Two ways to a talent upgrade

New hires, training program helped Barge Waggoner raise its game

The Great Recession hammered the construction industry more than just about any other part of the economy. By the time Bob Higgins settled into the CEO chair at Barge in May of 2009, many of the nation’s top firms had tossed overboard a lot of talented people. If Higgins played his cards right and got Barge on a more solid footing, he would have the chance to upgrade existing teams or build new ones entirely.

That’s how it worked out — to a degree. Among the people Higgins brought on board in 2010 are Chris Spann, who was hired from national engineering firm PBS&J to be Barge’s director of aviation, and Barney Fullington, a former executive at global firm Black & Veatch who was named director of water services.(Spann has since moved to Kansas to be an aviation design manager at big industry name Parsons Brinckerhoff.) Other senior managers also were hired in 2010 or 2011, but have since moved on to other jobs.

But as he was looking for new talent elsewhere, Higgins also committed to upgrading the talent already in house. In 2009 and 2010, he built an ambitious training and development program — even though the money it needed ate up the margin that would have produced bonuses and profit-sharing in 2010.

In addition to stressing training on technical topics, the firm also collaborated with Lipscomb University’s College of Business to launch the BWSC Leadership Institute, an 18-month, customized series of sessions that aimed to build better leaders at the firm. Among the topics its 33 participants covered were having difficult conversations, communicating better and being more productive in negotiations. The last of those alone took up four full days.

Another key component — one that reflects directly on Higgins’ open approach — is helping data- and systems-driven architects and engineers develop their emotional intelligence. Higgins says that’s a tough nut to crack for many people but one that very often leaves the most lasting impression.

“We have spent about $1 million on training in recent years,” Higgins says. “It’s about changing the experience of working at Barge Waggoner. If you do that, you will change people’s beliefs, then their behavior and then their results.”

For more on Higgins' efforts to revive Barge Waggoner coming out of the recession, see A time to build up.