GTT Featuring Darin Anderson

Inspiring the Entrepreneurial Spirit Across the Company with Darin Anderson at Salas O’Brien

Many leaders believe that encouraging their employees to think like entrepreneurs is a dangerous move. This is not about them leaving the company to start their own business. When you are inspiring the entrepreneurial spirit that lives inside someone’s soul, you invite them to create value, solve problems, and be resilient in service of something bigger than themselves. Today’s guest on the podcast is Darin Anderson Chairman and CEO of Salas O’Brien. His company ranked #2747 on the 2019 Inc 5000 list. Darin shares why inspiring the entrepreneurial spirit is so important. This company 800+ employees and has grown fast over the years. The activator, according to Darrin, is the entrepreneurial spirit that lives in many of the employees. Another way to inspire the entrepreneurial spirit is by encouraging your people to feel like owners, even if they don’t have formal ownership.

Don't miss an episode. Subscribe to Growth Think Tank.

Darin Anderson: The Transcript

Target Audience: Darin Anderson is the Chairman & CEO at Salas O’Brien. SALAS O’BRIEN is a leading engineering, architecture, commissioning, and technology firm. They are a top 15 firm by MEP billings in the US serving the most recognized clients in the world. With over 800 professionals across 35 offices in the US, focus on technical excellence and building long-term, trusted relationships.

Share the LOVE and TWEET about this episode.


Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Darin Anderson
I would say our employees for sure people say that your customers are most important. You know, there’s a, they’re all stakeholders in the success of the organization. But we have such a trusted relationship with our leaders and our team members. They are they are irreplaceable. There’s no question about it, and customers may come and go, we’re fortunate knock on wood, we have not lost a customer that I can remember. But it would be easier for us to replace a customer than it would be to replace some of our key numbers and that’s that almost all of them, we have a strong tool it’s hard to find the talent that we do have.

Intro [0:42]
Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs of the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host My name is Jean hammock. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow and grow?

Gene Hammett [1:00]
Encouraging people to think like entrepreneurs, does that scare you as a leader? When you have a group of people inside your organization that think like entrepreneurs, you’ve got something really special. It’s not something to shy away from. In fact, I believe you should lean into it. I believe you should cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit across the organization. I’ve seen this happen in my own company. I’ve seen it happen in my clients’ companies, and I’ve seen it happen in many of the interviews across the Inc 5000. When I think about growing a company, I want people to feel empowered to feel a sense of ownership in what they’re doing. And another way to say that is I want them to feel that entrepreneurial spirit, not just at the top levels of the company, but throughout the company. My guest today is Darin Anderson. He’s the chairman CEO of Salas O’Brien. They are a company that creates engineering to make buildings really efficient. And all of the engineering work they’ve done work with some of the top tier clients, they know Having an entrepreneur spirit across the company has been criticized for their own growth, over 100 million in revenue over 800 employees. They formalize this to an Aesop so that they can actually have financial tools, but you can actually create this entrepreneur spirit without having any SOP or any other financial tools. I welcome you to this interview about the entrepreneurial spirit. Here’s Darin.

Commercial [2:25]
Before we dive into the interview, I wanted to remind you that you can actually get a tool that I’ve been working with clients with for the last couple of years, I’ve refined this tool has gone through several iterations. Now we have it completely automated, you can actually go online and fill out the leadership quiz. To get the leadership quiz. Just go to that’s pretty easy right? What you will get when you do that is you will answer a few questions. You will see where you rate based on the core principles of fast-growth companies. If you’re ready to grow your company or you want to see where you are Make sure you go to inside it, you will get insight to where you are, understand where you want to improve. And you will get them mapped into the 10 areas that are most specific to fast-growth companies. Again, go to and you can get that right now.

Gene Hammett [3:18]
Hi, Darren, how are you?

Darin Anderson [3:20]
Hey Gene, I’m doing great.

