Each week, The Zweig Letter features commentary from top-flight leaders of AEC firms. Here is a compilation of how they handle, and move beyond, failure.
By The Zweig Letter Staff
John Hiltz, president of OHM Advisors I took over as president in January 2009 after serving as vice president of operations for a number of years. Up until 2010, our firm had accumulated so many successes that I thought to myself, “This job is easy.” What I didn’t recognize was how much the stimulus dollars introduced by the Obama Administration did for us. Once 2010 hit and the stimulus dollars were behind us, reality set in fast. While 2010 and 2011 were tough years and we were fortunate not to be hit nearly as hard as many other firms, I learned that the job is a lot tougher than you think. You need to be willing and able to make some tough, timely decisions, and you only succeed as a team. Many firms tried to cut their way to success. We were fortunate and pushed for growth during the worst of times. I think the decision to focus on maintaining our team during difficult times truly paid off.
Matt Burns, president of Burns Engineering Hold people accountable and make changes quickly. Also, part of moving ahead is having some failure.
Mike Cooper, managing principal and president of HED, Inc. They say it can take years, sometimes decades, to build a strong relationship, based on trust and mutual respect, and only a single bad experience to tear that all down. Unfortunately, I know this to be true. On the flip side, I also know that all projects will experience bumps in the road. It’s how we address and resolve those issues that can help strengthen relationships. We don’t run from issues, we solve them and keep moving forward.
Ramesh Gunda, founder and president of Gunda Corporation Delegation does not excuse you from responsibility.
Al Barkouli, chairman and CEO of David Evans and Associates, Inc. The biggest lesson is related to decision-making and the need to trust both the head and the gut. The “no” decisions are often harder and more important than the “yes” decisions. What we say “no” to defines us more than what we say “yes” to. There’s pressure to be all things to all people so “yes” is easier. I am now more trusting of my gut when it’s a close decision and more comfortable with a “no” decision.
Nic Andreani, president of W&M Environmental Group, LLC You must hold people accountable in their role and be prepared to act. Keeping someone in a role that doesn’t align with their strengths can create many issues, but most notably in team morale.
Christine Franklin, president of Comprehensive Environmental, Inc. I’ve never termed any event in my life as a failure, but as an opportunity to learn what not to do the next time. My biggest personal lesson is that I cannot succeed if I try to do everything myself. People are put in your life to help you achieve your goals and you are here to help them achieve theirs.
L. Andrew White, president and CEO of HRP Associates, Inc. Big, bold, rapid changes are exciting and sometimes needed, but well planned, steady change can often be more effective and sustainable.
Chad Riley, CEO of The Thrasher Group Being a new CEO, I am continually learning lessons. Over the past year, I’ve learned that the speed at which you have to assess and make decisions is incredibly fast. You can only effectively do that if you are in touch with what’s going on in the company. I’ve learned that when you see something veering off course – even the slightest bit – you need to check in, raise awareness, and take action to get it back on course.
Roger Heeringa, president and COO of DCI Engineers I took over management in 2007, right before the recession. If there’s one thing I learned from that it was to learn how to be alert and nimble. You can’t be overly optimistic. Keep a clear eye on financial performance – things can change quickly.
Brian Sullivan, CEO of Sullivan Engineering Our biggest lessons have been in hiring: should’ve hired sooner and in a few instances should’ve taken more time to evaluate candidates in the interview process. Additionally, delegating has been an issue; more specifically recognizing that just because I don’t like doing certain tasks doesn’t mean that other people on our team also don’t like doing them.
Andrew McCune, president and CEO of Wade Trim Go with your gut. Trust yourself when deciding on business partners or the direction of the company. Finding the right leadership for the company needs to align on many levels and the culture needs to align with strategic goals.
Will Schnier, CEO of BIG RED DOG Engineering & Consulting Failure does happen. Nobody is perfect. When we don’t deliver on our value proposition or when we make a mistake or when our PMs fail to communicate up to the client’s expectations, we own it as fast as we can. When we fail, we admit it and we address it and we learn from it. It doesn’t happen often, or we wouldn’t be growing the way we are. When failure does happen, it’s an opportunity to prove to the client what kind of mettle we have and where our ethical compass is pointed. Handled appropriately, it is a chance to strengthen a client relationship because many firms fail to own up to their failures.
Anthony Bartolomeo, president and CEO of Pennoni We react as a team. We evaluate the situation from beginning to end and guide each other to a desirable and more productive outcome by recreating the steps we took to achieve success next time around. Following our communication roadmap and prioritizing debriefing, our employees come together and walk away with a positive, hopeful, and action-oriented plan.
Mick Gronewold, principal and chairman of the board at Fehr Graham Failure is a necessary experience to grow at the pace Fehr Graham wants to grow. We work hard to create an environment in which failure is a positive – an opportunity to learn or solve another problem. A lot of effort goes into making sure that our failures are exposed internally and fixed before the deliverable leaves our office out of respect to our clients. In the end, this is very much a human business and, as such, mistakes and missteps will happen no matter how good our process is or gets. My colleagues are confident enough in their abilities to come together and deliver when we experience a failure with one of our initiatives. The team quickly regroups, formulates a strategy to address it, and moves forward. When that failure involves a client, we own it and work diligently to make it right. If you spend time in our office, I know you will hear this phrase, “If you ain’t falling down, you aren’t really skiing!”
Sepideh Saidi, president and CEO of SEPI Engineering & Construction, Inc. It has to do with retention and recruitment. My greatest disappointment was in hiring key people who were not right for their jobs. It didn’t take me much time to figure out the fit was poor, but it took me too long to make a change. This created negativity and impacted others.
Mike Kulka, CEO and principal of PM Environmental, Inc. We try to avoid failures through strategic planning, but they can be inevitable. For the worst case scenarios, we have developed quick action plans. However, in the event that there is a real or perceived breakdown in a process, we jump into solution mode, stop for a moment and understand the problem, and then find where the weak point was. In some cases, we may need to retool the process; that’s fine. We certainly don’t dwell on failure. We learn from it and move on.
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