Knowledge is never automatic

Apr 16, 2018

The second someone becomes a principal, they (erroneously) think they know everything there is to know about their industry and how their firm fits in.

In the Fiddler on the Roof song, “If I Were a Rich Man,” Tevye sings, “When you’re rich they think you really know!”

The challenge I often see is that too many AEC firm owners seem to believe – by virtue of their status as owners – that they know everything there is to know about their industry and how their firm fits in. In addition, they seem to believe this knowledge came to them in one lightning strike, during the first sleep period after they became a principal.

So when they woke up the next morning, they suddenly knew everything they needed to know to run their part of the operation and make decisions for the overall firm.

When an engineer or architect becomes a firm principal, nobody hounds him/her about billable hours anymore; his/her primary responsibilities become firm management, client relationships, and marketing/business development. He/she no longer designs projects, and manages only what I call “signature projects,” those projects large and/or significant enough to become firmly tied to the firm’s reputation for the foreseeable future and possibly longer.

Now – suddenly – these people who were previously focused only on billable hours are in charge of marketing, overhead hours, with a marketing manager and staff they must direct.

So what is their first decision?

They decide that marketing can’t be that important because it’s an overhead function. So they skip the weekly marketing meetings. If one or two of them miss a meeting, decisions will be made without them. And – as we often joke – the people who don’t attend get the worst assignments. In the end, none of the principals attend, so marketing staff suffers from a leadership vacuum wherein they get no instruction, no guidance, no praise, but a boatload of criticism when the principals finally realize that their backlog is getting dangerously low.

Now, the principals panic, and they want to propose on every opportunity they find. One of my past employers used to call that approach, “Shoot at everything that moves!” I call it, “Shoot first, aim later!”

First step: the principals recognized that there was a problem.

So far, so good. Then it falls apart.

Second step: the principals meet often to ascribe blame for the marketing problem. This is totally unproductive, especially since they all share blame equally but don’t want to admit or accept that.

Finally, they appoint one principal to be the marketing/business development principal. They think this solves their problem because they still think their problem is “who do we blame,” and that the person accepting this appointment automatically accepts the blame.

Then, the principal meets with the marketing manager and gets schooled on all the activities involved in marketing/business development.

Finally, the marketing principal puts his/her working brain into gear and asks:

  • What do I just let you handle?
  • What do I need to understand about what you’re handling?
  • What do I need to do myself?
  • What do I need to learn in order to do that?

For the next month, the marketing manager and principal meet for 10 minutes every day to coordinate, mostly for the manager to answer the principal’s questions about activities and processes. The second month, the principal meets every week with the entire marketing staff to learn how the group functions, what the group is working on, what challenges they anticipate, and what assistance and decisions they need to move ahead successfully.

At the start of month three, the marketing principal schedules weekly meetings for all the principals and the marketing manager. Now, with backlog still dropping, it is easy to convince the other principals that marketing needs their serious attention.

And the first big turn-around success in making marketing an activity all principals recognize as important?

Just before the start of the New Year, the marketing principal and marketing manager call a meeting of principals, discipline and market sector leaders, and senior project managers to develop a strategic plan for the next year. Everyone attends.

Bernie Siben, CPSM, is owner and principal consultant of The Siben Consult, LLC, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultancy located in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at 559-901-9596 or at

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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.