Thriving Company Culture Through the Eyes of a Project Manager
By Tamara Staton, Owner Thriving Solar - This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews for my exclusive column on Thriving Culture. The intention of this series is to give you, as a reader, a sense of where and how culture is thriving in the solar industry, and how you might begin to strengthen company culture in your own company or place of business. I conducted this interview with Katie Martin, Project Manager at Imagine Energy, which currently employs ~15 solar team members with 2 solar install teams. As you’ll likely glean from this interview, Katie, and the leadership at Imagine, clearly have a deep understanding of the deep importance of company culture matters and the direct impact that it has on performance.
Tamara: How would you describe your path to becoming project manager at Imagine Energy?
Katie: Varied, but focused in a way. I came out of college at Oregon State really focusing on construction, but interested in sustainability, energy efficiency, and renewables. We were in a huge housing boom, so I got to jump right in and become involved with both design and management for new construction, particularly new homes. I was able to focus on small footprint custom homes for a contractor here in Portland and was fortunate enough to be a part of the team that built the first LEED certified home on the West Coast. Fast forward to 2009 and the recession, when I shifted into energy efficiency retrofits of existing homes. I got to be involved with taking the resources that we already had, instead of focusing on consuming and building new; taking our old Portland home stock and bringing them up to or beyond current efficiency standards. This was tremendously rewarding for me. In 2012 I changed course again and headed into the solar world, and knew that that's what I wanted to finally specialize in. I started taking additional classes, getting some work experience, and then looking for a company that would specialize and help me build my full-time solar resume. I'd known Jonathan Cohen, the owner of Imagine; he actually did some of the solar on the custom homes I was building back in the day. For many reasons, it is a really well-rounded company, and I was brought on last year. This month is my one-year anniversary.
Tamara: What was it about solar that attracted you?
Katie: I think it was the opportunity to combine my construction experience with the very technical aspects of mechanical and electrical design. Additionally, I have an overarching goal to do everything I can to curb climate change, with renewable energy both here at home and abroad.
Tamara: What does 'thriving culture' mean to you?
Katie: It should seem so easy to be able to voice what this is, but for me, it's more like something you feel and see. Boiling it down, I think it's a collective and collaborative effort which includes everyone. It's everybody being involved to focus and further the mission and values of the company. It's about supporting all the individuals within the team, and having a little fun while doing that. Growing culture is often a matter of integrating values into what we're already doing, building them wherever we can in a way that makes it a little bit easier for people to jump on board. I really think it's that effort as a whole to drive the mission and values, which contributes to a thriving culture.
Tamara: How do you do that as a project manager, to integrate culture into what you're already doing?
Katie: It's partly about considering the processes that we already use as project managers and thinking about how to integrate mission and values into those. If I need to communicate the skills needed for a particular job, for example, then I consider how I might put a process together that allows me to communicate this information to the crew, all the while weaving in our core values. Is there a way that I can include them in the problem-solving on these couple of items? Is there a way that I can communicate how I want this component installed so that it falls under our value of excellence? How can I blend those values into something as simple as a work order or into our team meetings each week? It's just being very deliberate in building those values into our processes, and at the end of the day, people may not realize it, but it's a great way to build the initial foundation of what you want the culture to look like.
Tamara: Is there anything you want to add about the role you play in supporting thriving culture at Imagine?
Katie: I'm going to mark this down as the question that inspires me the most because it really goes back to the fact that the project manager, in a design-build structure, is the link between the field and the office. I have the responsibility of taking our culture to the field and bringing it back to the office. I'm like the conduit for that. I think that my support of team culture may be most active in that way. There's always a chance that when something goes wrong in the field, it can cause a huge divide in the design-build team. If blame starts being thrown around, that tends to erode not only the job at hand but also the relationships and culture within the team. Thus, I think it's really important that the project manager take responsibility, takes control, and makes sure that any frustration or conflict is managed well. We do some pretty amazing and cutting edge design, which challenges us in the field. Keeping the lines of communication open is a huge part of my job.
Tamara: In addition to what you contribute as project manager, where else do you see aspects of a thriving culture at Imagine Energy?
