Building an entrepreneurial firm culture

Jun 02, 2024


These 10 things will make a difference if you are serious about making your people more entrepreneurial.

"Corporate culture” is one of those terms that is regularly bandied about by management practitioners, but I am not sure it’s really understood by those who own and manage AEC firms. “Culture” has been defined as the “way of life” inside the company. What behaviors are celebrated; what behaviors are punished.

But the whole point of it is this: IF you have a strong culture that guides individual and collective behavior, you don’t need a lot of formal rules and policies on how to do everything. It just tends to happen. And a good culture can take good people and make them great versus sucking the life out them and making good people mediocre.

So what if you want your people to act and behave more like entrepreneurs? You can’t do it with policies. You have to manage the culture. Here are my thoughts on some things you can do:

  1. Get and distribute more client and potential client feedback. Entrepreneurs are tuned into their clients more so than non-entrepreneurs. So that means you need to get and share more client feedback if you want your people to be more entrepreneurial than they currently are. One company in this business that we worked for years ago paid us to interview their current, past, and potential clients and then distributed the unedited feedback we got to every single employee every single month, regardless of whether it was good or bad and regardless of whose names were mentioned. That’s being serious about it.
  2. Meet weekly to discuss how you use that feedback to make changes in how you do things. It’s one thing to get client feedback, but it’s another thing to actually use it. Put this topic on your regular management meeting agenda and take action on it. This will show your people you are serious about this subject.
  3. Formally recognize employees who demonstrate speed and responsiveness. Entrepreneurs move faster than bureaucratic firms. So be sure to point out and recognize those who are extra-responsive and move quickly at everything. Make them the “heroes of the day” versus just focusing on who got registered or who has been there the longest.
  4. Institutionalize innovation initiatives in the business planning process. I have talked about this for years but the idea has seen little implementation from what I can see. And that idea is to make it a requirement for each of your revenue-generating business unit leaders to come up with new stuff every single year. New services. New ways to package services. New ways to market those services. “New” means continuous innovation versus resting on your laurels and not evolving.
  5. Get rid of your formal job descriptions and fixed pay rates, and reduce versus increase the number of job titles you have. This kind of bureaucracy kills entrepreneurial spirit. Why do more if you are an “Engineer 3” and your rewards are capped? That kind of policy and practice kills entrepreneurial spirit versus encouraging it. And by the way – the more silly titles you have that don’t really mean anything, the worse morale is going to be.
  6. Treat everyone in the firm like an owner. Share the numbers and the profits with everyone. Open-book management combined with frequent sharing of cash basis profits gets people thinking more like owners and less like alienated and exploited employees. And that’s entrepreneurial!
  7. Sell small amounts of ownership to those who want to make sacrifices to get it. Don’t just try to get everyone acting like owners. Instead, how about actually making them owners? Those who want to sacrifice some of the paychecks to invest in the company should be allowed to do so. It doesn’t mean they will all be managers or have veto power over anything but they will have a chance to build value if they defer short-term compensation. That is a big part of what being an entrepreneur is about.
  8. Emphasize revenue growth, cash flow, and firm value over short-term profitability. Value creation is what motivates the entrepreneur versus short-term profits. The real value of your firm lies in your revenue growth rate versus a multiple of historic EBIT. Just take a look at how software companies are valued and what their multiples of revenue are if you don’t believe me. So stop acting like stodgy old low growth “practice-centered” businesses, and instead act like those who build incredible value in their companies.
  9. Promote those who act like entrepreneurs versus those who are the best architects or engineers or who have been there the longest. You can’t say you want more entrepreneurial people and then act like a bureaucratic government organization in terms of who moves up in the hierarchy. And when I say “promote,” I am not only referring to job promotions. I’m also referring to whose accomplishments you talk about both inside and outside of the company. That sends signals, and your people will notice!
  10. Put successful entrepreneurs on your board of directors. Successful entrepreneurs – not just retired people from government agencies, your regular outside accountant or attorney – will help you run your firm more entrepreneurially. Get them on your board. It’s affordable. And you will get far more out of doing this than it will cost you.

These 10 things WILL make a difference IF you are serious about making your people more entrepreneurial. So do them! 

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

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.