Liz’s Leadership Salon Series—Women Who Fly
remarks by mary ellen eagan, hmmh
February 1, 2007
preparing for leadership
“What do you really want?” My husband first asked me this question just a few weeks into our relationship. Without thinking, I responded “to have kids,” and within minutes, we were engaged. The second time he asked was in the midst of a frustrating period at work. This time, I surprised myself by saying “to run HMMH”. He hasn’t asked again (because between the kids and the job, we never have time to talk anymore). So why did I tell you this? Well, for me, the key to committing to achieving goals was to articulate them — I had thought about a leadership position at HMMH, but never really expected it to happen until I heard myself say it out loud. My talk this evening is about what happened after that.
First, a bit of background on HMMH. The company was founded by Andy Harris, Nick Miller, Bob Miller, and Carl Hanson in 1981. It was the first spin off of BBN (something the firm is quite proud of — and now, there have been so many BBN spin offs that there’s even been a book published on them). Over the past 25 years, HMMH has grown into one of the largest and best-known environmental noise consulting firms in the world. Transportation noise — related to aviation, rail, and highway modes — continues to be the focus of at least 95 percent of our business. Aviation is our largest market area, representing more than two thirds of our practice. To date we have assisted more than 200 airports worldwide. Importantly, over the last 25 years, HMMH has become well known for our ability to communicate complex acoustical terminology and methodology in a concise and understandable way.
The ownership and leadership transition at HMMH both started around the same time, in 2002 — the founders of the firm were very astute to recognize the need to transition both the ownership and leadership of the firm well before retirement. My interest in the Presidency started earlier, in the late 90’s, when the Company struggled through the acquisition — and subsequent sale — of a small software company that sold a related product. Some staff were frustrated throughout the process, and contemplated leaving the company. In fact, four of us at one point sat down with the founders of the firm to express that frustration. It was during that process that my husband asked me “what do you really want?” I realized that I needed either to leave, or to do something to make the firm better, by getting the proper management skills to handle the kind of situation we were then dealing with.
So, I went to business school at night — Simmons School of Management, where Liz also got her MBA. I learned a lot about finance, management, and strategy, but there were three things more important than the classes. First, I learned the language — I am no longer intimidated by bankers talking about debt-equity ratios, NPV, ROI, or cost of capital. Second, I learned how to work with all kinds of people — I had gone to an Ivy-League engineering school, and then worked with a bunch of elite scientists — I’d been surrounded by very smart men for 20 years — who didn’t question deadlines, or want to “talk things through.” I had to learn that there were many kinds of smart, and I had to learn to be a bit more patient with people who approached problems in a way I was unaccustomed to. And finally— perhaps most importantly — I think the founders started looking at me in a new light — the investment of time, energy, and money was a clear signal that I was clearly serious about being in a position of leadership. I graduated in 2002, just before the selection process began in earnest.
How did the selection/transition work? First, the founders invited all members of the leadership group who thought they would bring valuable qualities to the role and work effectively as President to submit an expression of interest. Two of the approximately 15 members of the leadership team (at the time) submitted expressions of interest. I was one.
For about one year, the three remaining founders met regularly — every month or two — with each of us, to informally discuss our visions and ideas for HMMH and how we would work as President. These meetings also provided the Founders with an opportunity to further establish our working relationship and to discuss the traits we believed would be important for the next president. In addition, each candidate met with all officers (the founders plus five vice presidents) to respond to specific questions each of them developed regarding their business units. In total, there were about 6–8 meetings. I had the opportunity to design the agenda for one of them, for which I made everyone read Jim Collins’ Good to Great.
As we approached the end of the year, it became clear to the Founders that I was the preferred choice. I think the biggest reason is that I share many of their values. But they also saw that I wanted — and we needed — to move the company in a direction that was more focused on achieving business objectives, while still maintaining the commitment to excellence that is the basis of our reputation, as well as the company culture that makes HMMH a great place to work. By the way, it apparently also became clear to the other candidate, who withdrew his name from consideration (he subsequently left the firm). For the next six months, I worked very closely with Nick — I was involved in all management decisions.
In February 2004, the founders recommended to the Board of Directors that I be named the next President. I took maternity leave beginning in March — did I tell you I was pregnant throughout much of this discussion? — and came back in time to assume that role at the beginning of our fiscal year in July.
What did I think of the process? First, it was very thoughtful, and deliberate. It gave both the Founders and me a forum to articulate our shared vision for the next President, which I believe has been responsible for the incredible level of trust and support I’ve received from them. It also gave folks a lot of time to get used the idea of having a non-founder President in general, and me in particular. As someone who is not generally very patient, I have to admit it seemed a bit slow at the time — especially considering that I had decided it was what I really wanted. In retrospect, I think that the additional time — especially in a shadow role — gave me a chance to practice leadership with a net. Also, it was stressful and awkward competing with an internal candidate for the position — especially since we had very different visions for the Company. I think we both realized that whoever did not succeed into the position would have to leave the Company — if it had been him, I would not be at HMMH today. I’m not sure that was an outcome that the founders contemplated before setting up the process.
How has it been? Exciting, challenging, fun. I’ve now been at the job two and a half years, and in that time, we’ve:
- Developed a strategic plan and initiated a strategic marketing plan
- Focused more on business practices and worked to implement better accountability. I have been challenging folks to think about adding value rather than billing hours, and integrating personal goals with strategic objectives.
- Moved our headquarters office and opened a DC office, which just won a multi-million dollar multi-year contract with the FAA.
- Won a number of high-profile and exciting projects, from an EIS for a new Airport outside Las Vegas to a new subway system in Hong Kong.
- Long-term financial improvements remain to be seen, but it looks as though we are headed in the right direction — our backlog has increased, as well as profitability, and we had a 15% increase in net service revenue last year.
For me, the greatest challenges have been people issues — keeping the great staff we have, and looking for talented new folks, especially those with some experience. That, and knowing that all my plans for every day may go out the window.
One of the things that I have found most helpful is to have support outside of HMMH — my own personal Board of Directors, if you will. I have relied on mentoring from folks like Liz, counsel from a personal coach (especially during the selection process), a sounding board from some former business school classmates, and of course, a supportive husband, who has basically set aside his career goals for several years to be the primary parent.
Finally, people often ask me how it’s been to become CEO as a woman. I’m here to tell you that it was irrelevant in my case. Perhaps because of the earlier battles fought by women like Liz, or maybe that this generation of men has watched their own wives struggle to be recognized, but I can honestly say that it didn’t make a bit of difference. I became pregnant at the very end of the selection process, and didn’t hesitate to tell the founders. It just became one of the issues to work out. In fact, I’d say that HMMH has received more positive feedback — either people think that we’re now a DBE (we’re not) or that we’re very progressive to choose a woman to lead a firm in a very male-dominated industry.