Building a truly great firm

Jun 02, 2008

After 28 years of working in and around A/E/P and environmental firms, it is clear that there are many good firms and only a few truly great firms in this business. The “truly great” firms have momentum. They run on their own. They cannot help but grow. They know they are good at what they do and so do their clients. Their owners are having fun doing what they love. There isn’t anything better than that! The truly great firms have other qualities that are difficult to describe as well. So, how can you build a truly great firm? The fact is not everyone can. But if you could, here’s some of what you’ll have to do: Make a plan but don’t make a rigid plan. Thinking about what you want to do with your business is a good thing. But making out an inflexible plan that people must conform to unnaturally is not a good thing. It will turn everyone off. The plan should set overall direction, be balanced, and provide a philosophical underpinning for the business, but not put everyone in a box that they resent being in. Be a strong leader but not too strong of a leader. If you want a great firm, you need a strong leader who can get people together and make things happen. But what you don’t need is a leader who dominates over everyone and has to get their way every time. Think strategically but be open-minded to other opportunities. This is something the truly great firms do. They are nimble. They can stay on their chosen path but veer off if it is smart to take a detour. Work hard but not too hard. People in our business need to work hard to build a successful company. But to build a truly great company takes more than that. The people who make it up need to be complete people who lead balanced lives. This means they cannot work constantly but will instead work hard when they work and then lead rich lives when they aren’t working for the company. Be disciplined about things but not too disciplined. It’s good to be disciplined when it comes to your invoicing and collection processes or your lead tracking process. But taken too far and the discipline becomes constraining and stifles the creativity and morale of the people. A truly great company does what it has to with just the right amount of discipline, but allows people latitude and freedom in other areas where it is not essential. Be competitive but be nice to everyone. Great companies understand that while this business is a competitive one it is also a very collaborative one. You simply cannot burn all bridges with your peer companies by being too cut-throat or it will come back to hurt you. Think well of yourselves but be self-effacing. Everyone wants to deal with successful professional service providers in successful companies, but no one likes people whose egos are so large that they cannot serve the interests of their clients. And it is always endearing if you can poke fun of yourself and not take your success too seriously. Great firms understand this idea and have principals who live it. Know what clients you’d like to have but be receptive to others. Flexibility is key. You should not be so strategic in your client selection process that another opportunity you didn’t expect to come along should do so and you have no way of processing it. You must figure this stuff out in advance— but not be rigid! Great firms understand the yin and the yang. They balance everything and do some amazing projects along the way. How do you stack up? Originally published 6/02/2008

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.