Inside Stantec’s Culture Shift

Corporate entrepreneurialism May be considered an oxymoron to some, But that doesn’t Sway Stantec from trying to inject that drive into its very big company. Douglas visited Stantec’s Vancouver island office to find out how they do it.    

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Chris Gill, environmental services associate, and Mark Crisp, senior associate, in Stantec’s Victoria office. Locally, Stantec has worked on projects such as the Victoria International Airport, the Kinsol Trestle Rehabilitation and the Atrium Building. All article photography by Jeffrey Bosdet, Jo-Ann Loro and Simon Desrochers.

Entrepreneurial. It’s a word that instantly conjures a lithe, lively state of being where you’re always trying new things, taking smart risks, dancing on the crest of every wave.

But how does a business keep that vibe going once it’s grown into a vast global entity with enough staff to populate a small town? How does a Canadian firm founded in the 1950s manage to stay nimble and entrepreneurial more than 60 years later?

According to Neal Cormack, principal and regional leader for British Columbia, it’s about creating a culture where employees feel free to jump in on projects that may not be in their areas of expertise, and to step up with their ideas for projects or different ways of doing things. Call it entrepreneurialism through intrapreneurialism.

The huge Alberta-based consultancy has 22,000 employees around the world and a long list of specialties that encompass multi-sector planning, engineering, architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, environmental sciences, project management and more. But despite all that bigness, it’s also got a reputation for getting down to the grassroots in the communities where it operates.

With 140 employees in its Victoria and Sidney offices, Stantec is a big company even at the local level. But while Stantec definitely can “draw from the bench” as needed with its diverse level of international expertise, local offices work hard to keep their feet planted in the community, says Victoria associate Justin Ellis.

Keeping Growth Smart
Stantec started out in 1954 as a small civil engineering firm founded by Edmonton professional engineer Don Stanley. The first Canadian to graduate with a PhD in environmental engineering, Stanley launched his company two years later with a specialty in sewage and water management. The company grew modestly in staff and consulting specialties for several decades, but in the last 18 years it has been on a mission to grow.

The publicly traded company has grown from 2,000 employees in 1998 to 22,000 employees today, mostly through the strategic acquisition of other companies. It’s now considered a world player in global design — from hospitals and medical centres to roadways, wilderness areas, bridges, mines, power stations, urban spaces, airports and a whole lot more. (“It’s easier to say what we don’t do,” jokes Ellis.)

Here on Vancouver Island, you may know Stantec for its work on the master plan for Ogden Point, the railing on the breakwater, or its subsurface studies for the new Johnson Street Bridge.

Working with the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, Stantec acted as building and structural engineers for the design and construction of the curved aluminum post and stainless steel wire railing installed along the Ogden Point Breakwater.

In fact, Stantec Victoria has led projects of all sizes up and down the Island, from the design of the two new hospitals being built in Courtenay and Campbell River to the analysis of the Keating Business Corridor, a master plan for parks and trails for the Municipality of North Cowichan, the Sooke sewer system, and restoration of the Kinsol Trestle. Victoria International Airport is an ongoing client for projects large and small. (Small projects keep a company nimble and connected, notes the team.)

The local office is no stranger to controversial projects, having worked with Schnitzer Steel last summer after a barge overturned in the Upper Harbour and dumped 20 scrapped cars into the sea. Stantec’s work on the master plan for the Ogden Point cruise ship area has been a hot topic in James Bay, where feelings run high about how further development and increased traffic will affect the neighbourhood.

“We’re very aware that we’re talking about a major cruise operation next to the second-oldest community in B.C., and we’re trying very hard to communicate with people and make sure they know we’re listening,” says Mark Crisp, the Stantec Victoria senior associate leading that process.

Big Has its Challenges
Ian Robertson, CEO of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, says Stantec’s commitment to public consultation has been a perfect fit with his own “adamant” views on that issue. The draft master plan has been through 33 open houses and workshops in the last nine months and through numerous revisions as a result.

“The thing Stantec and I both agree on is we want to be consulting broadly on the plan and operating with a high degree of transparency,” says Robertson.

So yes, Stantec is a very big company doing big work. But big has its challenges, both for how a company is perceived in the community and for ensuring staff feel like their views matter. That Stantec staff live in the community where they work makes all the difference, Robertson adds.

“It’s kind of an overused phrase, but Stantec thinks globally and acts locally,” he says. “They’ve got that global expertise to draw on, but a local team who lives here. That was definitely a factor for us in our decision about who we wanted to work with on the master plan.”

Stantec environmental services associate Chris Gill notes that when people live where they work, there’s a “vested interest” in doing a good job.

“Stantec really tries to emphasize that we don’t just mobilize from major urban centres,” says Gill. “We pride ourselves on thinking of our Victoria office as a small consultancy.”

Mark Crisp tells of doing work for one local company, then presenting at an open house for another client where the company CEO just happened to be the head of the local citizens’ interest group. Living where you work keeps a big company accountable, he says.

Energy and Entrepreneurialism
As for keeping workplace culture entrepreneurial, Stantec strive to encourage employees to find work that matters to them while also benefiting the company, says Tariq Amlani, monitoring and evaluation manager.

