Character is everything

Oct 21, 2019

“People who show any signs of a lack of character must be confronted and dealt with immediately.”

Everyone who is an owner or manager of an AEC business wants to talk about the requirements for becoming a principal, or the criteria for becoming an associate or project manager. Then there’s also the conventional wisdom that before you hire anyone you need a job description detailing the specific education, registration, and experience requirements they must have to qualify for the job.

Interestingly, you will rarely ever see anything in any of these lists or descriptions referring to the single most important attribute anyone can have who works in your organization at any level – character. Without it, no amount of coaching, training, supervision, or policies can overcome the negative aspects posed by a lack of character.

Unfortunately, a lack of character is not always evident to those of us who are making hiring, promotion, or retention decisions. While the AEC business is an exceptional industry in terms of the high quality of people who work in it, the occasional bad apple does slip in.

Here are some warning signs to look out for:

  • Small cheats. We once had an employee who was a compulsive coupon-clipper – he was notoriously cheap. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but it spread into doing things such as charging a pizza delivered to his home to an out-of-state client’s project. We had to let him go over that one.
  • Gross exaggerations and lying about stupid little stuff. Whenever I pick up on these it is a red flag. I once had someone tell me about their father who had a “‘69 Challenger with a 427 hemi.” Problem is, there was no such car. It told me the guy was a BS-er, a hunch later confirmed in the workplace. Bad character!
  • Petty actions. When someone gets upset because another person puts the toilet paper roll on so it hangs the wrong way, or when someone borrows their stapler once and forgets to give it back, and then that person becomes obsessed with getting them back, it’s a character problem.
  • Doing things they shouldn’t do to win a job. I’m talking about bribes, either minor or major, or even sabotaging a competitor in some way. When people do things like this you have to worry that they could take your whole company down at some point as a result of their character.
  • Cooking the books to show better results than are there. I have seen this many times. Knowingly over-accruing revenue on a job to make their department’s P&L look better, or keeping AR on the books that they know can’t be collected, are sure signs of character deficiencies that could indicate other problems.
  • Attempts to bury problems on projects or with clients. Knowing that a client is unhappy because the firm screwed something up, but keeping that from firm management, is worrisome. It makes you wonder what else the person is hiding. Possible character flaw.
  • Too political. Obvious attempts at brown-nosing to get ahead. Shameless public flattery of the boss. While some politicking may be necessary to be successful, excessive, shameless pandering to the boss is an indication of character problems you shouldn’t ignore.
  • Greedy. We once had a guy who worked for us who had a grossly inflated idea of his contribution to our firm’s success. He even went as far as proposing a bonus plan to the BOD that would’ve resulted in him personally getting 55 or 60 percent of the company’s profits. As is often the case, when greed rears its ugly head, it’s a tip-off to character deficiencies. And believe me, in this case it was borne out by his later actions.
  • Blaming. The inability to ever accept responsibility and always blame their problems on someone else is not uncommon with some insecure managers and leaders, and a real indication of character issues that you have to be concerned about.
I’m sure I have missed something in this list, but the bottom line is pay close attention to your people. Those who show any signs of a lack of character – especially managers/leaders – must be confronted and dealt with immediately, or the cancer will quickly take hold and damage your firm.

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.