Scale your business, not your people (Part 1)

Jul 08, 2019

Do you want to survive the next year, the next recession, and the ongoing reset of the workplace, the marketplace, and the recruiting space?

Since the Great Recession, AEC leaders have been fixated on growth – and for good reason. But even when the “going is good,” much of that growth is doing damage and putting leadership teams and firms at risk.

Our current growth model is a problem and won’t serve us well going forward either.

Greater scale is what’s needed to build our business to win today and over the long-term.

Growth versus scale. Business growth and scale are often confused.

Business growth can simply be an increase in revenue. Most often this requires an increase in expenses to support and sustain the new growth. For us in the AEC industry, that support is typically in the form of hiring additional talent to produce the new work.

Business scale is different. It is a process of increasing revenue with little to no increase in expenses while maintaining high quality. Scaling a product-based business is typically easier than a service-based business.

The problem with growth. In general, we have a “one-to-many” distributed influence approach to growth in the AEC industry.

To progress professionally and generate profit, key individuals must take on increasing levels of responsibility and be leveraged over more clients and more staff. As teams build-out, the “one” becomes more standardized and has less day-to-day interactions with clients and non-direct-report members of the team by design. This limiting connection, however, is becoming more problematic (more on that later in this series).

At the same time, each “one” often carries the burden of at least two roles as “doer-seller,” or “principal-manager,” or “manager-engineer.” The problem, especially today, is that our best talent is disproportionately burdened by this model. Workloads for most are skyrocketing, clients are demanding more, budgets are tighter, there’s less new talent, and there’s less time to fully engage and develop the talent we have.

Even though much of the work is getting done and profits are high, this is not “scale.” Operating in this mode is not sustainable and there is a cost – in the short-term for talent and culture, and longer-term for production in terms of talent burnout, disengagement, and the bottom-line in addressing talent loss and project quality gaps.

The need for scale. Developing talent takes investment and time, and cost-effectively adding experienced talent is a challenge – unless you are truly doing something special to attract them (more on that later too).

Relying solely on more of the same is not a credible strategy for today and won’t prepare us for a future trending more toward the amount of “value produced” than “time-spent.” Increasing our ability to scale will be more critical to successfully competing and profiting.

For most firms, now is the time to adjust our strategic planning and invest. As leaders, we can’t confuse the good market conditions of today with doing what’s right and needed to win tomorrow.

Designing for scale. Scaling our business moving forward is likely to include the following elements:

  • Integrating new technology
  • Process innovation
  • Productization
  • Leveraging of the gig economy
  • Value escalation
  • Transformational thinking
  • In-demand branding

Re-opening our strategic plan or reconsidering its implementation in light of these elements is an important first step if we’ve not already done so.

Part 2 of this series focuses on growing our people to help scale our business. Part 3 focuses on what it takes to build a brand designed to attract and save us time and money while increasing loyalty and retention.

Peter Atherton, P.E., is an AEC industry insider who has spent more than 20 years as a successful professional civil engineer, principal, major owner, and member of the board of directors for a high-achieving firm. Atherton is now president and founder of ActionsProve, LLC, author of Reversing Burnout: How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow! A Blueprint for Professionals and Business Owners, and creator of the I.M.P.A.C.T. process. Atherton works with AEC firms to grow and advance their success through strategic planning implementation, executive coaching, performance-based employee engagement, and corporate impact design. Connect with him at

Part 2 Part 3

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.