Keeping good people

Sep 19, 2021

Whether or not the AEC industry experiences a ‘great resignation,’ there are some things you should do to keep turnover low.

If you read any business media at all, you have probably heard of the upcoming “great resignation” we are doomed to go through soon. This is the idea that all the people who worked from home during the first round of COVID-19 have supposedly decided to look for new jobs.

I don’t know for certain whether firms in our business are going to go through that or not, but I do know that keeping good people when facing unprecedented demand from clients is top of mind for most owners of AEC firms.

The question is how best to do that? There is no simple answer, nor one panacea that will solve all of your current and future staff turnover problems. I could talk about the importance of having a purpose-driven organization, practicing shared business planning, using open-book management, and investing in training until I am blue in the face. And sure – paying everyone a whole lot more could keep some people there you might otherwise lose, but that’s not always an option. However, there are some other things you can do that will most likely lead to lower turnover than if you don’t do them.

Here are some of those “other things” that I think you really need to think about to help keep turnover down:

  1. Who you spend time with shows who you think is important. This may seem obvious to many of you, but some principals and managers still don’t get it. You cannot always interact with your partners, clients, and executive assistants, and ignore just about everyone else in your company. Get up and walk around and talk to some other folks. Invite someone else to lunch. Call someone who is working from home and ask them how they are feeling. Invite someone to a meeting they may not normally be a part of. Ask a lot of questions and actually listen to what people are telling you.
  2. Who you promote to the outside world says who you care about. Do you only promote yourself and your fellow partners in your internal and external marketing communications and social media? Or do you go way down into your ranks to look for accomplishments of other people that you can tout. Doing the latter has a lot more value than you think.
  3. People want feedback, so give it to them! I am on the record plenty of places as someone who is no fan of the typical performance appraisal processes that are considered good management practice for firms in this business. That said, your people desperately want feedback on how they are doing. So give it to them! Use positive reinforcement every chance you can. And for your best people who can take it (real honesty, that is), also be willing to tell them what they may not want to hear but need to hear if they are doing something that is holding them back. Your ability to deliver negative feedback and not destroy the other person’s self esteem but rather have them think you truly care about them is critical to keeping really great people working there. That was done for me many times by my bosses and I am grateful for the feedback I no doubt needed to hear at the time I got it.
  4. Promises you make have got to be kept. I’m talking about promises to sell someone ownership – and promises to promote someone – and promises to meet or call someone that you may make. Not keeping any promise you make, whether intentional or unintentional, will really hurt you. It leads to people thinking you don’t care about them. This happens too often in our business. I have heard countless tales of good people who quit because promises made to them weren’t kept.
  5. How flexible you are is crucial. I’m already hearing rumblings of firms in this business that either have now, or are planning to issue mandates that everyone come back to the office just like we did before COVID. I think hard and fast rules like this will backfire on you. You will lose people that you otherwise may not lose if you don’t give everyone you can the flexibility to work from wherever they like – especially those who proved they could be productive working that way. I know many may disagree with me, so ignore me at your own peril!
  6. Your personal interaction style is beyond critical. Do you frequently interrupt other people when they are talking? Do you make people feel inferior when they ask questions? Are you subtly sexist in any way that you treat members of the opposite sex? Are you always looking at your phone in meetings? Do you accept all phone calls no matter what you are doing? I have committed ALL of these crimes myself in the past, but have hopefully learned something over the last 63 years and am trying to do better. If you do any of these things, you had better change or you are going to lose some of the good people who work for and with you.
  7. Being secretive works against you. There are some people in AEC firms who work at the principal level and who just love knowing things that they keep from the very people who will be affected by those things. Why do that? It weakens trust with everyone else. Don’t do it. Share everything you can about your business, and your plans, and what is happening with your clients honestly and openly with everyone you can. No one likes surprises, and secrets lead to surprises.

None of these seven points may seem that profound in and of themselves. But doing all of them will improve your chances of keeping your best people – those who have proved themselves as valuable contributors over time, those who have a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge, and those who would be costly and difficult to replace.

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

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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.