Caring Culture & Timely Innovation: A Match in Heaven for CDM Smith’s Sustained Success

Maintaining strong growth momentums throughout more than 7 decades, especially after COVID-19, CDM Smith proves why the culture of care is the first step to strategic moves that “go beyond the ‘safe choice’”.
DM Smith engineer work on drawing and document
Courtesy: CDM Smith
By | 11 min read

Established in 1947 as a partnership and incorporated in 1970, Boston-headquartered CDM Smith is an engineering and construction company having more than 5,000 employees working from offices worldwide. This employee owned firm provides solutions in water, environment, transportation, and energy and facilities projects for public and private clients, transportation advisory services, lead in drinking water and digital solutions. From its roots in designing, consulting and program management to the close internal culture, CDM Smith has earned a reputation as one of the industry’s strongest and most inspired construction firm.

The Firm’s Orientation to Grow: Pursuit of Excellence

Since its founding in 1947, CDM Smith has been a leading consulting firm in the field of water and wastewater. Over the years, however, it has expanded its offerings to become a full-service consulting, engineering and construction firm. Founded with a commitment to maintain the constant pursuit of excellence, CDM Smith places responsibility to its clients second only to responsibility to the public. By staying true to this promise for more than 70 years, this firm has forged tremendous, long-standing relationships, not only with partners but also within the firm itself.

CDM Smith is currently ranked 25th on Engineering News-Record’s 2021 Top 500 Design Firms list and 19th on their 2020 Top 200 Environmental Firms list. This firm provides services through the following major business units: North America Unit; Federal Services Unit; and International Unit. These units are supported by the Technical Services Unit and the Construction Unit—all working together to deliver integrated engineering and construction services worldwide.

To get those above achievement, CDM Smith has continuously reinvested in its people, tools and technology to foster its teams’ amazing careers. There is something uniquely special about CDM Smith, wherever and whenever it presents: this firm does not seek to preserve its culture — it seek to improve itself. Every person who joins this firm helps to shape and evolve the culture further together.

“Think Big, Dream Big and Go After!”

DM Smith CEO shared story in an interview
Courtesy: CDM Smith

On January 2, 2018, CDM Smith welcomed a new executive leadership team to further advance its vision of unmatched client service, aggressive growth and performance excellence. Defining its responsibility is to help companies and communities prepare for the future in a sustainable way, CDM Smith has outlined various strong strategic moves to expand it influence – in some cases they call it “go beyond the ‘safe choice’”.

“I’ve been fortunate to follow in the footsteps of passionate and forward-thinking leaders who have grown this firm into the global corporation it is today. They’ve created an environment where technical excellence and client service are unmatched. However, the industry is changing—our employees need a dynamic and responsive leader who can empower them to go beyond the ‘safe choice’ and not be afraid to risk failure.” – said Timothy Wall – CDM Smith’s Chairman and CEO.

Analyzing the interview of this fearless leader, we have learnt more about why this firm believes fostering culture is the first step of those moves and how they do that in reality.

Lesson #1: Listen to Stay Close to What Happens

Client collaboration plays a huge role in CDM Smith’s philosophy of proactive risk taking. In order to better understand their needs and solve their unique challenges, this Boston-headquartered has a strong “listening culture”: listen to both clients and employees.

“Listening is not just part of our tagline; it’s how we operate. Before I even took the role of CEO, I organized a robust listening campaign where I spoke to both clients and employees to hear what was important to them.” – said Wall.

As a privately owned firm, CDM Smith depends on the unique opportunity for 100% alignment of its employee focus with client needs to achieve success. There are no outside investors with disconnected financial priorities. This listening campaign confirms that its alignment is as strong as ever. This also ensures its people are passionate about working with clients to understand their needs and solve their environmental and infrastructure challenges.

“Providing excellent customer service has always been a hallmark of CDM Smith,” Ahmad Habibian, Ph.D., P.E., CDM Smith global conveyance strategy leader said. “Following the business philosophy set by our founders nearly eight decades ago, our approach to any project focuses on three key aspects of customer service — listen, think and deliver. We listen to understand our clients’ needs and concerns, think through potential options to address those needs, and leverage our technical prowess to deliver the right solutions to meet those needs.”

Lesson #2: Empower to Make the Most Use of Resources

Tim Wall believes that great leaders are the ones who recognize that every employee has a game-changing perspective, regardless of their position within the firm. He said that his job is to empower all 5,000 people who work there to feel that their opinions are listened to and respected.

Indeed, CDM Smith is a place that breeds passion. People here are not walking to work: they are running to work. As they are believed in their abilities by the executive board, they can go the extra mile for clients, high-fiving in the hallway. Great communication is key to building that passion and creating an atmosphere of trust and excellence here.

“That’s why I’m so proud to lead an employee-owned firm, because we’re investing in the long-term future of both our clients and our staff.” – Wall answered in the interview. “It’s not just a place to get a paycheck—we care about our employees, our clients and the future we’re building together.”

Lesson #3: Use Technology to Increase Productivity

The opportunities for growth in municipal infrastructure market are abundant. The deteriorating state of the nation’s aging infrastructure, in particular, is providing opportunities for new and innovative solutions. The smarter infrastructure concept is moving fast from a mere visionary concept to reality, driven by advances in sensor technologies, communication platforms and data analytics.

By increasing automation, leveraging system diagnostics, and utilizing real-time alerts coupled with a holistic infrastructure management plan, CDM Smith is able to address issues surrounding the aging infrastructure.

