Do we effectively deal with our people?

Oct 15, 2023

AEC firms must do better with delivering feedback and rewarding exceptional people, or risk losing their highest performers.

After watching nearly eight seasons of Suits, a show about New York City attorneys, it’s hard to believe that the firm owners portrayed in the show could get away with saying some of the things they do to each other, much less how they treat their employees. It’s brutal.

If there is ANY realism whatsoever to the show it sure demonstrates a huge difference between the legal profession and that of architecture and engineering. In this business, it seems like we are scared to death of our people. It seems like we never tell them how we really feel about their performance because they could start a stink and/or quit. And we never or rarely ever single out the super high performers for super high rewards over everyone else.

I have long thought that the typical performance appraisal systems we employ in AEC firms are largely worthless. Just the whole idea of waiting up to a year to tell someone what they did well or didn’t do so well is absurd. Yet, most of us who own or manage AEC firms feel performance appraisals are something we are supposed to do and we are guilty if we don’t do them. Much better is to give feedback immediately, as soon as possible after the either good or bad behavior has occurred.

The problem with doing that is multi-layered. Our managers may have so many people and so many projects to manage that they feel overloaded and unable to deal with anything that isn’t an immediate crisis. Then there is the idea of how to deliver that feedback directly but tactfully. Architects and engineers aren’t always so talented in that department. They need a lot of training and coaching themselves. Who do they get that from? Many companies have no one who is trained in how to deliver feedback, so how can they train the people who work for them?

The last complication and one that is a really big deal comes down to standards for performance and figuring out what are reasonable expectations to have of anyone. In Suits, the young attorneys who are on the fast track to become partners work 100 hours a week. They have no personal life whatsoever. But if they become partners, they also make huge money. I don’t know of any firms in our industry that have a culture like that today. We tend to have a lot of people who do OK and no one making huge money. People in our business are too nice to create a culture like that. But what about the few rare people who would be willing to make those kinds of sacrifices for extraordinary success? Is there any place in our firms for them – any way to reward that kind of commitment and productivity?

My fear is that in 99.99 percent of firms in the AEC world, there is no way to accommodate a person like this. The only option for that person who wants to truly excel is to start their own firm. That makes me a little sad. It’s kind of like we knock everyone down in terms of our expectations for them, and then they (the highly motivated employees) in turn have to reduce their expectations for themselves.

Somehow we need to do a better job at this stuff. Reducing everyone to mediocrity can’t be the way to have a firm that excels in terms of growth and profitability, can it?

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.