Knowing what you want

Jul 15, 2015

Sometimes firm owners feign ignorance to avoid spending time, money necessary to achieve their goals.

​It’s been said before: “You can’t get what you want if you don’t know what that is.” Nowhere is that more true than when you own a business. If you cannot articulate where you want that business to go and what you want it to be like, you’re sunk. However true this may be, I see a lot of A/E and environmental firms with owners who don’t seem to really know what they want – at least they act like they don’t. Here’s some of what we see/hear on a daily/weekly/monthly basis:
  1. “I want to grow, but I don’t know if I really want to grow.” This conflict is present in half or more firm owners. Growth sounds kinda good because it makes the firm more valuable and boosts the ego, yet it requires spending money on things that may or may not pay off. That lack of certainty, coupled with a career path that, perhaps, has an end in sight, results in inaction.
  2. “I want to hire people, but I don’t want to spend what it takes on recruiting or pay-wise to actually hire someone.” Common problem! We see a lot of people paying lip-service to the idea of hiring but not succeeding at it, because it is expensive. The owners, once again, may be closer to “harvest” time than they are “planting” time. So, the inaction gives the owners the appearance of not knowing what they really want.
  3. “I know we need better clients/projects/fees, but I don’t really want to spend any more on marketing.”This situation exists in most firms for two reasons. One, many firms don’t need more work now. They have all they can handle and can’t/won’t hire more people to do it. The second problem is most owners don’t really believe there’s a link between marketing spending and results. So, we talk about it but don’t actually do anything, giving the appearance of not knowing what we really want.
  4. “I’d like to get out of the business, but I don’t know what I’d do if I did get out.” This condition also exists in many firms with many owners. They really are tired of the grind but don’t know what else to do with their time. Perhaps their spouses would drive them nuts with too many “honey do’s,” or they’re just more interested in remaining productive than they are in eating dinner at 4 o’clock. Either way, their lack of ability to decide what they want drives the other principals crazy and may create ownership- and leadership-transition problems.
  5. “I want my people to act like owners, but I don’t want to have any more owners.” Again, a common situation. These people want to have their cake and eat it, too. Even if you can’t make everyone who you’d like to be an owner into an owner, you can share information, bring people into certain decisions, and treat them with the respect you’d give an actual owner, and you can pay them accordingly. We see a lot of indecision here.
  6. “I want my people to be better managers, but I won’t give them any training nor any time to actually be a manager.”The desire to make employees better managers clearly isn’t strong enough to actually invest in people. If it were, they’d do it.
  7. “I want my people to take more responsibility for dealing with clients, but I don’t want them taking over any of MY clients.” Again, how badly do these owners really want to pass the baton? If you did make that decision, you would pass the baton. Common problem. Don’t be one of these people!
So do people in this business really not know what they want? Or are they just unwilling to be honest about it and act accordingly? You tell me...
MARK ZWEIG is founder and CEO of 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.