Focusing on strengths vs. weaknesses

Sep 09, 2019

“Square peg for a round hole? No thanks! My first preference is square pegs in square holes!”

I had multiple discussions in the last week that really drove home a point I think everyone who runs an AEC firm should be considering. That is, we need to do a much better job getting people doing what they already do well versus trying to bolster their weaknesses and turn them into something or someone they aren’t.

You see example after example of this. It’s part of our culture today. If our child shows a limited interest in or aptitude for math, our first instinct is to get them a tutor and make them work a lot harder at it. Makes sense on the surface. But maybe instead we should just say, “Fine, you like English so focus on your reading and writing instead.” Or how about the notion that everyone needs a college education? Some people would be better served to become plumbers or auto mechanics, so they don’t end up working at Starbucks with a five-year architectural degree when that was never their passion, interest, or strength. It’s crazy.

In the firms we work with, this problem of people in the wrong roles sometimes goes all the way up to the executive suite. I have seen CEOs who really wanted to be designers. As a result they were unhappy and the firm didn’t do as well as it should because certain business aspects weren’t dealt with. I have also seen engineers who would rather be business developers but who were instead stuck in the office doing calculations all day. I don’t think these kinds of situations are unusual at all. I think they are pretty typical.

Yet, why do so many of us seem obsessed with jamming square pegs into round holes when it comes to how we use our people? For example, none of us has enough people who can and will sell work. That’s why my preferred marketing strategy has always been some variation on the theme that if you can drive demand for what you do through more and better marketing, you will allow your people to work in roles they are more comfortable with naturally. In this case, that means responding to someone who contacts you with a problem or opportunity versus cold calling. It’s for the same reason I generally don’t recommend using project or client managers as front line bill collectors unless there is some sort of dispute about the work products themselves. They usually don’t enjoy that role and aren’t good at it. Accounting people do a much better job. Yet again, too often management gets hard-headed about collections being part of the PM’s jobs and insists that they WILL do it – even when we the evidence shows they aren’t doing well at it at all.

There are so many dividends that come from having people in the right roles – ones they are interested in and can do well at. Everyone is happier. There’s less stress and less negativity. There’s less cynicism. Quality goes up. Turnover goes down. Client satisfaction increases. Any one of these benefits would be reason enough to do a comprehensive assessment of your staff’s strengths, weaknesses, interests, and aptitudes. Yet very few firms ever make even a modest attempt to do any of this, much less re-assign people based on what they learn going through the process.

It shouldn’t cost much or take a lot of time to figure out this stuff. And don’t forget most of your people have probably already told you what they like to do and what they don’t like to do. These two usually match up with what they are good at and what they are not so good at.

Square peg for a round hole? No thanks! My first preference is square pegs in square holes!

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.