In August 2020, Consulting-Specifying Engineering (CSE) published its MEP Giants list recognizing the top 100 North American mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) engineering companies based upon revenue. Ranked at No. 85, Rushing made the cut for the first time in 2019, reporting $17.2 million. Rushing was one of two companies representing the northwest and Seattle. Co-founded in 2006 by myself, Rae Anne Rushing, P.E., and CEO, and my partner, Scott Rushing, P.E., Rushing has seen an average of 35% growth year over year.
The Female Effect
That growth’s intrinsic connection to female leadership inclusion, which I call the Female Effect, occurs when we believe in the inherit value of women in engineering, which builds momentum, creates a culture of involvement and diversity where everyone feels valued, and enhances a business’s financial success. As a new firm in 2006, we were tasked with establishing our brand and client base. After 20 years in business, name recognition of the co-founders helped to quickly establish a book of private development business. We quickly ramped up to $4.5 million in revenue by the end of 2008, at which point our services were established: mechanical, electrical, plumbing/fire protection, energy services, lighting design, sustainability, consulting, and commissioning services.
The middle of 2009 brought recession realities, and we made the difficult decision to lay off 15 people. As challenging as the Great Recession was for the company, this economic event is largely responsible for the specific market Rushing currently works in today. This case study examines the Female Effect and how having a female at the top during a crisis, as was our case in 2009, availed us the diverse thinking that allowed us to pivot our business into markets that would eventually sustain us through the next business cycle in Seattle.
Let us talk about women in our industry — specifically, women mechanical and electrical engineers in the design and construction industry. ASHRAE and The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) membership in 2019 included 9.1% and 11% women, respectively.
As an active member of ASHRAE since 1987, I have observed the stagnant growth of female membership in our industry. While IEEE reports a somewhat larger percentage of women members, its membership includes women engineers in the software and electronics industry as well as electrical engineers doing power engineering in the design and construction industry. My observations over the last 30 years apply to both mechanical and electrical disciplines in our industry: women are few and far between.
Based on figures in the August 2020 CSE MEP Giants article, top MEP companies are reporting an average female workforce of 17%. This is fantastic and encouraging. At Rushing, that gender diversity figure is doubled, with 35% of the company’s workforce identifying as female. The Female Effect depends on not only diversity but also inclusion. Diversity is being asked to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance. I am proud to report not only the gender diversity statistics of our company but also the inclusion statistics: Our ownership team is 51% female, and the management team is 46% female.
When speculating about our success in attracting women engineers at Rushing, I am confident my presence as a role model in an ownership position has afforded us the luxury of receiving the top female resumes from across the country. In the competitive Seattle market, and in an industry with a labor shortage, attracting, hiring, and retaining this top talent has allowed Rushing to scale relatively quickly. I present my observations as I have had the time at this point in my career to fully incubate, study, and now report on the business’s success.
Research about the realities of gender inclusion and diversity on the business financial outcomes is conflicting: Does diversity bring better product, create higher productivity through better community experience, or improve problem-solving through alternative thinking? Does inclusion increase profitability and revenue? Is attrition lower? Are new markets and clients available to the company?
In February 2019, the Harvard Business Review published the article, “When Gender Diversity Makes Firms More Productive.” That article concludes that gender diversity makes a difference when people believe in the intrinsic value of it. When this occurs, companies and industries can reap the benefits but not until their belief in the intrinsic value of gender diversity and inclusion translates into hiring, developing, and retaining more women. In order to reap the rewards of the Female Effect, companies must walk the walk of gender diversity and inclusion, not just pay it lip service. No more excuses.
I cite this article because I agree with this subtle but important fact. Rushing is a great example of the self-fulfilling cycle, and the results speak for themselves: scalability, increasing revenue, and increasing profits.
Culture, Communication, and Accountability
What are the nuts and bolts of attracting and retaining women engineers beyond the standard Class-A company benefits?
Cultivate Culture — Culture is a garden that needs tending. Weeds must be addressed timely and consistently. Do what you say and walk your talk. Double standards at any level will work against this effort. One of the best markers of a “stable” culture is a low attrition rate (less than 10%). Happy employees will stay and be engaged in any economy. When scaling a company organically, engaged employees may be one of the trickiest aspects to control — culture is a way of addressing this.
Solicit Employee Feedback — Being a professional service means our employees are as valuable to the company as our clients. We want to hear from them. Companies, such as Culture Amp, offer platforms throughout the enterprise that measure critical components of a company’s cultural health by surveying employees across factors, including engagement, performance, and retention. Real-time feedback helps leaders and managers intervene early when critical engagement or cultural issues arise. Building a feedback loop will support a culture of continuous learning and transparency and will lead to an engaged and productive workforce.
Implement an External Audit for Accountability on Equity — Consider a third-party audit to assess your equity efforts. The Just Label, International Living Building Institute, and GEN Certification are gold standard options for intersectional equity in the U.S. workforce. These organizations assess companies’ diversity and inclusion efforts, identify areas for improvement, and advise on the next steps to ensure leadership is provided with the true results of diversity programs financially supported by the company. Learn what works in your own micro-environment to fine tune and accelerate the process. Keep your company accountable to the first bullet — the culture you are cultivating.
Promote Talent — Our industry traditionally undervalues and underestimates the power of having a diverse leadership team because we do not have many examples or experiences that show us the intrinsic value. My mentors were male in our industry. This provided discouraging moments in the last 30 years that led me to question whether I wanted to stay in our industry. Women need to see other women in the lead so they can see equity exists. This thing, the Female Effect, feeds on itself, and, when rapidly scaling a company, accessing every available talented engineer is key. We need to open our arms and welcome women into the MEP design and construction industry completely, which, again, depends on culture.
Develop Leaders — Scaling a company fast and organically requires leadership development in a new way. When Rushing was 11 years old and scaling from 65 to 100 people, things got tricky. Long-time staff were not developing fast enough to keep up with our leadership demands. So, we invested time and money in a high-quality, cutting-edge advisor and coach who matched our brand values and implemented Harvard University’s Immunity to Change transformation framework. This adaptive leadership performance model uncovers the “hidden” resistance to change in nearly every organization, and, unlike traditional workshops and training, it fosters rigorous engagement across the company, from senior leaders to individual contributors. Building a developmental culture is anchored in the following premise: What if we built and fostered a culture where people stopped covering and hiding behind their weaknesses and internal barriers to change and became deeply engaged? How could we “unlock” the true potential of our team and organization? Our consultant worked with our staff over the last three years to develop leaders and promote group synergy and working structures, which has resulted in our profits more than doubling while scaling 35% per year. Let me say this again: Our profits more than doubled while scaling 35% per year. This investment was critical to maintaining our momentum and reaching the next level.
When we believe in the intrinsic value of women in engineering, momentum builds, and a culture of inclusion and diversity becomes a place where everyone feels valued — this is the Female Effect. At Rushing, this belief is felt as soon as you walk into our office or when our team shows up to a meeting. Our clients often comment on our space and culture being completely different from other engineering firms. This “vibe” is intentional and in alignment with our brand and scope of services. We want to stand out and we do. This avails us the opportunity to perform and succeed. Rushing has believed in the power of the Female Effect and has thus been able to fully harvest the potential of all our engineers and scale and profit.
Rushing performance in 2019 yielded another record year for revenue and profits. Our profitability continues to be three times the national average for our business type in the U.S. and our projections for 2020 will maintain our average 35% growth. How much does The Female Effect play a part? I offer this case study for your consideration.