Greater than project management

Dec 10, 2018

As an industry, we generally leave a lot of money on the table and drive up costs with our lack of effectiveness in management and training.

When we think of improving, we often turn to project management. It makes sense. Projects are how money flows into and out of our organizations, and it seems like the natural location to recover lost dollars for our bottom lines.

Effective contracting, timely monitoring, reporting, and invoicing, as well as holding the line on scope, schedule, and budget until we receive a change order, is essential. However, this is really only a “fourth quarter” strategy. Focusing solely on these project details is also exhausting, requires almost perfect execution, and leaves too much to chance.

If we are looking for greater growth and profits, we need a high-level of project and business acumen for sure, but that alone is not enough. To succeed today and into the future, we also need an equally high-level of acumen when it comes to fulfilling our mission, and in how we treat our people, which is the focus of this piece.

Our fundamentals are off. Most organizations today are under-invested on the “talent side.” The “talent-client” relationship is fundamental to business. Without clients, we have no business. Without talent, we can’t serve clients, and we have no business. There is no way to separate them, and everything we do needs to support and enhance this relationship.

The reality for most organizations, however, is that a much greater effort is spent on client development, engagement, and relationship management than on employee development, engagement, and relationship management.

We have historically relied on salaries, bonuses, and the prospect of a handful of employees being able to “one day rise to the top” as organizational investments and motivators. These do not have the effect they once did.

Employee engagement is misunderstood and fragmented. We all care about ourselves. More than 40 years ago, Zig Ziglar reminded us that we are always dialed into the same radio station, WIIFM, short for “What’s in it for me?” In that regard, nothing’s changed from one generation to the next.

As leaders, we can’t be frustrated or complain about people who don’t automatically think or act like us. The way we care for and act toward others is what will help change behavior. It is also what will make us different, better, and allow us to have greater influence.

Employee engagement today is not about leaders or organizations, and it’s not just about projects, profits, salaries, and input. Employee engagement is about an employee’s state of mind. More specifically, it’s about how a career, an opportunity, a leader, an organization, and a supervisor can help an individual win at both work and life.

To improve our success, we need to rethink and redesign our employee engagement strategy. We also need to integrate aspects related to performance, perks, wellness, impact, teamwork, training, and growth.

To create a positive and high-performing culture, our best talent needs to want to be on our teams and with their leaders and supervisors.

In order to enjoy the bottom-line benefits of lower turnover and reduced absenteeism – and greater productivity and profitability that result from well designed and executed employee engagement – we need a higher degree of top-down awareness and action.

Our managers are not equipped and don’t have role models. Whether through our lack of awareness, our busy schedules, or both, most managers learn how to manage “on the fly,” through “trial by fire,” or “in the school of hard knocks.”

This can sound admirable, even nostalgic, until we take time to see how this less-than-ideal approach hurts our organizations, especially as we take note that:

  • Most managers continue to be promoted based on their technical skills.
  • Employees most often leave managers, not organizations.
  • The relationship with one’s direct supervisor has a 70 percent variance on employee engagement.

Why would we as leaders and organizations leave so much to chance? Why would we take the risk inherent with unplanned and costly employee turnover?

In addition to new training and redesigned incentive systems, “on-the-job-modeling” can be immediately effective in training our managers, while at the same time establishing our desired culture and a set of behaviors designed to help us all thrive.

Culture, like business strategy, diversity, innovation, and sustainability, needs to be owned and modeled by leadership. It cannot be delegated, ignored, tabled, or left to chance if we want to succeed.

Do all your principals model what we desire in terms of culture and behavior? Do they take time each week to connect with direct reports and engage in ways that drive results? If we are not doing these, how can we really be surprised when results fall short?

Five steps to take. To begin to design and implement our best “people strategy,” we can start with these five steps:

  1. Become more aware of what’s happening, and why, within our organizations as it relates to talent engagement and management.
  2. Care about culture and performance, desire to be different and better, and realize these are outcomes, not inputs or activities.
  3. Schedule a time this week and meet with each direct report.
  4. Learn more about your people. Model what it means to leverage your skills and position to create organization, client, and talent alignment through a combination of coaching, mentoring, and the removal of hurdles outside of their control. Then repeat.
  5. Update and amend your strategic plan, training, employee engagement, and talent management systems to further expand their reach and your success.

Strong markets don’t last forever, and sustainable growth and success don’t happen by accident.

To realize more success today and to position you and your firm for greater growth and profits in the future, we will need to augment our traditional project management skills with higher levels of “people skills” through well designed employee engagement and talent management practices.

Peter Atherton, P.E. is an industry insider having spent more than 20 years as a successful professional, principal, major owner, and member of the board of directors for a high-achieving AEC firm. Pete is now the president and founder of ActionsProve, LLC, author of Reversing Burnout: How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow! A Blueprint for Professionals and Business Owners, and the creator of the I.M.P.A.C.T. process. He can be reached at

Subscribe to The Zweig Letter for free.

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.