Promote risk-taking

Feb 13, 2017

For the next generation of leaders to be successful, they’ll need a mindset sculpted by strategy, new ideas, and a willingness to embrace the unknown.

I routinely hear AEC firm leaders express frustration about finding the next generation of leaders. Their feelings are understandable when so many firms continue to be led by founding or legacy partners who are in their late 50s or early 60s and want to move on to a different life stage.

Their comments on the next generation include:

  • “So many of our people don’t have the DNA to be entrepreneurial.”
  • “They’re so risk averse.”
  • “They just don’t get the broader picture of business.”
  • “They focus on the bottom instead of the top line.”
  • “They just sit in the comfort of their desks doing projects instead of going out there to see what’s happening.”

Sound familiar? To be sure, there are some serious practical issues that complicate leadership transition: The Great Recession eroded firm coffers needed to repurchase senior partner stock, downward pressure on fees in an increasingly fickle market hurts profitability, and leadership development was deferred due to slashed recession era training budgets. These are real issues that must be addressed.

However, there is a larger leadership transition issue. That issue is building a leadership mindset. It is trickier to solve, as it involves human behavior, and yet it’s essential to developing the next generation of leaders.

Leadership simply defined is about discovering strategic ideas that lift the organization to a better place and bringing others along to make them happen. It takes you away from the well-worn routines of business life into corridors not seen before, unknown places that hold endless promise, ambiguity, and trepidation. In short, to succeed as a leader you must pursue ideas whose outcome is unknown. That can be scary, and as a leader you need to be OK with that. That is the leadership mindset.

For most mortals, the pursuit of scariness sounds, well, silly or ill advised. Who in their right mind would want to move in the direction of discomfort? Answer: someone who dares to dream and believes that the bumpy road to get there is worth taking.

How does this apply to A/E firm leadership? Think of the possibilities for growth that need attention to build a future. Some of them are:

  • What work will our clients value enough to pay higher fees?
  • How do we teach our professionals to listen actively to clients not only to deliver better work, but also to discover broader opportunities to serve them?
  • How do we build a culture that attracts the best talent and motivates them to stay and do generative work, without us having the ability to pay them more money than our competition?

Finding strategic ideas to address these issues requires testing them. It also involves adopting new behaviors for their implementation. Next gen leaders often find themselves in the awkward place of motivating team members to experiment with new initiatives with no guarantee of success, holding difficult conversations when others react cynically to anything new, and giving full throated praise when teams achieve success, of any size. In other words, new initiatives push people outside of their comfort zone. That is where many next gen leaders stall out.

How can a firm support its next gen leaders to take the risks that come with new ideas and behaviors, while recognizing they will enter the zone of discomfort?

Here are some important starting points:

  • Make it a priority for next gen leaders to generate strategic ideas that will move the organization forward.
  • Help them identify personal motivators to give them the drive to push through the discomfort of trying new ideas and behaviors.
  • Recognize that defensive behaviors are normal and appear in many forms, including micromanagement, personalizing, and conflict avoidance.
  • Make it a strength to admit defensive behaviors and to deal with them openly.
  • Work with them on behavioral approaches to manage their discomfort while testing new ideas.
  • Celebrate every gawky effort toward creating the future.

Developing next gen leaders calls upon the current leaders to promote the risk-taking that comes with finding new ideas and to support them while they work through the discomfort of making them happen. That is how the future gets built.

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 15 years has coached executives from virtually every industry. She is the author of the recent book, The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. She can be reached 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.