Robert MacPherson, PE


I’ve been at this engineering thing for quite a while now. I’ve worked at firms of various sizes. I’ve worked on a wide array of projects. I’ve been led and now I lead, and I take my leadership role very seriously.

I’ve mentored many young engineers and counseled a few older peers. And these days, I’m trying to walk that fine parental line with my two budding engineer children between actively sharing my thoughts and letting them fail or succeed on their own accord.

When I do provide counsel or insight, I’m often asked what my most important advice is. If you’ve been around the Architecture/Engineering/Construction (A/E/C) industry as long as I have, you’ve undoubtedly been asked the same question. While it sounds simple, it’s actually a tough question, one I ask myself multiple times over the course of a year.

So, I’ve decided to commit my advice to paper and share with you—and anyone else interested—what I think is important to being an outstanding professional.

I’ll start with two overarching recommendations. The first was ingrained by my parents. The second I’ve gleaned from one of my mentors.

My parents raised their children to be good citizens of the world. In that spirit, I’ve always tried to be candid and to work with integrity in every aspect of my job. With time, I’ve learned that sometimes you speak in a soft voice and sometimes you utilize tough love. But there are no variables to integrity. To me, you treat your colleagues, your superiors, your employees, and your clients with integrity in every interaction. End of discussion.

What Tom Gambino, Prime’s founder, impressed upon me during our almost 25 years working together is the power of transparency. He was a CEO who shared more detailed information with the entire Prime family than anyone I’ve ever encountered. There were times when I thought Tom trusted everyone with way too much information. But I’ve grown to appreciate that by systematically sharing those important details, he created a sense of trust throughout our company. The news wasn’t always good, but you knew that if Tom shared it, you could bank on its accuracy.

That said, the focus of this blog is on something that should be second nature to those of us who design, build, and maintain structures that provide the essential needs for human beings. It’s the importance of never overlooking the details of any project. No matter how high you may be on the career ladder, always sweat the small stuff.

Early in your career, it’s a given. You have to sweat the small stuff because that’s usually the only thing you’re allowed to do. You’re not creating project plans. You’re not responsible for the final drawings. You’re not supervising a large, integrated team of A/E/C professionals. You’re in the weeds working on the details.

But as you rise up the ranks, especially in a large corporate structure, it’s very easy to transition from the nitty-gritty to the big picture. Now you’re designing the project, you’re managing the integrated team, you’re responsible for hitting the budget numbers. You feel a need to let go of the details and let those working for you sweat the small stuff.

In my opinion, that’s a mistake.

Do I sweat the small stuff? Absolutely. I always have and it’s part of my DNA. I take pride in the fact that I am a Professional Engineer. When I became an engineer, I took the following oath: “I am an Engineer. In my profession I take deep pride. To it I owe solemn obligations. As an Engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance, and respect; and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of the Earth’s precious wealth. As an Engineer, I shall participate in none but honest enterprises. When needed, my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good. In the performance of duty and in fidelity to my profession, I shall give my utmost.”

How do we make that oath part of our work?

At Prime, we walk the training talk and invest heavily in training for everyone at our firm. I spend one day per month training our technical staff on our project management manual, a manual that runs 18 chapters! It’s important, though, because it helps them understand how Prime operates—our culture, our philosophy, and our attention to detail. It may not work at every firm, but we’ve done well by it for many years.

We also look to outside counsel to help us stay on top of industry changes. We have vendors and peers come into our offices every month to present on important industry-related topics. In all, our goal is for employees to have 50 hours of training every year.

For some, it may seem punitive. For us, it’s a badge of honor, something we tout in our RFP and RFQ responses and something that really resonates when we’re recruiting. It’s a real point of distinction, and we’ve done a great deal of new hiring over the last few years.

However, challenges remain. As we grow, how do we maintain our focus on clients and quality? We have a great staff, great people. But recent college graduates are more oriented toward group projects where responsibility is shared. Attention to detail shifts away from the individual to the collective. That’s a blessing and a curse. I can’t be the person who reviews every single document that goes out the door. So how do I manage perfection? How do I extricate myself from the details and entrust people who can sweat the small stuff—to care about detail, to care about quality, to care about clients?

I realized this weekend when I was working all day on Saturday what sweating the small stuff really means. It means I want the product that we produce to be the very best. That means going the extra mile, making sure the details are properly shown on the plans. It means preparing a proposal that is better than my competitors’ offerings. It also means trusting my team to do the right thing. My father always said: “As a leader, you cannot ask others to do things you are not willing to do.” Teach your team so they can learn to be great professionals and great leaders. And then enable them by getting out of their way so they can succeed. Then they will start sweating the small stuff with you.

Hire right. Train relentlessly. Trust the process…and sweat the small stuff.

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