SSOE Group is a global architecture, engineering, and construction management firm. With 70 years of history, 900-plus employees, and projects in more than 60 countries, SSOE is recognized the world over as a leader in its field.
Vince DiPofi is the President and CEO of SSOE. Though he took on his current role in 2019, Vince has been with SSOE for more than 20 years, during which he’s worn many hats. Now, he works to continue the firm’s history of excellence while executing its strategic plans for growth.
I sat down with Vince to learn more about his journey at the firm and his experiences building international teams. He also shared how SSOE is prioritizing career pathing for its employees, and how he’s grown as a leader through executive coaching.
Vince’s journey at SSOE
Vince first started at SSOE in 2000. In today’s talent market, more people tend to hop between companies. But Vince has been a permanent fixture at SSOE for half of his 40-year career. He only worked at one other company—a place where he spent his first 20 years.
“The first half of my career was spent in the technical side of the business as a mechanical engineer,” he explained. “When I came to SSOE, based on my experience, they hired me to build their food business.”
Having worked with clients in the food industry before, Vince came on not just to run projects, but also to grow that segment of SSOE’s portfolio. His aptitude for business development only grew over time.
“We ended up taking it from a business that was unranked nationally to number two in the country. Our CEO came to me and said, ‘I’d like to pull you out of our food business and have you be business development director for the entire company.’”
Some might have seen it as the next great step in their career. Vince turned the CEO down.
“I felt my strength was understanding the food business. I felt that was the way I sold,” said Vince. “He came back to me a year later and asked me again, and this time he said, ‘You don’t understand—I’m not asking!’”
It ended up being a great move, and just what Vince needed to learn the ins and outs of the business. He only continued to move up the ranks from there—to Chief Strategy Officer, then Chief Operating Officer, and now Chief Executive.
Relying on great teams
As Vince has taken on more responsibility within the organization, his relationships with his employees have evolved. As the business doubled its headcount over the past 20 years, Vince has found it increasingly important to have talent he can count on.
“The higher up you go, the more reliant you are, and at the CEO level, I’m reliant on everybody. So part of it is gaining that ability to trust your talent. And I’m learning, by the day, how much there is to the job.”
According to Vince, he’s placing his trust not just in individual employees and the unique qualities they bring to the table. He’s also relying on those people to mesh as a cohesive whole.
“At my level, the critical thing is: How do we get the talent to work together? You have personalities—how do they work together? How do we all reach the common goal?”
SSOE’s engineering work is highly specialized, requiring knowledge of markets ranging from the automobile industry to healthcare. The company is filled with great talent, all with extensive skill sets. And that makes balancing these teams all the more complex.
“The higher you go, you have very talented people there. They got to where they’re at by doing things successfully. So how do we meld that, so that we’re all rowing in the same direction?” he posed.
Creating strong career paths
One way SSOE has mobilized its talent is through career development. Through a tiered evaluation process, individual contributors walk through their strengths and opportunity areas with their managers. Managers then do the same with their team leaders, up through the executive level.
“From the person in the mailroom to the CEO, everyone has a development plan that they work on,” Vince explained. “I can put in someone’s name and find out, ‘Hey, here’s their development plan.’ What was the feedback? Where were they [in their journey]?”
At many organizations, career development can feel restrictive, like there’s only one avenue to success. Great career pathing requires a more flexible line of thinking. At SSOE, Vince and his team have taken care to tailor career paths to the needs of each employee.
“Sometimes a great engineer can be a great manager, sometimes not. There’s a tendency [to assume all] high performers must take a next step into management. We’re really starting to look and say, ‘No, there are some people that we want to recognize for their technical ability.’”
This is especially true of individual contributors. When it comes to what SSOE’s clients value most from the organization, technical expertise is almost always the first answer. So it’s important to recognize commitment to that craft.
“We’re enhancing our career path to Principal in the company for these people,” Vince continued. “The individual contributor can be the secret to the success of any project.”
Building international teams
As SSOE has grown, so has its international presence. The organization now has more than 20 locations in the U.S., Mexico, India, and China. According to Vince, the creation of its global offices represented an opportunity not just to reaffirm the SSOE culture, but to give it new perspective.
“You have to blend the culture, especially when you’re crossing the border and you’re in a different country,” Vince said of his office in León, Mexico. “We don’t want to just come down and say, ‘This is our company, and this is how we do things.’”
When building that Mexico office, it was important to have buy-in from leaders on both the domestic and international side. And that meant learning to strike a healthy balance between old and new, from revamped compensation to office events like watching the World Cup.
“When Mexico plays in a World Cup, we have a TV, and we know people are going to be watching it,” he shared. “We wanted the best of both worlds—and it’s been hugely successful. We have over 40 people down there. It’s recognized within the company as one of the best offices to work for.”
How to develop as a leader
From career pathing to culture building, SSOE continues to find new ways to upskill its talent. Vince told me he’s no exception. While he served as Chief Operating Officer, he worked with an executive coach to improve his own leadership style.
“I’m a driver—and our company has a lot of focus around collaboration. So a strong voice in a room tends to shut down collaboration. I had to really learn to sit back and listen, so that ideas could come forward. And that was a lot of work for me,” he shared.
Vince took time to process that feedback, and adapted his leadership style accordingly. According to him, that self-awareness developed even further when he learned his PI Reference Profile.
“I’m a Captain, with a very wide pattern. When you compare me to the rest of my executive team, they may be [outliers] for one factor, maybe even two. I’m at the edge for all four factors. And the rest of my team is kind of in the middle.”
As a sailor, I often compare a narrow pattern to a narrow boat: It produces little wakes. And a wide pattern is like a wide boat: big wakes. For Vince and his team, having that awareness of their own patterns has helped streamline communication and improve cohesion.
“It’s been a good learning experience. It’s helped us to say, ‘How do we work together and complement each other?’”
Advice for a future business leader
I ended my interview with Vince by asking him what advice he’d give his 20-year-old self when he was first starting out in the business world. Vince said he’d have a lot to share, but two thoughts in particular.
“One: Just be a nicer guy. When you’re driving, you can be a hard driver, but you can be a nice guy when you do it. At the end of the day, people like to work with people they like.”
And second, “Know more about the moment you’re in,” he said. “How do I live in this moment and get the most from the people I’m working with and the project I’m on?”
For more on my conversation with Vince, check out our video interview.