Sandy Doyle-Ahern's 'culture of lifting up others' has boosted her engineering firm as a whole

Laura Newpoff
Sandy Doyle-Ahern

Special Award: Leadership

A couple years before the Great Recession roiled financial markets and caused entire industries including real estate development to come to a screeching halt, Sandy Doyle-Ahern was running EMH&T’s public works division. At work each day, she found herself looking around at who was doing what, and she came to the conclusion that the company needed to diversify beyond its base of private clients.

It was a move that helped the New Albany engineering, planning and surveying company survive the impending storm and emerge from it with a larger bank of clients that included municipalities and state government.

“I realized prior to the recession that we had the talent and expertise to do more than we were actually doing,” Doyle-Ahern says. “I felt like we had a really good group of people, but we needed to be visible in a bigger way and let public entities know what our skills were.”

Today, in addition to providing the professional services that help commercial buildings, schools or health care facilities get built, EMH&T also offers services to towns and cities, and state and federal agencies, including the 

U.S. military.

Doyle-Ahern’s professionalism and open communication style with her employees are the reasons the company is being recognized as part of Columbus CEO’s 2019 Top Workplaces survey for leadership. One employee described her as “the best, most professional, and most employee-focused leader I have ever worked for in my 30-plus year career.”

The Great Recession proved to be a pivotal moment for the company in another way. It was in 2008 that Doyle-Ahern launched company meetings twice a year so that lines of communication were opened to give all employees an accurate picture of how the business was performing. It’s a practice Doyle-Ahern continued when she became president in 2012 and something she’ll continue for as long as she works at the company.

“We work on a lot of projects during the year and a lot of people get into their niches and don’t realize all the things we’re involved in,” she says. “We’ll set the meetings so that the field staff can come in and hear those updates before they go out for the rest of the day. They want to know and deserve to know how we’re doing.”

Doyle-Ahern became a shareholder in the company in 2005, the first woman to do so.

Christy Pirkle, a senior environmental scientist who has been with the company for 18 years, says Doyle-Ahern has created a culture of lifting up others.

“She’s obviously talented, smart and capable, but what truly sets her apart from a lot of other people is that she truly cares about people and it’s very obvious,” Pirkle says. “She listens and engages people in a sincere way. She’s proud of the people she works with and wants to empower them. She also has that sort of innate charisma that makes people who are around her strive to work harder and better.”

Todd Cunningham, a director, development II, has worked with Doyle-Ahern since 2003 when she was head of the environmental department. She’s risen up the ranks at the company, in part, because her communication is “so effective, extremely genuine and transparent.”

She also takes care of her own, he says.

“She has ‘mama bear’ instincts—don’t mess with my cubs,” Cunningham says. “That makes people very loyal and inspired to spread their wings because they know there’s somebody leading them who has their back.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.

Founded: 1926

Ownership: Private

Sector: Civil engineering

Employees: 292

Headquarters: New Albany