Gene Hammett [3:22]
Well, I am excited to have you on the podcast growth Think Tank, where we focus on conversations with founders just like you to talk about growth and leadership and culture that make fast growth possible. You have joined us here because your company’s grown so fast. Tell us a little bit about Salas O’Brien.

Darin Anderson [3:41]
Yep, so Salas O’Brien is a highly technical engineering firm, we help really the largest and most sophisticated, critical clients around the country. build their facility so they work reliably. They’re safe and efficient, energy-efficient as well. We help them Make sure that it is as productive as possible. So we work with the Microsoft’s the Amazons, the at&t, Verizon t mobile’s Facebook’s, you name it. I mean, we work on over 4500 projects a year, helping our clients ensure their facility successor institutional clients, typical.

Gene Hammett [4:21]
And Darin, your company has continued to grow fast over the years. But just the last three or four, you’ve had a really big tear. We had talked about what really contributed to that growth, over 100 million in 2019. Continuing that growth, what do you think the most, you know, the important principle behind the way that people work together is to contribute to the growth of the company?

Darin Anderson [4:43]
No, it’s a great question, Gene. And, you know, something that I’ve studied and try to learn a lot from others as well. We’ve been blessed to have a very entrepreneurial environment. Everything we do is it’s all about our team members and all about our people. And so the environment that we create and how we empower them to make decisions. We operate on a very decentralized basis. So our team members have to make decisions for their clients as it relates to them on a local community basis. As we’ve grown over the years, if people were waiting for me to make a decision for them or for, you know, other leaders to make a decision, it would have stunted our growth. And so we always, first and foremost, try to find people and leaders who have a passion for what we do have a technical competency and excellence, and then also have that entrepreneurial mindset. And I think we can help develop and nurture that entrepreneurial mindset. It’s sometimes it’s hard to find engineers who are entrepreneur but we’ve been able to do it and to nurture that. And at the end of the day, the great thing is that people see in our organization that they can come in as an intern, and lead their way as they grow and have that desire. Learning Skills. Developing client relationships, that they can be a principle in our organization. There’s no limit to what anybody can do here. And so we have the alignment of, of their professional growth, with the passion and in seeing their projects, you know, in their communities being realized. And so it’s very rewarding for them. And they have total control over it. We try to enable our goal is to create more opportunities for everybody in the organization. And they’re in total control of their destiny. It’s exciting.

Gene Hammett [6:31]
A lot of people misinterpret that term entrepreneur spirit inside the organization. What specifically does it mean to you? Because I know it doesn’t mean we weren’t encouraged them to go start their own business and leave. Although in some cases that is that’s perfectly fine. What does it mean to you?

Darin Anderson [6:47]
Yeah, no, it’s a great question is it you know, our clients are looking for us to help them solve problems, and sometimes they don’t even see what the opportunities are. So I want our team members to own that. Clients issues and concerns, asking the right questions and going out and finding ways to solve their problems. And it’s on them to find resources within our national team of people who can help problem solve, but they’re responsible for making that happen, putting the proposal together, pricing it properly, and then delivering it at the end of the day. Obviously, they’re not on an island, we have resources and support but they know that they’re there to own that relationship there to go make it happen and that there’s no excuse to not do it that we want to reward them with want to support them, but not taking action is not okay.

Gene Hammett [7:42]
You know, this is music, my ears and I think a lot of people tuning in here is I’ve always said this and maybe you’ll relate to it. It’s not about taking responsibility for the work. You want to go past the responsibility to take ownership. When you see people taking ownership. What are some of the things You see around the office or in a virtual world like we are today, what do you see? And when it you know, our feedback you get from clients?

