More On What Makes for Success

Jan 26, 1998

Although I sometimes wish I were more clever or entertaining than I am, writing about what makes A/E/P or environmental firms more successful is what you pay me to do. Occasionally I think I sound like a broken record. I have to keep hammering away at the same themes over and over. The A/E/P and environmental business is a relatively simple one. Why doesn’t everyone get it? Do we need new ways to get owners and managers to do what we know will work? Uh oh— now I’m starting to sound like many of the CEOs of firms we consult to! Here are some observations I have made about the really hot firms in this business I have visited recently: They aren’t aiming at the competition. This is really interesting. Whether it’s a hot big ‘A’-small ‘E’ firm, a mega-sized water/wastewater firm doing work on all continents, a small, regional environmental firm, or a 12-person office interiors firm, these successful companies (fast revenue growth, profitable, etc.) are not aiming at beating someone else. Instead, they are redefining what ‘this business’ is and gaining a big competitive advantage in the process. The late Sochiro Honda (the deceased founder of Honda Motor Company) was quoted once as saying something such as “just because we can sell 400,000 of something doesn’t mean this company ought to be making it.” I think that’s an interesting way to look at the market, and it’s not dissimilar to the view expressed to me by some of the best companies in our industry. They don’t just do what their clients tell them to. The marketing concept (e.g., you should provide the services your clients want and need) is occasionally all wet. Successful firms understand that their clients cannot always tell them what they want or need. An effective consultant defines that for the client and helps them like no other can. That’s why they hired you, right? And if not, is that really a client you want to work for? If you are a decent firm that has invested what it takes in computers, office space, and staff to provide truly excellent service, can you afford to work for a client who only sees you and your staff as another pair of hands and a strong back? If you have one of those client relationships right now, I think you’ll find it’s your low-profit work. There is a leader and the leader is respected. I have seen few examples of where leadership by committee is the way to go. It is equally rare to see a weak leader, who is more concerned about not ruffling anyone’s feathers than getting something accomplished, heading up a successful firm. Likewise, I have rarely observed an example of a greedy, immoral character who will do anything to make a buck lead a company to long-term success. What I do see working is having someone who sets a good example, works hard, tries to do the right thing, gets ugly when he has to (but is nice otherwise), and always takes the high road if given a choice of more than one path. They know what numbers to track. I am referring to the key performance “metrics.” Successful companies have a real sense of what those need to be. They track them constantly. If these metrics show any sign of deterioration, they do what it takes to get them back where they want them. And another thing— the leaders of these firms don’t get bored with this necessary maintenance role. Keeping the numbers on track is one of their top priorities. They have a high staff work ethic and a low staff turnover. They can pull this off because everyone (or most everyone) feels pretty good about being there. They know they are part of a winning team. They will get their share of the spoils resulting from the firm’s success. They know the owners aren’t taking out more than they deserve. They feel good about the company investing in what it will take to sustain success. It’s fun working there. They feel confident that they will be given new chances to learn and grow. They are in synch with what the leaders of this successful enterprise are trying to make out of the firm. They constantly invest in something new. Whether it’s new services, new offices, new key hires, new information technology, or new types of marketing, there is a lot of investment in the company. Successful companies are always investing so the future gets easier, not harder. When we get the call to help a firm that is not so successful, especially in this great economy that we currently have, we often discover that they don’t fare so well on the above-listed points. How does your firm stack up? Originally published 1/26/1998

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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.