DM Smith staff work on water utility at the job site in Houston
Courtesy: CDM Smith

“In terms of executing a successful open-door policy, technology plays a huge role. I’ve found great success in using our various digital channels—both internal and client-facing—to communicate key goals and receive feedback. So even though I can’t shake the hand of every client or have lunch with every employee, I can still make that connection on a virtual scale.” – Wall explained.

Lesson #4: Prepare Well to Take Risk

“We’re not here to churn out cookie-cutter designs and provide adequate client service—we are here to be the best. We’re here to partner with our clients to take on the toughest challenges and solve the most complex problems.” – said Wall.

Failure is a reality. But being better at failure than everybody else is what separates a good company from a great one. That is why CDM Smith believed great leaders are the ones willing to take smart, calculated risks and encourage everyone around them to think outside the box. To do that, they need to push themselves: try new things, ask tough questions and accept that not everything will be a success on the first try. So, they will take calculated risks and make sure learning from failure is part of the equation.

Making Difference by Cultural Diversity

“Our employees are the heart and soul of our company, so creating an inclusive working environment where everyone feels they can be their best self, share their points-of-view and learn from each other, ultimately, positions our firm to make a greater impact in the communities we serve.” – CDM Smith introduced itself on the website.

As a global organization with more than 125 offices across the world, CDM Smith employees come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. As its business services have grown and diversified across the world, it remains committed to having an inclusive workplace where everyone is valued for his or her ideas, experiences and contributions.

By creating a culture where everyone feels welcome and treated fairly, this firm enable its employees to connect with each other and with their clients to create innovative solutions. This aligns with CDM Smith goal of becoming the employer of choice by attracting and retaining the industry’s top talent to lead its organization to long-term sustained and profitable growth.

DM Smith engineer work on project
Courtesy: CDM Smith

Also, this firm believes that cultivating and supporting a diverse workforce means supporting people through their entire career. But career journeys are often not linear and have to ebb and flow with our life events and choices. That’s why, at CDM Smith, it has established the Reboot Re-Entry Program to help professionals return work after taking 2 or more years off.

This 16-week program is a paid, full-time, temporary opportunity to help professionals train and rejoin peers in their field. CDM Smith now offers two tracks of the program: Reboot for STEM professionals and Reboot for U.S. veterans, aiming to help skilled professionals integrate into their civilian careers through the support of colleagues, managers, mentors and training programs. This is a brilliant program to attract talented people for CDM Smith team.

Sustaining a Culture of Caring Through Pandemic

CDM Smith’s unified culture exist not only in how the firm treat its employees but also in what it brings to society. In the context forced to reimagine life as in Covid 19, its employees held onto to its culture of caring.

“The pandemic brought even more need to help people in our communities,” said Charlie Mielcarek, principal facilities manager and CDM Smith Cares coordinator. “From sewing masks to grocery shopping for the elderly to donating blood. We saw many employees step up.”

In this article, we want to mention CDM Smith Cares, an employee-led volunteer program, which focuses on outreach activities that build community and improve quality of life through local efforts. This aligns with this firm’s core values, including healthy living initiatives, environmental stewardship, STEM outreach and more.

“Not being in our offices was challenging, but fortunately, Cares efforts continued,” said Mielcarek.

Coming together virtually, CDM Smith’s employees in Edison, New Jersey raised about $2,700 and assembled tote bags full of goodies for 70 brave COVID-19 unit workers at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick. Meanwhile, Paul Blomberg, its associate structural engineer from Phoenix, Arizona, joined by his wife Kathy, volunteered at their regional hospital’s drive-thru COVID-19 vaccine clinic, helping more than 1,600 people get vaccinated in an 11-hour period.

While new pandemic-related needs required its attention, CDM Smith also continued some traditions with a remote spin. Sharing selfies, stories and statistics on health brought a renewed focus to its wellbeing and helped it connect virtually while physically distanced.

DM Smith staff in a local luncheon event
Courtesy: CDM Smith

Employees participating in CDM Smith’s wellness program continued to rack up points. If employees can collectively earn enough points to meet quarterly goals, this firm may donate up to $50,000 to charities selected both by the firm’s Executive Leadership Team and by employee vote. Since the program’s start in 2017, CDM Smith has donated $650,000 distributed among 31 charities. Most recently, it gave $25,000 to AdoptAClassroom.org to benefit special needs classrooms in 87 cities across the U.S. where it works. Another $25,000 went to HomeAid American, a leading national nonprofit provider of housing and resources for people experiencing homelessness.

CDM Smith also has a longstanding relationship with Engineers Without Borders (EWB-USA). While COVID-19 has halted many overseas EWB-USA projects, the Community Engineering Corps—a joint program with EWB-USA, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Water Works Association—is designing solutions for underserved communities across the U.S. A team of professionals at CDM Smith is currently providing pro-bono engineering services to bring a more substantial water supply to the residents in Anza, CA.

In short, at CDM Smith, the employees are inspired to think and driven to solve for both their clients and their communities in various ways despite unpredicted scenario like the pandemic.

The Bottom Lines

Looking ahead, CDM Smith professionals will continue delivering “pursuit of excellence” solutions to address the needs of clients. While clients’ needs may change or evolve, excellent customer service, innovation and deployment of new technologies to address those needs remain a constant.

In long run, with synergy of internal caring culture and timely innovations, CDM Smith is going to keep its leading position in such engineering and construction field. How this company combine its core values and mission to help society gives others firms lessons to develop sustainably.

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