Darin Anderson [8:08]
No, I think that’s one of the differentiators for Salas O’Brien, why we’ve accelerated from successes that were surrounding people who are so confident making that decision. They oftentimes, in other organizations, you know, people go out and make a decision, or maybe they make a wrong decision at some point time they get whacked down, right, they get hit by a two by four. And they’re like, Well, that was a negative experience. I didn’t learn anything from that. And I certainly don’t want to do that, again, I don’t put myself at risk, because I’ll look stupid, or I will be shamed in some way and pulled that I’ve made the wrong decision. I think we have the opposite view is that we want to encourage people to do that and do it in a safe environment. If you’ve made a mistake, okay, we’re gonna we’re going to recover from that nobody has ever put in a place where you’re going to make a decision that’s going to jeopardize the client for themselves. And they know that they have resources and people to go to that are encouraging, and they’re going to support them.

Darin Anderson [9:06]
Our award system is also incentivized by lifting people up around them. Our financial rewards are aligned by how the team does not how the individual performs. So when you’re rewarded by how teams do, and your bonuses are tied to how the whole team does, that if the whole team doesn’t get a reward and make a certain milestone, then nobody gets anything. So there’s total support from a team standpoint, and that everybody should have their eyes open about how can we bring new opportunities, solve client relationships? I may not know the answer, but I’m going to find somebody who can. And so that that hunger, that enthusiasm that we’re all in this together, I may not know what to do, but I know I’ve been trained to know Yeah, this is a problem, and I can help this client.

Darin Anderson [9:53]
Let’s work on this together in both Salva and that’s what I love seeing as we have such collaboration Cross all of our teams around the country, but they make decisions on a local basis. And it’s exciting every week, we put out a poll the color wins of the week. And it shows how our teams have reached out to others for the success of winning projects that they wouldn’t have won individually before without having the shared knowledge and experience, they can bring as a positive attribute to a client. It’s cool, it’s really exciting to see him. And when in our business, you get to see these projects, because they’re in your community when you’re building buildings or facilities that are hospitals that are saving patients lives like we are, we just helped a lot of open new healthcare facilities and hospitals that have been shut down to this requirement. So it’s exciting for our team members to be able to know that they can make a big difference in our communities. And so important.

Gene Hammett [11:42]
Darin, I want to kind of put a spotlight on something you said about value. I’ve always thought of entrepreneurs are able to increase the value of resources. You know, we take ideas or services and we create products with it or we serve clients in a new way. And that’s really what we want our employees to do is to, to see opportunity increase the value to the client to the organization is when you thought about this at the beginning or you know when it first really started saying this is going to be a cornerstone of our business. What was the first step? Do you remember taking to encourage that entrepreneurial spirit?

Darin Anderson [12:18]
Yeah. So earlier on when we were much smaller organizations, we had the opportunity to work for some national firms that had facilities around the country. And we were one of maybe 10 firms, 20 firms that they were working with. And we heard their pain that way. They weren’t getting system service didn’t like the people that were working, lifted it up, trust your confidence with them. Their technical capabilities weren’t the same. So they said, Gosh, can you go to another location and help us and I couldn’t quite get people to be moving. They were happy in the same young kids. They just weren’t ready to move, but they wanted to serve as clients. So we found like-minded firms who were of similar size, and we were able to fulfill those client’s needs by sharing our knowledge and sharing our expertise together to better serve our clients.

Darin Anderson [13:18]
And so we have taken that approach of building a national network of what we call local everywhere, but with like-minded skill sets and having this technical resources that now we can draw on the greatest minds across the country, for specific projects experienced but to be responding with local knowledge and codes in people in the communities that they’re serving. And it’s really been effective for our clients because they have one, one contract now they don’t have to administer 30 different contracts with these all these firms delivering differently, and now we can do it more cost-effective for our clients as well. You know, we’re also for that our relationships are so strong, we went over 80% of the proposals that we put out to our clients. So we’re now trying to provide additional services to those clients because they know and trust us, when we say, we can do something. When we say we can add additional service capability that they are already contracting out, again, they may not trust as much or have 30 different contractors or consulting engineering firms to work with. But they trust us and it makes it easier for them. And that’s what we’ve we’ve executed on.

Gene Hammett [14:32]
Darren, I’m kind of curious about your company’s core values. Is that something you guys put a lot of focus on?

