Building the culture you want in your firm

Aug 27, 2023

These are the practical implications of defining the culture you want and then making that a reality.

"Culture” is one of those terms that is often bandied about by business advisors and management consultants, as well as anyone who is a student of management and leadership working in an AEC firm today.

I like to think that a firm’s “culture” is defined by what type of behavior is rewarded and what type of behavior is punished. Some people like to say that any given firm has a “weak culture” or a “strong culture” – I’m not so sure that makes a lot of sense. Maybe that means a lot of conflicting signals are sent out by management? I’m not sure. Culture is culture – who gets ahead and who doesn’t is always evidenced over time.

Let’s take a look at some specific behaviors we all (for the most part) may want to see in our people, and how we can help mold the culture we want inside of our organizations:

  1. A culture that says sales of new projects is important. Do you report every project sale to everyone in the firm and who was involved in it? Sure that’s a pain, but it sends out strong signals. Is that done as the sales come in or daily, or do you only do it once a month? More frequent is better. Do you ring a bell or play a song throughout the office with each sale over a certain size? This reinforces selling is important. Do you promote the people who can sell and not promote those who won’t sell (assuming selling is part of their job)? Too many times firms in our business reward utilization or longevity versus performance.
  2. A culture that says hard work is rewarded. Do the people who keep their heads down and get a lot done get recognized for that, or do those who are good at politicking and claiming credit get the attention of management? This is a really big issue in our industry. Those who do the actual work of the organization too often feel forgotten.
  3. A culture that says teamwork is important. Do you report your financial performance by office or discipline or market sector, or do you report firm performance overall? How is the incentive compensation plan set up? Is overall firm performance the largest element of it, or is it more based on individual and/or unit performance? Do you confront those who hog staff resources and won’t share them with other units or offices when they clearly should? Talking about teamwork is one thing, but if you are really serious about promoting it you will have your accounting and reward systems designed to recognize and pay for it.
  4. A culture that says treating other people well is important. Do you tolerate managers who abuse or dress down their people inappropriately, or are they confronted? If not confronted, you are saying to everyone that this kind of behavior is acceptable. Do high performers who are great sellers and doers of work get promoted even when they have a reputation of other people not wanting to work with them? If so, you are telling your people results are all that matter. This issue and how you deal with it is where the “rubber meets to road” in terms of defining your firm’s culture.
  5. A culture that says quick response is important. Do you single out those people and publicly praise them for quick response, or are these situations ignored? People won’t do it if they don’t think it’s important and won’t be appreciated. Does top management exemplify speedy response themselves? Your people won’t do it if you don’t do it. Do you have a weekly “speed reward” for those who were the quickest to respond? Maybe you need one to show everyone speed is part of your culture.
  6. A culture that says bringing other people up behind you is important. Do you promote people who have not identified and trained their successors? If so, you are saying that developing successors isn’t important. Do you require all managers to name their successors? Maybe you should. Do you talk about succession planning in your management meetings? If not, why not? Succession planning and developing successors will never be part of the culture if it isn’t required, talked about, and recognized.

Am I making sense to you all on this topic? What I am saying here is it isn’t good enough to just say things such as, “Selling is important” and then only report utilization data. You can’t say, “We are one firm” and then focus on reporting individual and business unit performance versus the overall company (I have witnessed this so many times). And you can’t say, “People are our greatest asset,” while at the same time showing you really don’t care how people are treated.

These are the practical implications of defining the culture you want and then making that a reality! Let me know what you think about culture. 

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.