Getting a Real Commitment From Your People

Oct 31, 2005

I was talking with a woman recently who started her own design firm a couple years ago. Her passion for her work and her business was fantastic. She thought about it/planned/worked every waking hour. She said it wasn’t work for her— the business was “who she was” and impossible to separate from her personal life. While she has been successful thus far, one of her biggest frustrations is that she cannot get the same commitment and interest from the employees she’s hired. She was having the biggest problem with the young people, but felt much the same about the experienced workers she’d hired. They don’t feel like it’s their business. They aren’t treating clients and subconsultants the way she thinks they should be treated. They don’t have the same care for the work or commitment level she has. When I probed into what she is doing to build this kind of commitment, I found out, that like a lot of design firm owners, she is doing very little— in fact, nothing. She gives them a paycheck and hopes that her enthusiasm will somehow will be contagious and spread to her staff. I gave her some suggestions that I thought might be helpful to all of our readers— those with new and mature firms alike. Here they are: Do a joint business plan. Normally, she and her husband, also a small business owner, did the annual business plan themselves with no input from staff. They then didn’t share the plan with anyone, either. I suggested that she start soliciting ideas from all her employees as a part of the planning process. Let some of them suggest their own goals. Share the final plan with everyone. And then go beyond that to share the RESULTS with everyone. This will help build enthusiasm for the business. Make examples out of those who show the commitment. These are the people who have to become the heroes of the firm. Tell their stories firm-wide. Point them out in a company meeting. Give them spot bonuses. Promote them to positions of greater responsibility. Make it clear that doing the right thing when it comes to serving clients and the needs of the company does not go unnoticed— that it’s the way to get ahead. Create a firm-wide bonus plan. There’s no reason you cannot share the profits with everyone in the firm. It doesn’t have to be a once-a-year affair. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money, either. But just saying that you will put X% of the money above and beyond break even every month or every quarter into a bonus program for ALL employees shows that you aren’t selfish and that if the firm does well, everyone does well. This step, too, helps build commitment on a broader level. Be careful what you say and do as the owner. You cannot say things like “this is my firm.” Instead, say “our firm.” You cannot flaunt your success through major purchases or lavish vacations and expect it not to cause some resentment. You cannot ever refer to employees as “not getting it” when talking with other people outside the firm. You have to be very careful that you don’t turn anyone off through your words or actions. Turning people off is as much an issue as turning them on— probably a bigger one— in design firms today. We all have, for the most part, good people to start with. They are smart, they are creative, and they wouldn’t have gotten out of school or where they are in their careers if they couldn’t do something worthwhile. Our challenge, as owners, is to keep from turning them off, especially the newcomers who are most susceptible to demotivation. I’m not big on employee of the month programs, special parking places, or dinners bought out. These are too condescending for the majority of professionals to be turned on by. Do you have other ideas you’d like to share with our readers? Send them on! Originally published 10/31/2005

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.