Darin Anderson [14:40]
We do. You know, from day one. We’ve been very, very clear and very transparent. We have a very open book organization. In fact, later on, today, I’ve got an all-hands meeting with all my 825 team members across the country. We discuss things very openly, very candidly. They know what to expect. We are, as you said, anything but complacent. I expect that everybody is always going to do the right thing for our clients and treat each other with the highest regard and respect. We have a very clear outline of our values and what we expect from one another for leadership, for results, and also for relationships and how those, how we expect to treat one another, and provide for the continuity of the firm. So it’s very clear when people come into our organization, they know what they should expect from us, but also we’re going to expect from them and anybody, nobody ever hesitates to ask a question, how does this fit in with these values? But we live it every day. And I expect everybody to challenge us if we don’t.

Commercial [15:46]
One more second here, Darin just mentioned transparency, the importance of that insider organization. So let me ask you a question. how transparent are you? Where do you draw the line? Are you willing to open up the financials to your employees? What about strategies, how you’re moving forward? Do they feel included in what you’re doing? Are you afraid and holding back information? Do you have certain meetings where only the insiders know maybe it’s the executive leadership team? Well, whatever level of transparency you have, I want you to question that for a second. Why is it that way? Are you willing to grow beyond that? Because I will tell you, across the hundreds of interviews, fast-growth companies are willing to be 100% transparent, not all of them, but many of them. And so you have to really look at that and challenge your own thinking, your mindset. Back to the interview.

Gene Hammett [15:48]
And I see that across many of the Inc companies are growing fast is that attention to values and living in every day? I want to ask you what I would call an impossible question. The reason it’s impossible is that it’s, it assumes that things are different than the reality. And I don’t know if that makes sense yet, but let me just ask the question to you, Darren, I asked leaders across the country, one big question, and this is it as a leader, what’s more important, your customers or your employees?

Darin Anderson [16:22]
Great question. I would say our employees for sure people say that your, your customers are most important. You know, there’s a, they’re all stakeholders in the success of the organization. But we have such a trusting relationship with our leaders and our team members. They are they are irreplaceable. There’s no question about it, and customers may come and go, we’re fortunate knock on wood. We have not lost a customer that I can remember. But it would be easier for us to replace a customer than it would be to replace some of our team members. And that’s that Almost as a polymer, we have such a strong team, it’s hard to find the talent that we do. We have such dedication, our average tenure of our team members is over 12 years from what we’ve grown and organizations that have merged in with we have so many that are over 20 years as well. Replacing that knowledge placing that trust and confidence you have in one another in the decision making, particularly as a decentralized organization. It’s a, you can’t replace it. I go to bed every night, knowing that my leaders, my top 6070, even 80 leaders, don’t worry about whether they’re going to be in the organization the next day, whether they’re going to make the right decision, how they’re going to treat the organization, how they’re going to treat the clients how they think about the team members. Don’t worry about it at all. And to me, that’s gold. Everything that we do is all about a relationship. I tell everybody that look, we’re in a marriage. We are partners together in this and it is your organization because it is we’re employee-owned organization. And it’s just rewarding to go through that journey to have these people with you. And we’re all in it together we’re sharing the rewards, the challenges as well as the opportunities and knowing that you got each other’s backs is the greatest thing in the world.

Gene Hammett [18:16]
I did see on your website about being formally an Aesop and when did I read that right that it was a few years ago that you made the decision to move that direction?

Darin Anderson [18:25]
Yeah, cuz you know, it’s, it’s actually tearing me up a little bit. I’m a little emotional about it. A little weird. Not weird. It just speaks very much of how much I feel about my team members and how proud I am of them and what we’ve done. Yes, so we from the beginning, when Carl and Chuck and I and Paul became partners earlier on, we then started adding more owners to the organization and I’m a big believer, those who are really driving the organization’s growth. I want to participate In the development of the organization and the financial rewards that go with as well beyond just a bonus structure, that’s just a firm tenant for me.

