Breaking with tradition

Mar 30, 1998

t seems to me the only way to really be successful is to be different from everyone else. Whether it’s your career or your firm we are talking about, it’s all the same. Yet many owners and managers working in A/E/P and environmental firms can’t seem to break with tradition. They do the same things whether they work or not because that’s the way they or their mentors have always done it. Instead of being creative and innovative, and trying something new, they won’t attempt anything that someone in this business hasn’t tested and proved, without a doubt, that it works. Guess what? Doing only what’s proven to work is a sure-fire way to ensure that you won’t do much better than the next guy. Here are some specific examples of what I mean: Speeches: Why are some people compelled to always quote someone else? That may be one way to look as if you are well-read or well-informed, but I would much rather state my own opinion or conclusion on the topic at hand. It’s hard to be a rock star playing someone else’s music. If all you do is quote the other guy, why shouldn’t the client hire the other guy? I don’t think enough architects and engineers think about this. Company brochures, newsletters, and promotional pieces: Why do so many firms just brag about past projects or their fabulous “multi-disciplined (sic) capabilities?” Or tell their clients that they are great at doing everything for everyone, always on time and within budget? Interviewing clients and potential clients, then showing their pictures and allowing them to express their opinions on something is far more effective. So is having original research data collected from clients and potential clients, then sharing this with them all. Or have your people relate experiences— good and bad— that clients and potential clients could learn from. It’s amazing how little of this we see!! Yet clients almost always prefer it! Hiring practices: We’re supposed to always have three or four excellent candidates to pick from before we make a job offer. That’s the way it’s always been. But that doesn’t work today. If you find someone completely qualified who you think has the right orientation to succeed, make an offer. It doesn’t need to be the same day they interview with you, but it could be the next. Time is the enemy in hiring today! Presentations: “Here’s our team, here’s the background of each team member, here’s every job we have ever done even remotely close to what you need us to do, here’s the QA/QC process we have never followed, and here’s our CEO/President/Principal to tell you that we really want the job and will make it our top priority.” This, my friends, is the presentation formula used over and over by firms in this business. No wonder hit rates for most firms stink. What’s wrong with detailed interviews from future users of the project, a description of how your firm does the work (that’s real, of course), or doing something wacky that conveys that you are intelligent, motivated, and really care about the client? Office layout: Why is it that about 87% of A/E/P and environmental firms in this country share the same floor plan? Put everyone with degrees, registrations or stock ownership in perimeter offices, and let the rest of the peons sweat it out in claustrophobic, dark cubicles that get no natural light. Why are all the partners clustered in the same general area? It’s much better for morale, productivity, communications, supervision, and on-the-job training to put the cubes around the perimeter and the offices inside, with glass partitions to the open area so everyone gets some natural light! Ownership transition: Buy-sell agreements with valuation methodologies based on book value. Non-compete agreements that prohibit former shareholders from making a living. Stock purchase plans funded by year-end bonuses. These things and more are done by most privately held A/E/P firms. But why? There are clearly better ways to more accurately determine value (using our Z-3 valuation formula that is updated annually, for one), to deal with competition from former shareholders through having different buy-back terms, or to finance stock through regular payroll deduction so the whole transition plan doesn’t crater in a poor profit year. Too many people are afraid to change anything in their transition plans, even when disaster looms on the horizon! Incentive compensation: We all learned it this way: sit around a table at the end of the year, poring over utilization, project management, and attendance reports, then arbitrarily decide who gets how much. Oh, I forgot to mention, have last year’s bonus figures at the meeting, also! Why? It’s been shown time and time again that a formula-driven program, in most cases designed around overall company profits or work unit profits (as opposed to individual job performance), is vastly superior from a motivational point of view, not to mention a lot easier to administer. Client/marketing databases: Most firms don’t have one, and if they do, access is restricted to a certain few people. That’s also why these things are always out of date! Everyone needs to use it and update it, all day, continually. Once again, it’s rare to see a firm that will get something like this operational. Once they do, they can’t see how they ever lived without it. It’s like e-mail. And just because there’s no perfect software out there that does everything you want and never crashes and works exactly the way it ought to, don’t let it stop you from getting something up and running! You tell me. Do I make sense or not? Have a little confidence. Break with tradition. Do things differently from everyone else. It just might become habit forming. And it’s the only way I know to be successful. Originally published 3/30/1998

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.