Is there a single path to a long and fulfilling career as an engineering technologist? That’s a trick question because RTM Engineering Consultants nurtures a culture of connection and support that empowers and enables team members to choose their own destination at their own pace and blaze their own trail to success.
In this episode of Beyond Engineering, a podcast by RTM Engineering Consultants, Principal David Piluski talks with fellow Principal Jim Wicker. With more than a decade of experience at RTM, Jim has played an instrumental role in the firm’s growth – including helping develop the organization’s core value statements. Jim shares his own journey from a tinkering teen to a business unit leader.
Here is an edited transcript of the discussion:
David Piluski: Engineering is the study and the application of how things work. Have you always been interested in how things work?
Jim Wicker: You can ask my father about that! I took everything apart and never it put it back together. I finally learned that you have to put things back together. That was the beginning of an engineering mindset.
David: I know your father. He’s been a machinist his whole life. He’s a very technical person. How did that play into your development as an engineer?
Jim: Being a machinist, my dad worked in a world of decimal points and precision. Being the child of a machinist, there was an expectation of perfection and detail. I think that was the standard in our household, and that helped me with engineering.
David: Why did you want to become an engineer?
Jim: I actually didn’t. I was introduced to an engineering firm while pursuing architecture. Within the first year of working as a mechanical draft person, I was hooked. And I then knew that engineering was what I wanted to do.
David: That engineering firm was my father’s firm, where we met… and we’re still working together today. How many years has it been?
Jim: I think it’s been 30 years.
David: When you walked in the door that day, could you imagine that we’d be sitting across a table 30 years later doing a podcast together?
Jim: No. I didn’t think I was going to make it past the first day.
David: And why was that?
Jim: On my first day of work, I was coming in as a draft person. Your father – a good mentor of mine – handed me a project and said: “Do it.” I told him I wasn’t an engineer, and he said: “Now you are.”
David: How did you build on that? What did you do from day-to-day to leverage the mentors in the office to grow your skill set?
Jim: I was eager to learn. If there was anything I didn’t know, I wanted to approach it. I had the right mentors and coaches and was always asking for help. My mentors were tough with me. They didn’t just give me an answer – they gave me the book. They said, go home, read these chapters, come back in tomorrow and tell me how it’s done.
David: Your career as an engineer moved forward, and at one point you owned and operated your own small engineering practice – which you eventually sold to RTM. Was that something you were looking to do?
Jim: Not, at all. But Tony, our CEO, opened my eyes to some possibilities that would help my career and help me become a better engineer. We could see we had very similar cultures and I had a good network of clients that were different from RTM’s.
David: We still work with many of those clients today.
Jim: Not only are we working with them, but we have grown those clients further than I could have done on my own. I was a small boutique engineering firm. I would only receive part of their work and could only serve them for certain types of work. Now, with RTM’s bandwidth, we’re able to get much more work from them and I basically consider them partners.
David: What roles do you play within the organization?
Jim: My business card says Principal. Principal is a leader within our company that has a set of skills. There are no two Principals that have the same set of skills. A Principal could be someone that has been in the business for many years and understands all aspects of the business. It could be a business owner that has played all the roles within the business. It’s a mix of skills and knowledge that doesn’t even have to be related to engineering – like business development or marketing. Even though we’re an engineering firm, it doesn’t mean you have to excel at engineering to become a Principal.
My roles have changed over the years, and they change frequently. Right now, my main role is BURG leader. BURG is an acronym for business units running great. It’s a leadership role that helps organize companies that are in a growth mode like ours. I’m responsible for office P&Ls (profit and loss statements), business development, and coaching and mentoring engineers for design or any part of the business.
David: As a BURG leader managing multiple offices you are traveling quite a bit. Can you walk us through a typical day?
Jim: I’m pretty mobile. My typical day is fluid – that’s the best way to put it. What I plan on doing in the morning isn’t necessarily what I end up doing the rest of the day. I prioritize things that must absolutely get done. If I don’t have any fires to put out, I’m typically checking in with my office leaders and going over the status of projects, business development and numbers. I’m making sure the offices are running well. I’m also working with existing clients and looking for new clients.
David: Where can your office leaders and team members find you most days?
Jim: I think my team members know that I’m a mobile person, but it’s all about access. They know they can reach me. Whether I’m sitting in their office or in another office, I’m always answering my phone. I don’t look at my job as a nine to five job. I participate whenever I’m needed – and not necessarily where I’m at. As a BURG leader I cover most of the Midwest, including Springfield, Missouri; Overland Park, Kansas; and Dallas, Texas. We call ourselves the Heartland BURG.
David: How do you measure a successful day, week or month?
Jim: Personally, I like to learn one thing a day. However, I’m tracking our numbers, how many proposals we put out, whether we’re on track with company and office goals daily.
David: When the Dallas and Overland Park offices opened, you spent a lot of time there working with the teams. Tell us a little bit about what you did during that time.
Jim: Dallas was the first office that I spent considerable time at. I spent a total of about 7 months there in 2019. They were successful before, so part of what I was doing was finding their secret ingredients so we could combine our ingredients and end up with something better than we had before.
David: You mentioned spending time on business development and working with clients. What do those activities look like?
Jim: Business development has always been a product of my daily work. I’m always looking for opportunities. We have dedicated business development people that do it all the time, but they are not necessarily engineers. Sometimes they’ll share a lead, and I will help follow up on it. Sometimes they want to get into the weeds and talk about the engineering aspects and expertise of the company.
David: You talked about the fact that business development has a lot to do with interacting with clients in both a professional and casual setting. You’ve arranged some client outings that were pretty exciting. Can you tell us about those?
Jim: Face-to-face time is valuable. Once in Dallas we went to this place that is set up like a golf course, but instead of golfing you are shooting clay pigeons, and you’re traveling around by golf cart. It was a big hit. We made lots of connections that day and those relationships have grown. I think we’re going to make it an annual thing.
David: Since we’re talking about culture, here, I wanted to mention that we identify our culture via our core values. We use CORE as an acronym. You had something to do with setting that up, didn’t you?
Jim: Yes, I did. We were at a retreat and were wordsmithing what our core values would be. I organized it around the acronym so it would be easy to remember.
David: C is for collaborative communicators. How do you engage that in your everyday work?
Jim: Being collaborative is sharing what’s on your mind. Everybody has different expertise and it’s a matter of being there for someone by mentoring them or sharing information. It’s listening to new ideas. One direction isn’t necessarily the only way to get the same result.
David: How about the O in core, overall unity? What does that look like to you?
Jim: It’s pretty simple. We are either successful together or we’re not. There aren’t any all-stars. We have to work together in order to achieve our goals.
David: The R is for respect and trust for clients and teammates.
Jim: Respect doesn’t go one way. We’re not talking about RTM by itself. It’s about the respect we give to our clients, but also the respect that the clients give to us.
David: Finally, the E is for excellence in engineering. You would think this would be the first thing on our list. Why is it the last thing?
Jim: Excellence in engineering is the foundation of everything that is the C, the O and the R. You need collaboration and overall unity and respect in order to be excellent at engineering.
Listen to this entire conversation and find future podcasts here.
Beyond Engineering is a podcast from RTM Engineering Consultants, a MEP and Civil engineering firm that goes beyond a typical consulting role. Listen as RTM technologists share stories about innovative design, collaborative development and exacting execution that help buildings, businesses and the people working inside them, work better.
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