Course correction

Oct 02, 2022

Will Swearingen

If there are people with dominating or otherwise off-set personalities on your leadership team, it could be time for a change.

This last month we were able to celebrate hundreds of firms in the industry that either have exceptional cultures (Best Firms To Work For) or have grown their enterprises at an impressive clip (Hot Firms) – or even better, both! As part of the ElevateAEC experience, we had a great slate of speakers and presenters. Pete Hinojosa from Insperity provided a comical sketch summarizing the quadrants of a behavioral assessment called DISC. DISC stands for Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance and apparently the result of the assessment can help predict an individual’s job performance. Pete’s explanation of how each of the characteristics can emerge in a personality and how they can be interpreted by peers was spot on and comical. Every individual is some combination of the four and their ego reflects these traits accordingly.

In the AEC industry (and certainly at the higher levels of the org chart), we are dealing with lots of ego. Some people absolutely can’t get enough of themselves! These personalities, and conflicts between various personalities, can generate a dynamic where there’s an inability to coordinate with one another. Leadership’s charge to build consensus and allow team members to successfully realize their own goals, while fulfilling an overall objective for the entity, is so important. However, some people are amazingly bound by their ego and can’t get out of their own way – even in the face of honest feedback.

They want to be the dominant figure in every conversation. They talk louder, longer, and with more words to accomplish this. It’s an exhausting act to watch and attempt to follow. When you couple this with the level of ambition this personality type usually has, it gets even more exhausting. There’s little to no regard for how their approach impacts others’ perceptions of an objective because they can’t see how far off-base they are with their audience. This is a problem!

When a firm is looking at succession planning and the development of new roles and responsibilities, individuals must understand where they fit in – and quite frankly where they don’t. Trying to create a role to fulfill someone’s personal objective can have an adverse reaction at the organizational level. Every AEC firm goes through a lifecycle and its key people need to understand how they can contribute with their highest and best use in times of change. In the context of ownership transition, succession planning, and leadership development come squarely into focus and prompt action as expectations for our key people change with the times.

One of the things we advise as a qualifier for becoming an owner in an AEC firm is the ability to perceive, use, manage, and handle emotions i.e., have emotional intelligence. Below I’ve outlined a few of the pillars of emotional intelligence as defined by Dan Goleman.

  • Self-awareness. Being able to see how others perceive you and understanding if that aligns with your internal value system. The ability to modify our behaviors based on our setting requires a balance (without being overly self-aware!) as we understand each situation in context.
  • Self-regulation. Being able to revise a behavior in response to an emotional event. Being mindful of your long-term goals and reacting (or not) within that context.
  • Motivation. Modifying your behavior in the pursuit of a goal. This is important as ambition and motivation must work together to “better our best” and are the reason for behaving a certain way in pursuit of a goal.
  • Empathy. It may feel like it’s an overused word these days, but you have to be able to create the capacity to understand what another person is feeling or experiencing.
  • Social skills. Quite simply these are the competencies for facilitating verbal or non-verbal communication, which is so important in AEC because our people are our most important asset.

When you have off-base personalities in your orbit, regulating each of these in a way that’s productive can be a challenge. As leaders we are sometimes called to action to figure out how to course correct a situation. Zweig Group has helped numerous leadership teams navigate delicate succession planning dynamics that deal with dominating or otherwise off-set personalities. My advice would be to figure out how you can collectively pursue a path to course correct or define the alternative. 

Will Swearingen is a principal and director of ownership transition advisory services at Zweig Group. He can be reached at

The Principals Academy The Principals Academy is Zweig Group’s flagship training program encompassing all aspects of managing a professional AEC service firm. Elevate your ability to lead and grow your firm with this program designed to inspire and inform existing and emerging AEC firm leaders in key areas of firm management. Join us November 3-4 in Arlington, Texas. Click here to learn more!

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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.