Supporting your employees’ passion to be the best they can be isn’t just a corporate warm-and-fuzzy, Amlani adds — it’s a smart business strategy that keeps a company growing and changing.

“There’s a commitment in the company to try people out in different roles,” he says. “They get exposed to new opportunities. They blossom. We put people into positions they like doing. We want them to find what resonates for them, and then put them where that can happen.”

Senior associate Scott MacNeill says Stantec prides itself on breaking down walls between departments and specialties (in the Victoria office alone, there are 15 different business services).

The Goal to be Nimble
Whether building a health centre in Qatar or doing a washroom upgrade at Victoria’s Government House, a company’s ability to scale itself up or down is crucial to staying entrepreneurial.

“We need to be nimble, and seen as nimble,” adds Ellis, Stantec Victoria’s senior planner in parks, recreation and tourism. “Yes, there are 22,000 of us, but we deliver boutique-style service.” 

“There is a sense of entrepreneurship here, a feeling of opportunity,” says MacNeill. “If someone wants to talk to another section — if they’re, say, an architect with an interest in biomass — they can go ahead. We also work to include our younger staff and interns in meetings even if what’s being talked about isn’t their area of expertise. It’s a chance to learn.”

Taking Down the Walls
It’s not only metaphorical walls between departments that Stantec aims to vanquish. Real walls are kept to a minimum as well in Stantec’s scenic fourth-floor digs at the corner of Bay and Tyee. The company was one of the first tenants in 2007 when the building opened as part of Dockside Green’s Upper Harbour II project. 

The office’s open plan means Victoria’s 86 staffers can’t help but cross paths in the course of an average day, increasing the chances that everyone gets a sense of who’s up to what.

Small booths and tables for four line one side of the office, inviting group conversations. Communal spaces like the coffee area and materials library are wide open, encouraging easy interactions between those on a mission and those just passing by. If cross-pollination is the goal, then finding ways for employees to bump into each other across specialties counts for a lot. (Not to mention a great excuse for taking in floor-to-sky-high-ceiling views of the Gorge Waterway and the harbour industrial scene below.)

At times, the “co-location” of one group of staffers with another is more overt. When the company was working on the design for two new hospitals currently under construction in Campbell River and Courtenay, it deliberately sat the medical design team next to the building design team, so that each would gain an appreciation of how to integrate individual design needs into the bigger picture.

Pitch Your Passion
Stantec is so confident that its employees hold the key to staying innovative and entrepreneurial that it puts up $2 million a year for employees wanting to pitch projects. “If you see a new or better way to do it, you can apply to the leadership teams,” says Jennie Christensen, an environmental services principal in Stantec’s Sidney office and three-time recipient of its Greenlight research and development fund.

Christensen applied for her first grant to test her theory that lasers could be used to analyze grizzly-bear hair for the presence of toxins. Stantec leaders agreed, seeing such leading-edge work as a good thing for both animals and the company, which consults in the mining sector and other controversial areas where environmental safety is a hot-button issue.

Her laser ablation technique has now been built into the monitoring processes of several Stantec clients working on pipeline development, hydroelectric projects and mines where employees risk exposure to potentially toxic substances.

The company’s philosophy is that keeping both feet planted in the community where it works leads to good corporate citizenship and  more business opportunities,.

When 40 employees from Stantec’s Victoria and Sidney offices stepped up to volunteer at the company’s 2016 Community Day (which saw 8,000 Stantec employees volunteering in their communities worldwide), they not only did good deeds like building picnic tables at a low-income apartment and cleaning up Goldstream River, they networked and connected with people whose own local knowledge just might spark the next big idea for a new Stantec specialty.

Forty employees from Stantec’s Victoria and Sidney offices volunteered at the company’s 2016 Community Day on September 19 to paint, assemble furniture, clean and garden at the Pacifica Housing facility on Gorge Road.

Say it in Six
To promote entrepreneurial thinking and help employees feel connected to the team, Stantec adapted an Ernest Hemingway idea and launched its own version of six-word stories, in which employees have six words to talk about a project, client, volunteer experience or aspect of Stantec culture. The company has collected more than 1,300 of these microstories.

“Flood disaster evaluation; 10,000 sites repaired,” writes one employee. “Mapped the wetlands. Harnessed the wind,” writes another. “Designed the school my child attended,” writes a third. The tiny stories not only give employees a chance to find out a little more about each other, but give the public a creative glimpse into the projects and people of Stantec.

Entrepreneurial companies also stay on top of leadership planning. Amlani is a 2010 graduate of Stantec’s inaugural Emerging Leaders program. He says the facilitated program feels much like an MBA in the way it brings together people across disciplines to learn from each other and work together on a project.

“There’s a huge benefit from the development of connection, the networking,” notes Amlani. “You go back to your day job, but you’re now connected to all these people. And the thing about this program is that nobody at Stantec head office said, ‘Hey, you have to have one of these.’ It was just one guy trying to do cross-pollination. It went from being a small program in B.C. to being company-wide.”

Staying entrepreneurial is ultimately about creating a work environment where the entrepreneurialism of your employees can shine through, says Christensen.

“There really has to be a cultural shift,” Christensen adds. “A lot of the things we’ve been talking about that Stantec does have come about over time, through mistakes and experiences. But time has passed, and what we see happening now is that we have that culture.”