To succeed in building a new business line, you need to set your ego aside, believe in yourself, and trust your team with your vision.
It was the fall of 2014 when one of the founders of Patel, Greene, and Associates, LLC called me out of the blue and offered me a simple proposition: Start a new structures group for PGA. Sounds simple, but it meant leaving one of the oldest and most stable AEC firms in the country that was providing me a career path with future growth, albeit at a slow and steady pace.
After discussions with my wife, family, and friends, I decided to take the risk and try the challenge. Why? I wanted to build something that I ultimately believed in and loved, a structures group with a future and vision that I had direct influence on. Looking back seven years later, I think the simple fact that I believed and loved the business line I was tasked with building countered all the risks and challenges that came with it. To succeed in building an AEC business line, ignore the ego that can come with the challenge and ask yourself, is this something I believe in and love?
Believing is two-fold, it means believing in yourself and believing in what you are about to do. Believing in what you are about to do means defining your mission right up front. My mission early on was understanding that good engineering doesn’t come from one person alone. I knew intuitively for our group to be successful, I needed to bring colleagues who shared the same culture and vision. Recruiting talent is not enough; you have to bring people who believe and share your vision. We also made sure we didn’t grow nor hire too fast. We actually recruited some younger staff from other existing business lines within the company rather than hiring external staff initially. A cohesive group is really important in starting any AEC business line. Remember, sharing the same vision is the key for successful teamwork. Also, the initial core of our structures group were past colleagues from previous companies I had worked at. Eventually you do have to go outside your network of contacts, but even though hiring talent with the right skills is important, they need to have a similar vision for the task at hand. Our vision was to engineer solutions based on integrity, commitment, and excellence, while maintaining a cohesive internal culture.
Believing in yourself is equally important. Within days of starting at PGA, I had to find skills within myself well beyond engineering numbers and designing bridges. I had to learn about marketing, networking, sales, business financials, and a whole slew of things that were not taught in engineering school. But that faith in myself that I would emerge a better and stronger person led to personal discoveries that exceeded my wildest expectations.
The journey to get to where our structures group is now, a staff of thirteen professionals, was no bed of roses. Failures, (many failures) happened along the way. Lost proposals, sleepless nights, and just getting beat by other AEC firms that have been doing this a lot longer was common. In the end, failures don’t define us. Wear your failures like a badge of honor. Every time we lost a proposal, we debriefed and listened to the winning team. What better way to rise than to learn from your mistakes? Again, set your ego aside and use failure to learn. Some of those lost pursuits were actually blessings in disguise since it prepared us for the next winning pursuit, which often turned out to be even better projects. Heck, maybe you should partner with the firm that beat you to actually enhance your next pursuit!
Leadership is also important in starting a new AEC business line. Your decisions and approach as a leader either work or they don’t. The one key leadership approach that has helped me in starting a structures group is a simple one: Empathy. Leaders need to inspire, and you cannot inspire others without empathy. Look to your staff, ask them questions, and, above all, listen! You’d be surprised at the ideas that your own staff generate. When you think you know the solution, ask others, and get feedback. Not only could you find a better approach, but the morale boost to your group brought about by empathy is invaluable.
The last lesson in starting a new AEC business line is humility. We never let the success we did eventually have, outgrow the vision that got us there. There is always a better way to do things and there will always be someone better than you. Never let success overshadow your humble beginnings. PGA will continue to grow, but early on, we realized the importance of culture and how humility has made us successful. It will be a challenge as companies grow to keep that culture, but I think humility within company leadership is key. Never forget, the asset of an AEC firm lies within the people that make that firm.
So here we are seven years later, continuing to take risks, but never forgetting to believe in ourselves and keeping that vision that has brought us here today. So, if you’re faced with the same scenario in your career at some point, take the risk, believe in yourself, love what you do, and you’ll do just fine.
Joseph Losaria is structures group manager and a principal/VP at Patel, Greene, and Associates, LLC. Contact him at email@example.com.