Get the “Best Firms” advantage

Nov 14, 2021

Examining the top 10 differences between leading and average Best Firms To Work For.

We are fortunate to be an extremely busy industry – AEC firm backlog is at an all-time high. According to Zweig Group’s 2021 Financial Performance Survey Report of AEC Firms, average backlog is more than 12 months, and all this while we are in the midst of the “great resignation,” where many employees are moving to greener pastures. Naturally, the thing on all our minds is how to retain our most valuable asset, our people – how else do we deliver on all that backlog, right?

So, what really separates the best from the rest? Where are the greener pastures, what are these firms doing differently, and what are they doing better? Every year, Zweig Group’s Best Firms To Work For draws entries from AEC firms across the United States. Every single Best Firm To Work For participant answers more than 100 questions, scoring their firm on a scale of 1 to 5. This data is valuable information for firms to understand employee sentiment and perception and can assist firms in making decisions that drive recruitment and retention.

For this article we looked at the average Best Firms To Work For score versus the top five Best Firms To Work For scores to assess the biggest differences between these two groups; that is, to identify the areas where firms could make the most impact in terms of employee sentiment.

The results were astounding: You can see the top 10 differences between the average and top five Best Firms To Work For scores, in order of greatest to least difference below.

This is an incredibly significant finding, that out of more than 100 questions on our survey, thousands of employees all agree that the top 10 considerations for a choice employer revolve around compensation (predictably), but perhaps not so predictably, a greater degree of what are essentially aspects of performance management. This is ironic, because in my experience, we in the AEC industry don’t exactly excel at direct feedback or performance management. In fact, we’re downright indirect, and tend to focus on qualitative features in our annual performance reviews, rather than looking objectively at metrics and achievements. We’re just too nice, and we sometimes avoid these challenging conversations. The thing is, we also like to be really great at what we do, and so do our employees.

The data shows that our employees crave feedback, mentoring, and the opportunity to improve. And they feel that the best employers give them this, as well as ensuring a competitive salary. From Zweig Group’s Principals, Partners & Owners Survey Report of AEC Firms, our data on principals’ time management shows that principals in the AEC industry spend 12 percent of time mentoring but feel they should be spending 17 percent of their time mentoring.

This is an area of our industry that’s shockingly easy to improve if the right steps are taken. The issue we see most frequently is that there’s a disconnect, and what it comes down to is really a lack of systems thinking in the overall performance management approach. This approach includes setting expectations (qualitative and quantitative) for each position, which need to directly correspond to the performance management program, and then tying both of those to the overall compensation structure.

The solution is multifaceted and holistic, and is designed to create the behaviors that make your firm a successful business. Development of a robust benefit, compensation, and bonus package, coupled with performance management strategies that develop and grow the employee, will in the end promote and incentivize behaviors that benefit the growth and development of the organization.

If you’re interested in learning more about compensation in the AEC industry, check out the following resources from Zweig Group:

  • Mid-Year Update 2021 Salary Report of AEC Firms: This contains data gathered after January 2021 and is designed to help firms evaluate how salaries changed during the first half of 2021. This publication includes salary information on nearly every job role at engineering, architecture, and environmental firms. Unlike Zweig Group’s traditional Salary Reports, all regions of the U.S. are included in this publication.
  • 2021 Best Performing Firms in the AEC Industry Report: How do the most successful architecture, engineering, and environmental consulting firms do business? How do firms that excel in growth, financial performance, profitability, excellent workplaces, or marketing stand out from the rest? Find out with this report. This new publication covers every area of AEC firm management. Whether you want answers to questions on financial performance, marketing, information technology, project management, compensation, billing practices, or other issues, you’ll find it all in this one report. Statistics are shown for award-winning, fastest-growing, and highest-profit firms, separately from the overall sample so you can benchmark your firm relative to the most successful firms in the industry.

Stephanie Warino is a licensed professional and an advisor with Zweig Group. Contact her for systems-level thinking evaluations of compensation and performance programs 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.