An Inspiring Example of Employee Ownership (Interview with Steel Encounters)
If you want to learn what it’s like to work at Steel Encounters, you’ll have to do some digging.
There are no flashy press releases on the website; no big news stories detailing why it’s one of the best places to work in the Pacific Northwest.
It’s not that the company doesn’t want people to know about its employee-focused environment. Leadership is just so focused on building a strong company culture that employees take precedence over vanity metrics that may sound good on paper but do little to drive true engagement.
“I didn’t know what Steel Encounters did or what it was when I started interviewing for this job,” says Becke Wolf, whose role as executive assistant to the president involves a heavy focus on employee engagement. “I decided to give it a try, and now I’m in love. I’m done switching jobs.”
Steel Encounters is Not Your Typical Contractor
Steel Encounters is a commercial contractor based in the heart of Salt Lake City, UT. For more than 30 years, the firm has been providing highly specialized architectural design-assist services, steel joist and deck, curtain wall, glazing, and more—the kinds of construction projects that require tremendous levels of skill and collaboration.
For example, take a look at 111 Main. The lobby of this beautiful office tower features unobstructed views through 35-foot-tall glass walls. Employees spent a full year preparing for the job: They trained, shipped glass from Germany, and developed custom equipment to install it:
It’s the kind of project that really drives a business forward—one that depends on each employee to “own” a critical role in the process for long-term success.
Thankfully, taking ownership is something Steel Encounters employees are accustomed to doing.
Employees Own the Company
When employees at Steel Encounters take pride in their work, it’s because they have a true investment in the company’s success. The organization is 70% owned by employees by way of its employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).
“It was one of the things that got me excited about working here,” says Becke, who explains that employees become fully vested after three years. “The company makes a substantial contribution every year, and employees receive distributions when they retire. Staff isn’t required to ‘buy-in’ to ownership or put any money into it.”
We know from research that ESOP companies perform better and grow faster than their traditional counterparts, and Steel Encounters is proof of what can happen when a company is proactive about getting staff to care about the business as much as owners do. Employees are not likely to leave once they’ve secured a job here. It’s a place where each individual has a strong voice and every position is an opportunity for advancement.
“I have an opportunity to make a substantial contribution,” Becke says. “We all do.”
As an employee-owned company, Steel Encounters employees have a vested interest in moving the business forward.
Leadership “Owns” Engagement…
When Becke was hired by Tom Jackson, Steel Encounters’ president, she knew she’d be taking on some highly important responsibilities. Tom, who is frequently described as a “visionary leader,” had made a serious commitment to employee engagement and was looking for an associate he could rely on for strategic insights.
Shortly after Becke came on board, the company discovered Emplify.
“We attended [Emplify founder] Santiago Jaramillo’s presentation and got really excited about it,” Becke said. “Improving our company culture and engagement is such a big deal because the majority of our employees are out in the field at various job sites. In order to keep everybody together and notified we had to find a better way to communicate with our employees than just email. We wanted to be ahead of the game.”
At Steel Encounters, being ahead of the game means reaching people wherever they are and gathering important employee feedback. Employees now receive regular surveys they can quickly complete on their smartphone or desktop no matter where they are—a measurement technique that’s become so integral to the process that leadership decided to buy new smartphones for staff.
According to numerous experts, the average employee survey response rate tends to hover around 30-40%. Yet Steel Encounters’ latest survey was completed by 76% of employees.
And Everyone Owns the Process
“It’s not just a vendor-customer relationship, but more of a partnership.”
Today, Steel Encounters’ top 25 senior management leaders gather twice a month to review new chapters of Santiago’s Agile Engagement and identify new action items for the company, such as surveys to create and policies to revamp.
“We’re on an upswing on engagement and culture, and Agile Engagement has been a big part of that,” Becke explains. “The book is generating some excellent discussions for our management team and helping managers find ways to up their game.”
Company leadership is also extremely proactive about acting on survey results as they come in, especially in troubled locations and departments. While the bulk of survey responses have been largely positive, they also shed light on areas for improvement.
“When Emplify helped us segment survey results so we could dive deeper into specific departments, we were surprised to learn that people in the office weren’t feeling connected to coworkers,” Becke says. “We may have anticipated this with remote teams, but not in offices. We take these survey results very seriously, and it’s turning out to be a great springboard for identifying and addressing important issues.”
How to Replicate Steel Encounters’ Success
You don’t have to be an ESOP to benefit from the example set by Steel Encounters. All you really need is leaders who are open to change.
“If companies are truly serious about employee engagement, the management team needs to be invested. If your executives are not on board, it’s not going to work,” says Becke. She adds that everyone must be equally invested — vendors included.
“If Emplify had not been willing to step up in the areas where we were struggling, it wouldn’t have happened,” she explains. “But because they are invested in Steel Encounters and want us to be successful, we are successful.”