Building your people (Part 2)

Jul 15, 2019

Do you want to survive the next year, the next recession, and the ongoing reset of the workplace, the marketplace, and the recruiting space?

As leaders, it’s our job to seek out facts and then decide the best course of action.


  • To be in business, we need both talent and clients.
  • To have clients rave about us, we need great talent that is fully engaged.
  • For most firms, it’s harder to find or replace a great employee than it is a great client.
  • Talent represents virtually all of our production capacity and innovation potential.

With this being the case, why do most leaders spend more time on the client-side of our business? Answer: It comes easier to us and it’s what’s incentivized. To win today and moving forward, however, we need to do more than only what’s familiar and has been ingrained.

The Inside Game. One of the areas often overlooked in our present mode is how much easier business strategy integration and strategic planning implementation would be if we equally invested on the talent-side of our business.

Investing in our people is harder than investing in a client, as is measuring the immediate results. The “We pay them,” or “I trained myself,” and the “No overhead” mantras still linger, but understanding the value of employee engagement and better training and development has now become the norm. Executing on that, however, can be a different story.

It takes more than just great projects, perks, and pay to engage top talent over the course of a career. And training employees to produce only projects and profit will eventually fall short. Our best talent is both interested in and inspired by more.

Insert “people skills,” “personal growth,” “purpose,” and “impact” into your training and development package and we get closer. When you provide this, along with competent and trusted leadership and management who are dedicated to achieving excellence as a team with empathy, availability, and flexibility, we have our destination in sight: fully engaged and growing employees producing high value work for clients.

The Inside Shift. To work, this must all start at the top. Leadership needs to believe in, fund, and champion this type of talent investment. This shift can’t be delegated or outsourced and its implementation can’t be just a part of our “second 40” if it’s to be a catalyst for long-term organizational success.

Among the several major demographic and societal shifts we face, there’s been an economic shift. I love the way B. Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore explain this evolution from commodities to goods, services, experiences, and ultimately transformations in their book The Experience Economy. A classic example being what Starbucks did to create a distinctive and attractive experience around a commodity – the coffee bean – over the past several decades.

Our industry has generally lagged in the shift to the experience economy, but formal initiatives to understand and design better “CX” – client experiences – and “EX” – employee experiences – are now more common. As we do more “X,” however, we need to be aware of another shift – a mindset shift.

Our current growth and supervision models are based on a “one-to-many” approach (check out Part 1 of this series for more on that). The “X” approach is different, and in many ways opposite. We are customizing a mass service. We are essentially taking a service we do for many and making it special for one – a “many-to-one” approach.

Successful employee experiences (EX) at all levels today include the following elements:

  • The ability to perform; knowing the assignment and what success is, and how that benefits others
  • Stretch goals and opportunities aligned with long-term aspirations
  • Accountability and routine coaching and mentoring
  • A connection to the team, project, client, and the mission, vision, and values of the firm
  • Having a voice that is safe to be heard
  • Being part of something honorable and impactful
  • Being encouraged and enabled to win at both work and life and have the tools and flexibility to do so

By consistently investing the time and implementing the systems to support these elements, leaders and managers will enjoy the benefits of greater employee engagement, performance, and loyalty. We also establish a platform from which to scale.

The Outside Effect. EX done well lends itself to greater CX and greater firm growth and profits.

These are also key components of an ideal in-demand brand that can be designed to help us attract top clients and talent at lower costs. The building of this is the focus of Part 3 of this series.

Peter Atherton, P.E., is an AEC industry insider who has spent more than 20 years as a successful professional civil engineer, principal, major owner, and member of the board of directors for a high-achieving firm. Atherton is now president and founder of ActionsProve, LLC, author of Reversing Burnout: How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow! A Blueprint for Professionals and Business Owners, and creator of the I.M.P.A.C.T. process. Atherton works with AEC firms to grow and advance their success through strategic planning implementation, executive coaching, performance-based employee engagement, and corporate impact design. Connect with him at

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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.