Feb 04, 2019

Our success, as people and as businesses, depends on the quality and speed of our response to problems and opportunities.

This play on the word responsibility is not new, but it has never been more appropriate or relevant than it is to today’s AEC firms.

We live and work in a world where our ability to respond effectively – to our clients, to our colleagues, to our family and friends, and even to our own deeper needs and aspirations – is being tested, threatened, and blocked at every turn. Our survival and, ultimately, our success as people and businesses depend on the quality and speed of our response to problems and opportunities. Yet, there is surprisingly little guidance on how to cultivate the right habits and improve our firms in this critical skill set.

We thought it might be useful to consider this important issue in context with what we’ve learned from the nation’s most successful AEC firms.

  • At the most basic level, the best performing firms are known for their responsiveness. It seems almost too obvious to mention but “professional services” is a phrase assigning equal weight to both words. We exist to satisfy client needs, and the importance of speed, courteousness, a constructive attitude, openness, and the integrity of our responses is widely accepted – but only sporadically do we find it institutionalized in AEC firms. Our experience shows that companies that fail to satisfy – and lose – their clients are more likely to fail for these rudimentary service issues than for their professional capabilities. Great leaders obsess over client centeredness and demand client responsiveness; they hire and fire and train over it. There are often policies that no client call, text, or email goes 24 hours without a response; and the company folklore celebrates the stories of heroism in solving the unforeseen problem, going above and beyond in their efforts to delight their clients. However, it is also important to bear in mind that response-ability is not purely reactive. It embraces and demands proactivity. Taking the initiative, anticipating issues, and staying ahead of the situation requires a predisposition for action.
  • Response-ability is enhanced by mutual relationships. The old saw about the client saying “jump” and you asking “how high?” is not only demeaning but also harms the quality of the relationship. Buyer/seller, dominant/submissive, master/servant, boss/subordinate, and other one-sided relationship models destroy value because they undermine trust, the foundation upon which every successful project depends. Responsibility implies a mere obligation, but response-ability emphasizes deeper human connections. Relationships built on mutual respect allow a great AEC firm to balance pleasing clients and producing for clients, and there can be a subtle but important distinction between the two outcomes. We can’t neglect to acknowledge how our ability to respond has been impacted by those marvelous little digital devices – and because we carry them around with us all the time, responsiveness is now not only instantaneous but also a 24/7 proposition. Is technology strengthening the quality of human relationships on which our notion of response-ability is based? It’s debatable, and there is a growing body of evidence that the culture of distraction fostered by our tablets and smartphones undermines our real connection with people and events. Even the lowest standard of etiquette is violated by constantly checking our cell phone when we are having a conversation. What we are communicating is that whatever may be happening on that little screen is more important than another living, breathing, speaking human being’s presence. Response-ability replaces a culture of distraction with a culture of intention.
  • Response-ability is ultimately an expression of our autonomy. One constantly recurring theme in the comments we hear from clients in our seminars, roundtables, and workshops is the feeling of being victims of circumstance. It’s understandable given the macro environment – economics, demographics, climate, and politics, to name just a few of the forces that are clearly beyond our control. But response-ability means choosing how we handle these challenges and opportunities. Choice is arguably the greatest of all the gifts of our existence. We can choose to help others for the sheer joy of helping, and choose to grow rather than stagnate; we can choose to be open rather than defensive and judgmental. It’s remarkable how in time we become creators of circumstance rather than its victims.

The AEC firms that survive and thrive are those that exercise their response-ability in the deepest and most profound sense of the words. How will you choose to respond today and tomorrow?

Melissa Swann is Zweig Group’s events manager. She 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.