From Making Water to Taking Risks: A Conversation with Tim Wall

From Making Water to Taking Risks: A Conversation with Tim Wall
Get to know CDM Smith's Chairman and CEO Timothy B. Wall.

On January 2, 2018, CDM Smith welcomed a new executive leadership team to further advance its vision of unmatched client service, aggressive growth and performance excellence. We sat down with the firm’s new fearless leader Tim Wall to learn more about his personal journey, plans for the future and why he considers taking chances to be the best motivator. 

Q: Let’s start with your personal journey. You’ve been at CDM Smith for almost the entirety of your working career. Had you always dreamt of being CEO? 

When I started my internship at CDM Smith 26 years ago, I certainly never thought I’d end up in the position I am now. My journey to this point in my career wasn’t by some grand design. I’m just an ordinary guy who was—and is—willing to give extra­or­di­nary effort to achieve our goals.

Since I’ve become CEO, lots of people have asked me why I came to CDM Smith. I say it’s different than why I stayed here. I came because we are the best in the industry; our motto was to think big, dream big and go after it. It's exciting to be a part of something like that! But I stayed because of the company’s character. It’s not just a place to get a paycheck—we care about our employees, our clients and the future we’re building together.

Q: What has been the key to your success?

Growing up, my parents always taught me that success was in my control. They said you might get outsmarted or outrun but you never want to be outworked, because that’s something you have the power to control. The interesting thing is the people who can outsmart you or outrun you most often don't have the will to outwork you. And I realized early on that the key to success was simply saying yes to every opportunity that came my way.

I started learning about orga­ni­za­tions and the needs they had, building rela­tion­ships with industry leaders and focusing on how I could expand our business. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be successful, but my willingness to take on new respon­si­bil­i­ties helped me gain support within the firm. I’d say it was my confidence to ask questions, seek help and admit when I was wrong or did not know something that led me here.  

Q: Client collab­o­ra­tion plays a huge role in your new philosophy of proactive risk taking. How are you working with clients to better understand their needs and solve their unique challenges?

Listening is not just part of our tagline; it's how we operate. Before I even took the role of CEO, I organized a robust listening campaign where I spoke to both clients and employees to hear what was important to them. As a privately owned firm, we depend on the unique opportunity for 100% alignment of our employee focus with client needs to achieve success. There are no outside investors with discon­nected financial priorities. My listening campaign confirmed that our alignment is as strong as ever. Our people are passionate about working with clients to understand their needs and solve their envi­ron­men­tal and infra­struc­ture challenges.

That’s why we’re committed to creating sustainable solutions for communities and companies around the world. We’re working on creative solutions that use green infra­struc­ture advance­ments to combat stormwater runoff in Philadel­phia and modernizing transit in cities like Chicago and Grand Rapids, Michigan. We’re optimizing balanced beneficial plant outcomes by leading the conver­sa­tion about sustainable facility design and industrial water reuse and starting to think creatively about our country’s impending infra­struc­ture demands. 

But that doesn’t mean we’re slowing down. We’re continually innovating and setting an intention to be more technically diverse, community-focused and collab­o­ra­tive—all while creating a legendary client experience that’s more than just a response to the latest project opportunity.


Q: How do you explain to your daughters the work that you do?

My daughters used to say their dad “makes water.” Now that they’re growing up, they’ve begun to understand the respon­si­bil­i­ties CDM Smith holds in a broader sense. How the things we might take for granted, like clean water or a working sanitation system, are life or death situations in other parts of the world. And how the work we do is helping companies and communities prepare for the future in a sustainable way.

If you asked my girls what I do now, they'd say that I lead a company made up of the smartest and most passionate people in the industry. And how every day I encourage our employees to find the next awesome idea that can set us apart from the competition. So, I’d say we’ve come a long way from “my dad makes water.”

Q: It’s no secret that you’re a big believer in open commu­ni­ca­tion. Why is trans­parency so important to you and how do you think it helps create more effective leadership? 

