Practical leadership advice

Oct 14, 2019

“Being a leader means you have to keep growing and learning. We can all change. This includes you!”

Many people who run AEC firms end up in that position almost by accident. They either quit their jobs and start a new business because they are unhappy with their employers, or get promoted into the job as the result of a transition where they are the best of the available candidates inside the company. Even if neither of these describes the circumstances that led to leading a company in this business, the odds are the leader comes from either a design or technical background and has had little or no formal management or business training.

If this describes you, let me give you the benefit of my experience acquired over more than 39 years as a student of leadership in this industry:

  • Focus on the whole company. Bad leaders divide and pit individuals and groups against each other. They also micro-analyze each piece for its profitability or lack thereof and act like that is good management. While it may be necessary to put scrutiny on a business unit or department, good leaders keep the focus on the whole. An AEC business is not necessarily the sum of its parts. Every unit will have its ups and downs. The most important thing is to have a profitable COMPANY.
  • Don’t keep a lot of secrets. Secrets breed mistrust. Trust is essential to your ability to get the support of the troops. No one can do it alone. You need lots of help. The more help the better.
  • Show humility. Admitting mistakes is essential for all of us. We all screw up. But most people will forgive you if you CAN admit you messed up or made a bad call. And poking fun at yourself is an excellent tactic for showing humility and getting people to like you if you are a leader.
  • Set an example. Follow policies. Don’t be wasteful. Work hard. Do the right thing. Earn your keep. Be nice to the little guy. All of this and more is critical to the example you set for everyone else. You want them to look up to you. Be worthy of it.
  • Give credit to everyone else that you can. It’s always best to elevate your workers. Give them the accolades – in some cases even when they may not fully deserve it. You want to motivate them and encourage them, not demotivate them. Some design professionals struggle with this one.
  • Be responsive. I sound like a broken record here. But you have to return calls and emails promptly. The sooner the better. And be on time for meetings, too. All of these things show respect for other people, both inside and outside of the organization.
  • Learn how to communicate. That’s something we all need to keep working on. Being succinct, clear and direct. Avoiding buzzwords. Knowing when to talk and when to shut up. Choosing your words carefully in all matters because you can see that words really do matter a great deal. It is a skill that can be learned.
  • Confront what has to be confronted. Doing the really ugly stuff that no one else can do is so important! All of the best leaders I have observed in this business over the years had to deal with matters such as unproductive or cancerous partners, bad employees, failed transitions, abusive clients, clients who won’t pay, and so much more. Avoiding these things won’t win you any followers, that’s for certain.

There’s more. Much more. I could devote whatever time and space we have to this topic for years. The bottom line is, being a leader means you have to keep growing and learning. We can all change. This includes you!

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. 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.