words, employee engagement lapsed somewhere along the way.

On the other hand, firm leadership may have made a conscious decision to invest in the individual early in their tenue before abandoning the task. For instance, even if the onboarding process was minimal, there was a period where the individual was trained or indoctrinated in the ways of the organization.

Additionally, whether it be through deliberate “low-risk” task assignment or simply by way of mistakes made due to ignorance, the firm absorbed costs that could ultimately be chalked up to sunk costs for a longer-term investment.

In fact, there are many studies that say individuals in management positions do not provide a realized return on investment for at least 1 to 3 years. Sure, there are also quick starters and superstars, so this metric is not something that should necessarily scare company leaders. In fact, it should provide the stark realization that investing in team members should not be limited to one-off training, haphazard onboarding and limited opportunities for skills growth and coaching as they move deeper into their careers.

Steadfast Cheerleader or Debbie Downer

Leaders often do an impressive job of selling a position, or even the firm in general, to a potential candidate. But a glimpse into employee mindsets, behaviors and daily lives could be easily uncovered within uncoached conversations between candidates and future peers.

While peer interviews are hardly a new or revolutionary concept, it is always interesting to ponder how a fellow project manager would “sell” a candidate. Would it be through explanations of an effervescent, exuberant, engaged associate, or a “clock-watcher” that exudes strong vibes of apathy?

Furthermore, what happens when a new associate comes on board only to interact with said clock-watching manager, superintendent or estimator? The apathetic employee has a negative impact on not only the firm’s financial stake, but on its culture as well. When beginning the work of ensuring your employees are engaged, some important questions to consider include the following.

  • Communication—How well does the firm communicate company vision, direction, goals, wins, etc.? More importantly, how well does management listen?
  • Collaboration—How well integrated are the departments and business units? How interconnected are the office and the field? How well do the processes in the firm involve the right stakeholders?
  • Management—Do the managers spend the requisite amount of time managing people as much as they manage projects?
  • Feedback—Is there a culture of feedback that exists throughout the firm (one that allows for the provision of constructive criticism and positive reinforcement at all levels)?
  • Accountability—Does the firm hold people accountable? Are there protected groups of people that seem to have special privileges?

This process takes more than just asking a few people, “How are you doing?” It requires genuineness and the building of relationships. Asking if they have any questions while scrolling through your phone and glancing at your watch is not a way to engage anyone. True employee buy-in and a sense of belonging take time, discipline and dedication.

Trainer & Coach

Often, leaders hear the words “necessary training,” and their knee-jerk reaction is to send people to classes. Sure, training is important and is a crucial part of employee development—everyone can always learn something new or enhance a skill for their role in the firm. However, training and education should also be stratified based on the different groups in the firm.

For instance, many leading firms have “new associate training programs” that help new hires to grasp firm policies and processes. Some last several days, while others continue for the first couple of years after onboarding. As outstanding as this may be, the downfall occurs when, after the indoctrination, new hires are released into the wilds of the construction world with no further instruction or coaching.

To think that a project manager has all of the necessary career skills to be successful is shortsighted. Consider the tranches in the chart above as they relate to each individual’s development.

All of the individuals in the chart should have coaching and guidance, but more specifically, the small group of executives or firm leaders should have a point person to guide and develop them in a deliberate fashion. In addition, the concept of subject-matter expertise provides a great vehicle for internal talent development.


For instance, the new associates may learn a software system, whereas the midlevel manager becomes the go-to person for system nuances and intricacies as they received the advanced training. (New associates are in the general education pool, while midlevel managers focus on their graduate school major.) This is a superb way of leveraging senior resources more effectively and providing them with low-risk opportunities to grow internally. If they can latch onto helping grow the enterprise in this setting—all while completing their projects successfully—there is a high probability that they may be a future firm leader.


Creating a culture of positivity is one of those things that is easy to ignite while also being very easy to let fizzle. There is no silver bullet for driving employee engagement, nor is there a quick fix to get all associates to sing from the same hymnal in unison.

Done the wrong way, attempts at garnering employee buy-in come off as plastic and insincere, and the cynics in the firm will ferociously pounce on it. It takes discipline to drive this level of engagement from day one, but ultimately, you’ll realize the long-term investment is in more than project profitability.