Katie: First of all, I'll just say I that am so fortunate to be in the position that I'm in. I think many project managers may feel this way, but as I was saying before, we're kind of that bridge between the office and the field so we get to see a whole lot more than the sales people who are just in the office or on their sales calls. The guys and gals in the field, they may not get to see the office at all, since they're installing systems day in and day out. I get to see the sales guys here collaborate every week, trading ideas on design and practicing sales presentations. In the field here, I get to see my crew problem-solving a tough layout or making a competition out of our latest safety goal. So I really get to see both sides of the process, the design and the build, which is really great. It's unique, and it took it being questioned like this to really see how we're really one of the only job roles that get to see that.
I also see other examples of thriving culture at Imagine, things like having a casual chat over a coffee or a beer, knowing Cathy's bowling score from the night before, or Ross' latest kayaking adventure. There's a sense of having an extended family and that we're all in it together, and it creates a sense community both inside and outside of the office.
Tamara: What does that sense of community look like outside of the office?
Katie: It could be as little as sharing your weekend fun or it could be the company barbecues and parties where we just get together and enjoy each other's company when we're not slinging modules. We recently had a really wonderful barbecue where the leadership put together an amazing slideshow and a fun award ceremony. It was so simple, but we can get all bogged down on the day-to-day and lose sight of the big picture and what we are all accomplishing as a team everyday. Being given that time and space to just be together, can revitalize a lot of those cultural efforts.
Tamara: How does company culture affect your ability to do your job well?
Katie: I think the biggest thing is the focus on positivity and solutions. The project manager role is tough because it's construction, which is constantly being reworked or rescheduled. Any number of things can come up during construction which can feel totally overwhelming, but having a foundation built on collaboration, positivity, and 'let's figure out the solution, no matter what the challenge is,' really allows me to keep moving forward everyday.
Tamara: Is there anything that has been tried at Imagine in regards to creating a thriving culture that didn't work, and what was done, if anything, to improve the attempts?
Katie: I'm sure that Jonathan and Ross would have some great historical answers to this question. I haven't been here all that long so it’s harder for me to answer. But from what I have seen, it's just really easy to get busy and lose track of some of the little things -- asking someone how their weekend was, grabbing that beer after work, or putting a smile on your face when you come onto a job site that has an issue, for example. It's easy to get lost in the heavy workload and stress. But not doing the little things can erode everything that you've been working so hard to build on the culture side. I've been guilty of that. It's not something that I've tried and failed at, but it's something that I have gotten away from doing, and being in a hurry affects everybody. Sometimes it's not necessarily what you do wrong, it's just what you don't do at all.
Tamara: What primary challenges have you seen or experienced which needed to be navigated in the process of supporting people and creating a positive culture, and how were some of those overcome?
Katie: To me the biggest challenge is always communication. For me as project manager, I'm communicating a ton of information from one entity to another, from sales to construction: schedules, project scopes, performance expectations, safety plans. That's really the foundation of any position in production, and you have to do that well and do it often in order to build a positive culture. We have to have that basic information before we can jump ahead in competency or efficiency or problem-solving, so communication has always been the biggest challenge in this position. How do you overcome that? We have a ton of technology at our disposal, but you also need to know your crew. Knowing your teammates, and considering their communication style and preference, can help you come up with a process and/or technology which you can focus on doing well and often.
Tamara: Are there any final remarks that you'd like to add?
Katie: I don't know if we want to go into it all, but it's been a really rough couple of weeks. The election has cast a huge shadow. What I will say is that I have been overwhelmed by the positivity that was demonstrated by both our local and national players in renewables - specifically in solar - since the results came in. And have come out of this with a lot of hope, actually. Moving forward, I'm committed to doing everything I can to keep solar alive not only here, but across the U.S. and around the world. I hope that the rest of the people reading have been as inspired as I have been with our industry.
Should you be interested in learning more about integrating a thriving culture into your own business or team, contact Tamara Staton directly at thrivingsolar.com. You can also find related articles on her blog that can support you in strengthening company culture