When you hear the word “elitism,” it usually strikes a negative chord. Used in the context of describing an A/E/P or environmental consulting firm, the first thing that comes to mind is: “They think they’re better than everyone else.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines elite as “the best or most skilled members of a social group,” and elitism as “a sense of being part of a superior or privileged group.”While humility is usually a quality others appreciate, I don’t think it’s bad for a firm to have pride in itself. In fact, I think it’s critical in order to foster a culture of continuous improvement and an intense desire to beat the competition in every way. The most successful accounting and law firms have understood how to harness the power of elitism and have used it to their advantage for years. For some reason, A/E/P and environmental firms, by and large, have not.Yet, it’s this elitism that raises the overall standard of excellence in the staff of a firm. It helps the firm attract and keep the best people working for the company, and allows the firm to get the best projects at the highest fees. So what do you do if you want to have more of an elitist culture in your firm? Create significant barriers to entering the firm. What I mean here is that it has to be tough (or at least appear that way) to get into your company. Requiring super academic achievement or minimum scores on professional licensing exams, or putting an applicant through a rigorous, multi-step interviewing process are commonly used barriers. If it is difficult to get into the firm, those who do get in feel that they are part of a special group. Use rituals of initiation. An example of an initiation ritual or rite would be a requirement that the new employee work four consecutive 80-hour work weeks in a lousy field location during the first few months of his or her employment; or making the new employee work under the direction of a particularly tough-to-please principal or client. Surviving these “initiation rites” help new employees prove their value to the firm and actually bolster their confidence. Have requirements for continuing membership. You can’t feel like you’re part of the “elite” if you are allowed to coast after you get in. I have seen A/E/P and environmental firms use requirements for continuing membership such as— a minimum effective multiplier for all projects done by a project manager; minimum annual sales figures for a principal; or a minimum amount of continuing education. Several firms we are aware of go so far as to rank staff members at a certain time each year and force out the bottom 5%! Have leadership that sells hard internally. The firms I’ve been in that had an elitist culture had a CEO and other principals that constantly sold employees on the company. They promoted it as a great place to work, and they talked about how much more money employees could or would make there versus elsewhere. Sometimes these people are so successful, employees come to believe they would be crazy to work anywhere else. Be more successful than competitor firms. One way to build up the belief that your firm is better than every other firm that does what you do is to actually be better. In the A/E/P and environmental consulting business, this “betterness” may be evidenced through the number of design awards or management achievement awards won by the firm, the growth rate of the firm, the profitability or balance sheet strength of the firm, the low number of professional liability claims filed against the firm, and so on. Whip up hate for the competition. Another way elitist firms promote their elitism is by focusing on their hate for the competition in general or for one specific competitor— creating a “scapegoat” of sorts. We have even seen cases where top management of one firm spread lies about another firm through its own employee grapevine. Whether you like this tactic or not, nothing promotes the feeling that you belong to a winning team identifying and then defeating a common enemy. Although some of the aforementioned tactics may be unpleasant to the typical engineer, architect, geologist, or environmental scientist, the bottom line is that they all work toward building an elitist culture in a firm. If you don’t have the stomach for doing these things, remember the alternative— the typical firm culture that says, “We’re a good firm, but no better than any other.” And that kind of a culture sure doesn’t lead to success.Originally published 3/20/1995
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