Do you want to lead – or follow?

Jul 09, 2023


When you work in a crowded field full of many companies that do essentially the same thing, you can either be one of many or you can choose to stand out.

When you own your own architecture, engineering, or construction firm, it seems to me that you have to make a fundamental choice. And that is whether your business will lead, or whether you will follow everyone else in the same business. This choice (and it IS a choice) impacts every single thing your business does.

What do I mean by this? Let me start by saying it’s much more than just being preoccupied with your competition and copying them. While that could be one manifestation of your choice, the differences in some areas could seem very slight at first glance and yet could have some significant impacts on your ultimate growth and success.

Let’s take a look at some examples of the differences in leaders versus followers in this industry:

  • Management practices. If everyone else in your business has Monday meetings to review project schedules and manpower assignments, leaders may figure out a program to do that so no scheduled meeting is ever necessary. This is just one of many possible differences in management practices.
  • Governance. If everyone seems to have a board of directors that includes every owner in the company, leaders may figure out they only need a few insiders who are best at firm management and instead bring in some outsiders to expand the firm’s marketing network and knowledge and experience base in various aspects of business.
  • Titles. If everyone else has a hierarchy made up of various officer levels including vice president and senior vice president, or principal, associate principal, and associate, leaders may decide to use none of those titles and instead create all new titles such as “orchestra conductor,” “Jack of all trades,” or “grand guru of HVAC.”
  • Facilities. If everyone else has private offices around the perimeter of their space and cubicles in the middle, leaders may decide to have offices in the middle and cubicles around the perimeter, or to put no one in an office at all.
  • Pricing. If everyone else is quoting fees on the basis of an industry standard percentage of construction costs or fixed fees for a particular scope of services, leaders may decide to do the whole thing on an hourly basis or based on some value metric such as energy savings.
  • Billing practices. If everyone else is billing monthly and sending out statements when clients don’t pay their bills, leaders may decide to bill weekly and reflect unpaid prior bills in the total due and payable.
  • Incentive compensation. If everyone else has an annual bonus plan based on a combination of individual and/or unit performance metrics, leaders may decide to pay bonuses monthly based strictly on a formula based entirely on the overall firm’s performance.
  • Language usage. If everyone else is using the same words when they speak – such as “leaning in,” “pivoting,” pushing everyone to be “servant leaders,” calling every group a “cohort” and every team an “agile team,” leaders may decide to simplify and avoid using such terms so they don’t sound like everyone else.
  • Website. If everyone else in your business is showing complete projects and matching mugshots of their people on their websites, leaders may instead decide to focus on client interviews, users of their projects, and candid photos of their employees in action.
  • Social media. If everyone else is showing project images and photos of employee parties and outings on social media, leaders may instead be featuring their clients and their clients’ organizations, and original research findings on theirs.

I could go on here, and I’m sure there are readers who would enjoy debating me on the specifics of my examples above, but I’m not going to. My point is simply this: When you work in a crowded field full of many companies that do essentially the same thing your business does, you can be one of many that basically look, feel, and work the same way, or you can be a standout that seems very different. I would go with the latter every time.

Does that mean every client wants that? No. Does it mean that those who do want a different experience and level of service will probably choose your firm and stay with you IF you are markedly different? My experience says “yes!”

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact 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.