I believe that great leaders are the ones who recognize that every employee has a game-changing perspective, regardless of their position within the firm. It’s my job to empower all 5,000 people who work here to feel that their opinions are listened to and respected. Ultimately, I want CDM Smith to be a place that breeds passion. I don’t want people walking to work; I want them running to work. Believing in their abilities, going the extra mile for clients, high-fiving in the hallway! Great commu­ni­ca­tion is key to building that passion and creating an atmosphere of trust and excellence. That’s why I’m so proud to lead an employee-owned firm, because we’re investing in the long-term future of both our clients and our staff.

In terms of executing a successful open-door policy, technology plays a huge role. I’ve found great success in using our various digital channels—both internal and client-facing—to communicate key goals and receive feedback. So even though I can’t shake the hand of every client or have lunch with every employee, I can still make that connection on a virtual scale. 

I don’t want people walking to work; I want them running to work. Believing in their abilities, going the extra mile for clients, high-fiving in the hallway! 
Tim wall, chairman and ceo

Q: You spend a lot of time fostering the next generation of young engineers, whether it be volun­teer­ing in STEM education programs or in your personal life as a father to two young girls. Tell us a bit about your experience.

I’m constantly impressed by the level of enthusiasm I see from kids in the classrooms I visit. In my experience, kids are just as excited to play with our HoloLens glasses as they are building and testing sand filters with two-liter soda bottles. They don’t care how sophis­ti­cated the technology is—they just want to explore and discover something new. We, as an industry, have an obligation to cultivate that creative spark when we see it because the future leaders of our industries are sitting in those classrooms.

And speaking as a man who’s outnumbered by women in his own household, it’s great to see that STEM programs are helping diminish gender stereotypes. I’ve always taught my girls to reach for the stars, never let anyone limit their potential, to not take “no” for an answer. Even though I’m not sure they’ll be engineers like their dad, I’m proud that they’re growing up in a world that isn’t letting something like gender define their potential.


Q: There’s quite a legacy of celebrated CEOs who have come before you. How do you plan to evolve the firm and what legacy would you like to create as the new CEO?

I’ve been fortunate to follow in the footsteps of passionate and forward-thinking leaders who have grown this firm into the global corporation it is today. They’ve created an environment where technical excellence and client service are unmatched. However, the industry is changing—our employees need a dynamic and responsive leader who can empower them to go beyond the ‘safe choice’ and not be afraid to risk failure.

Failure is a reality. But being better at it than everybody else is what separates a good company from a great one.
That’s why I believe great leaders are the ones willing to take smart, calculated risks and encourage everyone around them to think outside the box. We’re not here to churn out cookie-cutter designs and provide adequate client service—we are here to be the best. We’re here to partner with our clients to take on the toughest challenges and solve the most complex problems. To do that, we need to push ourselves: try new things, ask tough questions and accept that not everything will be a success on the first try. So, we’ll take calculated risks and make sure learning from failure is part of the equation.

Tim Wall Tim Wall
Great leaders are the ones willing to take smart, calculated risks and encourage everyone around them to think outside the box.
Timothy B. Wall Chairman and CEO

Learn More About Tim

Favorite Movie
"Rudy. I’ve watched it 100 times and could watch it 100 more. And it’s because of the human spirit that the main character showed: to not be limited by his situation, to have the will to keep trying, and to believe that hard work and a positive attitude can make anything possible."
CEOs He Admires
"Alan Mulally, for taking a storied brand like Ford and making it contem­po­rary to meet current market needs. Ursula Burns, who, despite a modest upbringing, recreated Xerox with a distinct tenacity and dedication to client service. And Jeff Bezos, whose insatiable view of the possible allows him to commit to things that others can only dream of."
Little Known Fact
"I have never missed a Taylor Swift world tour concert at Gillette Stadium with my wife and daughters." 
Denver meeting expert Denver meeting expert
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