Moving mountains

Oct 15, 2018

Today’s AEC industry is experiencing significant growth, demanding that our leaders evolve and communicate far beyond the check-the-box approach.

Have you ever asked yourself, “What the heck is real leadership?” This is the question that prompted our mid-sized, Orlando-based firm to investigate and find a few answers. Starting with the premise that we had no idea what leadership was allowed us to look at this topic free of general bias. We strategically selected team members across the company with differing backgrounds, ages, character profiles, and skill sets to dive in and own it.

Our initial road map looked like the following:

  1. Identify the need
  2. Research
  3. Find the experts
  4. Get them trained
  5. Implement
  6. Repeat to ensure 360-degree reviews and check-backs at each stage

During our process, many of the companies we read about and talked with struggled with two common issues in understanding the needs of their company:

  1. Communicating with people is much different than communicating to contractors via the development of construction documents.
  2. Accountability plays a significant role in moving onto the next step.

We can talk about accountability another day. For now, let’s take a deeper look at issue No. 1, communication. In many firms, regardless of the industry, communicating has always been a key component to accomplishing goals, up and down the organization. The common thread that we seem to forget is that it’s not about the business lines we sell or even the quality in which we deliver them. It’s about the people.

In the AEC business, we find ourselves struggling to meet client expectations that are many times not clearly known. We have difficulty developing concepts with teams that self-limit their own creativity due to self-negotiating what they believe is wanted by the client, and delivering against unreasonable deadlines that stifle critical thought. We as an industry have somehow fallen into selling time instead of being that truly trusted advisor.

Dale Carnegie once wrote, “Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation, for your character is what you are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” He was right, of course, and his sage quote is applicable to our industry. One’s ability to express an idea or hear another’s perspective is our most powerful tool in the leadership arsenal – as long as it’s not motivated by personal gain or the demands of maintaining one’s reputation. This skill, which to me is the equivalent of E=MC2, can move mountains and positively affect the bottom line for any firm.

To combat the epidemic of poor communication, I have been on a personal mission to find out all I can, from Paul Ekman’s non-verbal coursework, reading countless books on communicating, and investing an inordinate amount of time watching numerous communication-related blogs and TED Talks. Personally, I started to see a common theme – place your ego in the back seat and start talking to people. To be successful at this, you must accept their quirks and, above all, be authentic. All of us have a desire to be liked, cared for, and respected. And all of it starts with communication, and bringing our “whole self” to work each day.

Donald Miller is director of project management at Cuhaci & Peterson. He can be reached 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.