Be a better A/E firm leader in 2021

Jan 24, 2021

The leadership abilities of you firm’s principals and managers will determine your collective success this year.

Finding, developing, and keeping leaders is essential to any A/E firm (or ANY business, for that matter) that wants to be a going concern that lasts into the future and can out-survive its founders. You cannot get on LinkedIn or Twitter, pick up a business magazine or newsletter, or go to the business section at your local bookstore without seeing a wide variety of posts, articles, and books on the subject. It is so incredibly important.

2021 will be a pivotal year for many firms in this business. The leadership abilities of the principals and managers will determine your collective success. While I have talked about all of these things more than once in these pages, they bear repeating. Here are some practical things you – and everyone in your firm – can do to start being a better leader RIGHT NOW!

  1. Set the best possible example. Your personal example is always the single most important thing you can do as a leader. All eyes are on you. Don’t be one of those people who gripes about your employees’ late timesheets and expense reports that you must have to bill your clients when you yourself are not getting them in on time. It’s just like you can’t tell your kids to not text while they are driving and then do it yourself every time you get in the car.
  2. Be an optimist. Someone has to believe there is no obstacle you cannot overcome if you really want to. Someone has to believe in the promised land. That someone is you. Be the one who sees the glass half full versus half empty. Be the one who makes the lemonade out of lemons and who knows you can do it before those lemons evidence themselves. This optimism can be contagious.
  3. Be a hard worker. Put in the hours and show your dedication and willingness to sacrifice your time. This is challenging today with so many people working remotely, but there are ways you can demonstrate it to all. You need to figure out what those are and employ them because you, as a leader, set the pace.
  4. Sell, sell, sell! Leaders of A/E firms sell projects. They bring in new clients. They are also able to sell their ideas to their partners and the other employees working in the business. Selling is helping. Selling is problem solving. Whenever I get asked what I think the most critical skill is for any entrepreneur to have, I say, “selling ability.” And selling abilities are a skill anyone can master if they really want to.
  5. Demonstrate you are a team player. We all need people who can get along with others. Most of what we all do requires lots of cooperation of lots and lots of people. So once again, you have to demonstrate your personal abilities to work well as a part of a team. You have to be one of those who can get along with anyone versus one of those who has problems getting along with most everyone.
  6. Demonstrate that you aren’t a quitter. Don’t be the one who is quick to give up and throw in the towel. Instead be the one who shows you stay ‘til the bitter end and get things done. There’s no hill you can’t climb. You are the optimist. The optimist never fails because they don’t give up. Giving up is the only way to fail.
  7. Demonstrate a willingness to make sacrifices. You take the pay cut if one is necessary. You give up your large office if you are out of space and need room for others. You take the old company car and give the new company car to someone else. You go to the meeting in Beirut that no one else wants to go to. That’s leadership!
  8. Give credit to your people. As I already stated, this business is a team effort. So, don’t be someone who always grabs the glory and the spotlight. The warmth of that spotlight feels good, doesn’t it? So share it! Instead of being a glory hog, give the credit to the other people on your team. They are the ones you have to keep motivated to make things happen. Your public appreciation for them is critical.
  9. Don’t be an information hog. Show you trust people enough to share all the information with them. This is so important and one of the (many) reasons I love open-book management. It builds trust. But there is more to it than that. Don’t be someone who has hidden agendas. Other people will see through that. Share your thinking and the logic behind it. That logic is based on information that other people may need so they can do the right thing.
  10. Demonstrate that you are ethical. You only have one reputation. If it is good, you can lose all your clients, employees, and money, and get it all back. That means you can’t do anything even slightly unethical, underhanded, illegal, or otherwise and keep that reputation. Not to mention that if you want your people to act properly you set the example.
  11. Admit when you are wrong. A little humility goes such a long way. It’s one way to endear yourself to others. “To err is human.” But that means you have to admit your mistakes, and a lot of leaders have egos that don’t ever allow themselves to be wrong. I can admit I have struggled with this myself at times. Leaders have to face up to it when they are wrong. They don’t put blame on others. The ability to admit one’s mistakes encourages other people to admit theirs. It’s essential to keeping problems from growing out of control.
  12. Learn to delegate and let go. Leaders are good delegators. They realize no one else will ever learn to do something if they themselves cannot resist the temptation to do it all themselves or be overly controlling. As I always say, “Sure, no one is as good as you are at doing (fill in the blank) at first. But give them time and maybe they will be BETTER than you are doing it eventually."
  13. Don’t ask anyone to do anything that you won’t do yourself. The leader is not too proud to do dirty work, do mundane work, go somewhere they don’t want to go, work late, cut vacation short, work for a client who is hard to work for, work with someone who is hard to work with, go to a meeting they don’t want to go to, comply with policies on timesheets and expense reports, and more. An effective leader never asks someone to do something he or she would not do themselves.
  14. Figure out how things actually work. The best way to do that is to get into the details of things. That means if you are having problems getting proposals and qualification documents out in a timely manner, go sit with the people who do that work and help them. That is how you can actually get to the bottom of things.
  15. Be tough when you need to and soft when you need to. Leaders don’t shy away from their responsibilities and can make the tough calls when necessary. Those “calls” may be to get out of unprofitable businesses or confront non-performing managers. These things are essential. But that also doesn’t mean that they forget to be human, show respect, have some humility, treat everyone with decency, and be compassionate to others in need. A big part of leadership is demonstrating both toughness AND compassion. You don’t have to be one way or the other at all times.
  16. Be accessible and responsive. Leaders have to keep their doors open (most of the time, anyway!), their cell phones on, and their email inboxes cleared out so they can respond when someone needs their advice, decision, input, or clout to get something done. I pride myself on this in spite of the personal issues it may create at times! Responding quickly shows respect for the other guy or girl. It shows that you understand their time is valuable.
  17. Know how to have fun and let other people have fun. The best leaders have a sense of humor and appreciate that in other people. They know when work is fun people stay with it longer and care more. So, they make it fun if they can!
  18. Share the wealth. Leaders don’t just share credit, they share the fruits of success. If the company makes money, everyone benefits. They don’t make empty promises of bonus plans or opportunities and then fail to come through.
  19. Be a good listener. You cannot be a leader and understand people and problems if you don’t listen to others. Be attentive. Put the phone down. Ask open-ended questions. Watch your body language. The best leaders show people they are important by being a good listener!
  20. Be a good person. I will let you define that any way you like. But I do know this: It’s hard for others to let you lead if they don’t think you have good character. Interpret that as you will, but you know what I am talking about.

So there you have it. 2021 will be a bad year for some firms in this business and a great year for others. I will predict that the leadership abilities you and your managers demonstrate on a daily basis will determine which way it goes for you!

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.