Mastering the basics

Nov 26, 2023

To become an employer of choice in AEC, you must prioritize getting the fundamentals right before investing in advanced employee programs.

In a universe where talent scarcity is the existential threat to the life of any AEC business, the reputation as an “employer-of-choice” has become more necessity than aspiration. As such, the battle lines have been drawn across benefit offerings, paid leaves, and feel-good employee programs that may or may not materialize in meaningful ways. From the people side of the business, this threat has created an insatiable appetite for more and new, but often without the budget to build, implement, and maintain. What results is dilution, where there is a lot being done, but little being done well.

It’s quite common to become overwhelmed by this chaos without even noticing that things started going wrong a while ago. However, eventually, the chaos takes over completely, and you need to take a step back and reset.

We tend to underestimate the importance of running a business well and its impact on the work lives of staff. The idea of “competence” in and of itself does not sound splashy or sexy in company mission or value statements, but it embodies the central talent challenge of our business: How does the business empower our staff to lead successful and meaningful professional lives?

To this end, I argue that we must first master the basics before building out the superlative. Below are some examples that may seem simplistic but are really quite challenging for many companies:

  • Get day one right. Few things are as corrosive as having new hires show up to find that we’re not ready for them. Unforced errors such as late or missing equipment (computers), inability to login to company systems, absent supervisors, or lack of a workstation can leave new hires seriously questioning their decision to join the firm.
  • Get pay and benefits right the first time. People who don’t manage payroll or benefits generally don’t understand how difficult these processes can be; they assume it all magically happens. The reality is that there are a lot of moving parts to get staff set up (usually in multiple systems) to allow for them to be paid and receive benefits. Messing up their first paycheck can sour an employee’s attitude very quickly, particularly if the company shows no urgency in remedying.
  • Demonstrate competence in project management and firm management. We can never underestimate the power and value in running our business like a business. Indeed, individuals in the AEC industry often acknowledge that their training primarily focused on design rather than business management. This statement is used as a justification for instances of failure and underperformance. It emphasizes the importance of setting a successful example throughout the organization and of providing training to equip our design professionals with business acumen as well.

Please don’t read this as an argument that investment in innovative and exciting people programs is a waste of resources. I sincerely believe that any program that brings value to staff and contributes positively to company culture is worth the investment. My argument is simply that we must get the basics right first. If we don’t, the cool extras won’t have the impact or value for which we hope. 

Kevin Brown is chief people officer at AE Works. 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.