From last to first

Jul 10, 2017

Serving others before serving yourself sounds noble, but if you are low on your own priority list, it’ll show in poor performance.

If you’re a fellow frequent traveler, you’ve probably heard the safety announcement that tells you that if the cabin loses pressure, you need to put your own mask on before helping others.

I used to bristle at that. I’m very much a “myself last” thinker. But after multiple flights per week for month after month, I’m learning the wisdom of the boarding announcement. When we put ourselves last and agree to too many red-eye flights – meetings that occur too early or too late – or project deadlines that we know full well are unreasonable and will cause us to miss important family events, are we really giving our clients what they expect from us? My A-game is markedly different than my C-game, as I’m sure yours is. So here’s the big question: Are we really able to take care of others if we aren’t establishing a minimum standard for ourselves?

We recently did a client perception study as part of a strategy engagement. The firm received a comment from their client that hit far too close to home. The client said, basically, although the client greatly appreciates the firm’s absolute commitment to deadlines, “Turning in hastily-finished work ‘on time’ is not what we signed up for. Deadlines are important, but if we can’t move forward with your plans as delivered, you haven’t met the deadline anyway.”

Meeting a deadline by submitting sub-par – or even average – work is not meeting a deadline, as the client points out. Your clients expect the standard of work that you sold to them when you won the job, and on the deadlines you set. If the deadline is no longer attainable, communicate with your client. Tell them what has changed (or gently remind them what they may have changed!), and when you can commit to submit the standard of work that is worthy of your fee and your firm’s name. Then deliver. Don’t run yourself ragged and then turn in work that doesn’t make you proud.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had incredible mentors who have worked around the clock to make it happen. From them, I’ve learned that there’s no secret to getting ahead – it’s just accepting the truth that the people who put in the most hours, carry the highest standards for themselves, and treat those around them with respect and gratitude, usually end up where they want to be in their careers.

These same mentors were also teaching me another lesson that I didn’t notice until very recently. I finally noticed that – without exception – the people who have taught me what I know about discipline all have a few boundaries that they quietly, but forcefully, maintain. Whether it’s going home for dinner and their kids’ bedtimes (and then coming back to work or working from home), taking Friday night off (even if they have to come in on Saturday as a result), or a lunch workout routine (that might mean staying in the office an extra few hours), I’ve noticed that discipline and work ethic are not equivalent to asceticism.

Balance is not one of my personal strengths yet, but I see now that our clients need us to bring our very best to the table, and so do our families and colleagues. With that in mind, I’m taking my flight attendant’s advice to put my own mask on before helping others.

Jamie Claire Kiser is Zweig Group’s director of consulting. Contact her 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.