It’s not the people, it’s you

Nov 18, 2019

If you’re struggling to build a productive team, it might be time to take a long look in the mirror.

If you’re not getting what you want or need out of your people, the problem is likely not with them, but with you. When was the last time you truly looked at yourself in the mirror and questioned who you are? In this industry, or in any industry, where we are reliant upon the relationships and trust that are formed, too few of our so-called leaders step up to the responsibility that comes along with leadership.

I travel around the U.S. and Canada helping to design strategies for AEC firms, speaking about project management and leadership, and coaching executives in any number of challenges. You hear various iterations of the same topics. I’m asked, “How do I get the best out of my people?” like they are trying to wring a towel. They say things like, “We just have to get the right people on the bus/team,” like you can simply go about hiring and firing individuals to create the culture you are looking for. It’s as if we are searching for that perfect person who will present themselves with exactly the right amount of work ethic, motivation, skill set, and attitude. Oh, and then there is the millennial problem. Apparently, they are all unleadable. If we feel that way now, how will we react to the iGen? Maybe the problem isn’t an entire generation. Maybe the problem is you.

I challenge us all to take ownership of this problem and what our responsibility is to our people. As a leader, you are less accountable for projects and clients and more responsible for the people who take care of those things. You are responsible for creating a culture and environment where those people can thrive. We should be asking the question, “What can I do to help my team perform at their natural best,” or perhaps even better, simply, “How can I help?” Trust is of paramount importance, yet I still hear leaders discount this with their words and in their actions. You cannot possibly expect exceptional performance, innovation, or service without building trust. Why does it seem like everyone is clocking out as soon as they hit their 40 hours for the week? Again, look at yourself, the leadership you are modeling, and the environment you are creating.

So, where do you start? It can be difficult to take a true assessment of who you are and how you operate without bias or without coming up with a rationalization for why it had to happen that way. This is the first step. Luckily, there are many tools out there to help you with this, such as StrengthsFinder 2.0, 16personalities, or DISC. These can act as a good starting point for you and your team but should not be utilized as a substitute for deep introspection. Once you’ve taken account of where you stand today, write down – yes, write – the qualities and skill sets that you are lacking so you can map out a plan on how to improve. There are a number of leadership styles and there is not a perfect one for every situation. I’m not talking about styles, though. I’m speaking of who you are at your core. That is something that is much harder to change, but it can be done. Start with qualities like trust, integrity, commitment, and empathy. Then, look at skill sets that affect environmental or behavioral things like communication, decision-making, inspiration, creativity, or accountability.

My final challenge to you is this: Elevate your thoughts and actions. Take the time to look inwardly and examine who you are and why you do what you do. With rare exceptions, everyone comes to work every day striving for success. Everyone wants to feel fulfilled and desires professional satisfaction. Let’s challenge ourselves to buck the precepts of how things have always been done. We are the leaders now and it’s up to us to define how we’d like to lead so that we can create a legacy where the industry, and more importantly the people within it, can serve at the highest level.

Phil Keil is director of strategy services at Zweig Group. Contact him 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.