How cracking engineering’s glass ceiling drives business results at Northrop

Northrop Consulting Engineers CEO Jamie Shelton says cracking the glass ceiling has been crucial to growth

A forward-thinking approach to workplace diversity, flexibility and employee engagement have helped engineering consultancy Northrop crack the glass ceiling to improve talent acquisition and retention while driving double-digit business growth, according to its CEO.

Northrop Consulting Engineers is an employee-owned multi-disciplinary firm with 345 employees across Australia specialising in civil, structural, building services and sustainability.

Thanks to a strong focus on attracting, engaging and retaining highly skilled employees (both male and female), Northrop CEO Jamie Shelton said the firm has been able to punch above its weight in the highly competitive field of engineering.

For example, it has experienced 35 per cent growth in employees in two years, 37 per cent growth in female employees in one year as well as a below-average employee turnover rate – which have all contributed to a 22 per cent growth in company revenue over the past two years.

Shelton, who started with Northrop in 1988 as a graduate engineer and climbed the ranks to the role of CEO in 2017, recognised that culture was key to growth and decentralised Northrop’s employee engagement programs across its eight offices, fostered a family-friendly workplace, and focused particularly on gender diversity to help break the traditional glass ceiling in engineering.

“Increasingly, Northrop is standing apart from other medium engineering consultancies – and not just because we’re one of a few medium-sized, employee-owned multi-disciplinary firms,” said Shelton, who explained that engineering talent looks for career and professional development opportunities.

“At Northrop, an individual works among the owners and board members, with every opportunity to become one themselves.

“We focus on developing the strengths of people such that they can do their best work and, without using rigid career paths, we open up a variety of possibilities through which they can contribute to the success of the business,” he said.

Promotion to principal positions is based on an employee’s leadership, development of their own teams, and successes they have brought to the firm.

“So, there’s only value if diversity has a place at every table, and that has to start at the head table”

“We encourage people to wear more than one hat at Northrop, which reveals hidden talents, very valuable talents and makes work far more interesting.

“Our people continue to work within their area of expertise as they contribute in ways like business development, thought leadership, people management, ICT, strategic planning and implementation.”

There is also a strong focus on continuing education, with the launch of Northrop University (a development program for graduate engineers) and the firm also fully subsidises TAFE courses for its draftspersons and offers extensive on-the-job training including regular internal technical conferences.

Cracking the glass ceiling with diversity
Diversity and inclusion “absolutely go hand-in-hand”, said Shelton, who explained that it is only through an inclusive culture can a business benefit from the diversity of its people and the value of which comes from diverse thinking.

“So, there’s only value if diversity has a place at every table, and that has to start at the head table,” he said.

“Leaders must have both a personal conviction to the principles of diversity and a belief that diversity can improve a business in many ways.

“Without these two ingredients, it’s all lip service.”

A key plank of the firm’s culture is a commitment to developing individuals to help them to reach their full potential, according to Shelton, who acknowledged that in the past, Northrop did not live up to this commitment and there was a glass ceiling within the firm.

“We had plenty of excuses why women were not progressing within Northrop, all of which were seated in our conditioning as men and the unconscious biases through which we evaluated merit,” he said.

“It’s still early days, but we’ve put the emphasis on women at the top and have made it an issue of strategic importance.

“Northrop’s leadership team are committed to targets and actions to drive change.”

As a result, there has been a 37 per cent growth in female employees in one year and Northrop has also promoted a number of female engineers to principal roles this year to break through the glass ceiling.

“The move to working flexibly brings focus onto the health of the relationship between worker and manager”

It has also broadened the representation of its diversity group and helped empower this group to break through the glass ceiling and take on a higher level of influence within the business.

Making flexible working arrangements work
To help encourage diversity Northrop also encourages flexible working arrangements across all offices.

Flexible work arrangements must work for both the individual and the business otherwise it’s pointless,” said Shelton.

“The business needs to see that embracing flexible working arrangements will result in attracting and retaining good people, whose choices about when and where they work facilitate their contribution to the business without detracting from teamwork and client service.”

As the workforce moves from a set workplace and set working hours to more flexible working arrangements, Shelton said managers also need support in this transitional phase.

“It undoubtedly makes their life harder, at least initially, and so managers need training and support to manage a team with flexible workers,” he said.

“The move to working flexibly brings focus onto the health of the relationship between worker and manager.

“Any dysfunction within the relationship becomes exacerbated, and little annoying things can become problems.”

Trust is essential in the process, and Shelton said the responsibility to maintain contact and check-in swings from manager to employee.

“The relationship changes somewhat, and usually for the better, as the employee becomes more self-reliant and self-motivated,” he said.

“Once flexible working arrangements are made available to one person, it’s only fair that they be available to all.

“However, the uptake does need to be managed, otherwise teams become dysfunctional, managers become stressed, and client service suffers,” he said.

Flexible working arrangements require an effort from both the individual and their manager, and Shelton said that while managers see this, employees often don’t (at least not initially).

“The principles of employee engagement are simple; the practice takes vision, grit and trust”

“Manager and employee need to talk openly about what’s important to them. They need to respect each other’s needs and live up to their commitments,” he said.

Northrop is currently rolling out flexible work training for all managers along with policy updates and internal communications to support flexibility and subvert the glass ceiling internally.

“While it’s early days for assessing results, we have seen our number of part-time hires double between FY17 and FY18,” said Shelton.

Improving culture and engagement
Engineering can be a demanding field and Shelton acknowledges that Northrop is not for everyone – “but for those who thrive at Northrop, engagement is paramount,” he said.

“To attract and engage people, it is important to be clear about what you stand for as a business, including being clear about where you’re going, what behaviours are acceptable, and the valuable contributions that individuals bring when they play to their strengths.

“The principles of employee engagement are simple; the practice takes vision, grit and trust,” he said.

Each Northrop office tailors its people and culture programs to suit its employees, and the Newcastle office, for example, has a fishing club and a kids’ playroom.

The team at Wollongong often go to the beach during their lunch break, while the Canberra office holds monthly movie nights and BBQs.

Melbourne hosts monthly cocktail parties and the Sydney CBD office enters teams into major sporting events such as City2Surf, holds an annual lawn bowls event, and organises an annual ‘bring your kids to work’ day.

At Erina, the office manager shouts staff a bacon and eggs breakfast every Friday, and each quarter, the Sydney CBD and Parramatta offices hold ‘inspiration sessions’, where external speakers present on specific topics.

The company also holds conferences and annual employee awards, including for every five years of service, and it also provides increased super contribution after 10 years of service.