Most A/E/P and environmental consulting firm insiders would agree that we, as a group of companies, do not manage very well. I say that because if we did, we would not be an industry made up of 69,000 firms, averaging only 10-15 people each.My thoughts keep going back to the time-tested definition of management and its four functions— planning, leading, organizing, and controlling. And my conclusion is that we do a terrible job with the first three functions (planning, leading, and organizing), and over-emphasize the last (controlling).But why is that? The uninitiated would think that design and technical professionals would be great at this stuff. We have to do it for our clients— why can’t we do it for ourselves? Here are my thoughts:We don’t plan because it’s not fun. People tend to do what they enjoy— and engineers, architects, planners, and scientists are no exception. Most design professionals would rather be doing than planning. We have no tolerance for the ambiguity of the planning process, and no faith that it works anyway. Planning takes you out of the problem-solving mode, and reduces the excitement that comes from being in a crisis and solving it. Putting yourself into a dangerous situation and surviving can be very addictive. Why else would people sky-dive or bungee jump?We don’t lead because we feel there is something inherently wrong with doing so. Many people running professional service firms today started out not as entrepreneurs, but as model employees. The result is that when they eventually phase into ownership/management positions, it may take a while for them to become leaders instead of followers. Many of these people were programmed in the early stages of their professional career to distrust management— to think that management regularly misleads or manipulates them. If you look around you’ll see that there are some good reasons for this thinking. One of our competitors has advised firms in his newsletter to tell project team members that the project budget is smaller than it actually is to improve profitability! So much for building trust between management and employees.We don’t organize because we are preoccupied with the present. We don’t organize for the same reasons we don’t plan. Organization requires us to take time away from current activities to better prepare ourselves for future work. But the pressures most managers in professional service firms face to stay job chargeable, minimize overhead, and get out and sell also keep us out of this “organization” thing. As a group, we are so focused on survival that we systematically chip away at our firms’ futures.We overemphasize control because it’s familiar (and therefore feels safe). This is one function of management that most of us will heartily acknowledge our belief in— control. As managers, we have to check on the work of others; make the final decisions on all important matters; decide what information goes out to the project team members, discipline heads, or even our fellow principals; determine who gets how much of a raise or bonus, even for those employees we may not recognize if we saw them on the street; and so on. The result of this constant overemphasis on control is that we don’t develop any managers who can get us out of the position where we need to control. It’s a vicious cycle.So what can we do about all of this? How can we improve our managers’ abilities to plan, lead, and organize, and reduce their tendencies to control?Force planning. No one will do it unless you insist on it. Force your managers to plan their activities, to look ahead, to anticipate what they will do about problems before they occur. Show your people how to plan. Tell them what you want their plans to look like. Don’t let them off the hook on planning. Support leadership initiatives. Many A/E/P and environmental firms are set up to systematically run off those who have the most leadership potential. Recognize who your leaders are and encourage them by first giving them the opportunity to lead, and second, by supporting their attempts to do so. Don’t put them down for taking initiative. Don’t label anyone who wants to lead others as “power crazed.” Don’t make your natural-born leaders go through the same steps to move up as those who lack the requisite personality and mental attributes. Get organized yourself. If you want your people to be organized, you have to be organized. That means you don’t forget appointments, you get the meeting notes out as soon as the meeting is over, you don’t lose things people send you, and you have an office that doesn’t look like the paper section of the neighborhood recycling center. Think about it. Give up control and sell the benefits of doing so to your second tier. People at the top set the example for how things are done. I’ve seen so many CEOs who are still doing first-level technical work. If you are like that, your staff will be, too. You have to delegate everything you can. And you have to keep telling your managers that they should be doing the same thing. Because if they don’t part with some of the control, they will never be able to get out of their current mode and into one that has a bigger impact on the company. And that’s where we all know the biggest share of financial (and psychological) rewards are!Originally published 11/07/1994
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