Don’t suck

Jul 09, 2018

It might be a blunt mantra but it has a broad application across all facets of life and work, including the AEC industry.

We all have leaders and figures in our lives who leave an enduring inspiration; those who we establish as the “high water mark” in our professional careers and whose standard we constantly strive to exceed. While I served in the Army and abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan, I had the privilege of such leadership in a number of individuals. But there was always one commander who made the greatest impression, and he had a great mantra: Don’t suck.

It was a simple phrase that often elicited a few laughs, but over the course of our deployment it became a touchstone for mission preparation and execution, and in part shaped how we took care of our soldiers. To this day, I always carry this commander’s challenge coin with me, which conveniently doubles as a bottle opener. Engraved on its face is this reminder of excellence: Don’t suck.

A team member intuitively knows when their organization possesses a culture of excellence, almost like it’s written into the DNA of the company. This differs from the buzz of being on the “winning team.” The natural waxing and waning of business will give a lot of people the opportunity to experience the momentary highs of winning. But it’s in the discipline and commitment of excellence that great organizations inspire the faith of its members that, no matter what, they will prevail. This was of supreme importance on the battlefield with my commander, but it’s just as relevant in our AEC offices.

Jim Collins wrote of organizations: “Good is the enemy of great.” When we entertain the comfort of mediocrity in our work and our business, we’ve accepted that excellence is not fundamental to our mission. For many, this satisfies what they expect from their occupation, and the market will always provide a space for these professionals. But where mediocrity grows, so too does a lack of purpose and growth. The employees of great businesses, at every level, are never satisfied with mediocrity.

So how does this translate to a member of a production team, such as myself, in an AEC firm? It means finding a way to provide value in every task that you’re given – complete each one as though your and your company’s reputation is at stake. When you respond to an internal email, do so as swiftly and thoughtfully as you would a major client. If you’re tasked with routine due diligence research, be so thorough that your client or manager will wonder if you’re the one investing in the deal. Simply put, go whole hog – plus postage – in everything.

How do leaders cultivate an organization aligned with disciplined action? It often boils down to who you hire and retain. Unlike the military, companies do not have the luxury of a talent pool that has undergone months of rigorous training before reporting for duty (unless, of course, you recruit veterans). With an intentional and systematic recruitment plan, organizations can create teams with similar values, where synergies create virtuous cycles and each person’s effort feeds the momentum.

In this market, it’s difficult to be selective if you’ve got a growing backlog and need to increase your headcount to meet the demand. However, your employees will notice when hires are made for workload’s sake, especially when they don’t check all of the cultural boxes. Spend the same effort recruiting the right people that you do to develop the next big client.

Discipline is part and parcel of excellence within an organization. For a company to thrive, it must be pervasive at all levels. The model of this performance begins at the top. When the disciplined employee on the line can look up at their leadership and see ambitious and humble professionals executing a deliberate plan, they can begin to have faith in their company and their roles within it. Leaders, take my commander’s advice: Don’t suck!

Shaun Theriot-Smith is a project engineer with BIG RED DOG Engineering working on land development and infrastructure projects in the Greater Houston area. A U.S. Army veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, Shaun first became passionate to build communities at home by helping build those abroad. He is a proud alumnus and former Student Body President of the University of Houston. You can find more at his Building Bayou City blog at

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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.