Darin Anderson [19:10]
As we grew through 2016, we had 45 employees, employee-owners, that happened through developing team members internally, from interns to principals and owners in the organization. And then we also had done some mergers with organizations as part of our growth that they, we purchased our organization, but they tended to stay on as principals in our organization and have equity in the company as well. So we’ve been very fortunate that over the mergers that we’ve done over the years, we look at those partnerships, that every one of those merger partners is still with us. From the beginning, all the way through today, we’ve only had three of those. We’ll call them Cheryl, former shareholders that have retired the rest are still very much engaged in your organization. And it just goes to, you know, what they believe in what our vision is, as an organization, are the values that we have in us collectively are with our partners.

Gene Hammett [20:11]
I love to ask you one more final question here. Darren is, you know, sometimes growth is counterintuitive. And I think one example of that is putting employees first. You may not be familiar with my research, but I’ve asked that question hundreds of times close to 500. Now, and it’s 94% will say it’s an employee first, which is counter-intuitive to most things. Is there anything else that you’ve seen over your journey of leadership and culture that you think is counterintuitive to what people are kind of putting in books or putting in articles or anything like that, that you’ve learned firsthand?

Darin Anderson [20:46]
You know, I’m a. So think about that one little bit that you have today. There are so much more openness and a need for authenticity. I always share personal stories. About what I’m thinking about my family, the struggles that I have. And I think so many of our leaders in larger organizations are just hide behind a shield and a veil and are just not authentic at all in people see through that bullshit. Sorry to say that just they want to know that you understand where they’re coming from that you’re real about it. And if you don’t have the answers, you’re going to say that. And I think that’s the goodwill was created that way. People appreciate it. They want honesty, they want truthfulness, there’s just too much of you know, it’s all about me or the selfishness and they’ll see through your actions very quickly. And in this day and age. People can move between jobs so easily and or they just won’t be engaged. They may just be there for a job are people are, they love what they do. They’re very engaged, they believe in it and they are bought into what our mission and vision is as an As an organization, you can’t compromise to do, you lose.

Gene Hammett [22:05]
Well, I appreciate that. I really love this interview. It’s really near and dear to my heart, my research, your stories here have been excellent. I appreciate you being authentic and even get a little teary-eyed with me because that means a lot about you as a leader and how you’re connecting and delivering value for your people. Thanks for being here on the podcast.

Darin Anderson [22:29]
Yeah, thanks, Gene. Great time. I appreciate you for that.

Gene Hammett [22:31]
I just love that interview. I really appreciate, you know, sitting down and talking to a leader that understands the need for leadership, the need for leadership development, the need for people to be developed as leaders. Those things all sound like the same, but they’re really just the continuation of how do you create an organization where people are growing, thinking for themselves empowered, transparent, humble, really are developing trust in others. servicing the client. Those things really happen when you have that entrepreneurial spirit. I love interviews like this because we can go deep into why it works. So the details of what can be done inside your own organization, your own leadership. And this kind of interview really does fuel me up for why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Gene Hammett [23:20]
My name is Gene Hammett. I work with leaders in the defining moments of their own growth to help them get really clear about who they are, where they’re going, and really identify what’s holding them back. There’s always a strong saying that I want to leave you with, but it is this at every new level, there’s a new you, in order to reach for more money or grow to the next milestone. You’ve got to reinvent yourself, you can’t be complacent and just stay the same. You’ve got to continue to evolve. I work with leaders in those defining moments. Make sure you tune in to another episode here on the show, share it with a friend, and as always lead with courage.


Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.


GTT Featuring Darin Anderson



And lastly, please leave a rating and review for the Growth Think Tank on iTunes (or Stitcher) – it will help us in many ways, but it also inspires us to keep doing what we are doing here. Thank you in advance!

If you want more from us check out more interviews:

Transformational Leadership
Productivity Tips
Best Selling Author Interviews