So, You Want to Be an Associate?

Dec 10, 2001

When I worked inside an A/E firm as a human resources director, I would occasionally have someone in my office telling me that they wanted to be an associate. And I have to tell you, my first thought was to give a smart alec response. “You can be an associate tomorrow. Quit and get a job at Wal-Mart—they’ll hire you in as an associate.” was what I wanted to say (but didn’t). You see, the truth is, for most firms in this business the “associate” title is just about less than worthless. It doesn’t do a darn thing for you. You can’t define what it means. And there aren’t any special privileges or decision-making powers that go along with it. So what is it? It’s a status title; that’s what it is. Many times, it’s supposed to make the employee feel better, as if they are getting ahead in the world or something. In many cases it also means, “We don’t want to make you an owner, but we do want to make you feel special.” Is that bad? I don’t know. At one time I would have said “yes,” but I don’t know that I feel that way now. It really depends on the owners. Are they being selfish? Or are they trying to accommodate and reward people in a way that is better than those people would get elsewhere? This discussion is not limited to the associate title. It could easily apply to the “vice president” title or any number of other titles that firms in this business use freely. The problem with these kinds of “promotions” when they are given in design and environmental firms is that they often result in unfulfilled expectations on the part of those receiving them. Usually the elation of being promoted lasts only a day or two, or maybe a week or two. Mom, dad, brother, sister, husband, or wife are all told about the new title and are proud. But then the reality sets in. “Nothing has changed!,” or “I’m not being asked for my opinion now any more than I used to be,” or “I don’t know any more about this company than I ever did,” or similar thoughts become prevalent. The next stage the employee goes through is depression, quickly followed by resentment and in some cases, outright anger. So the company, in its attempt to do the right thing and give the employee some positive feedback and make him or her feel good about a future with the firm, screws up. The reaction is opposite of that intended, and when taken to the extreme, the employee ends up demotivated, mad, and quits to go elsewhere! As far as I can tell, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a title such as “associate.” We use it here at ZweigWhite. But here it is the first level of stock ownership. That makes it easy to see what the value is in it. And it is also the pool from which future principals come. That may make it even more valuable. And the option to use this title as a future principal pool is open to any firm. My belief is that, if what it means to be an associate is that you are part of an elite group from which future principals will be selected, that is all you really need to do with the title. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, but do make this aspect of the title real. And one more point. Don’t feel compelled to have regular meetings of the associates, or to delegate a particular management problem to the associates (or VPs). That’s just silly! If a group of people with the same status title have regular meetings, they will always turn into bitch sessions. I saw an extreme example of this recently where the associates in one firm all rose up and negotiated their pay as a group with the principals. What the heck is this about? Any firm that responds to that kind of demand is crazy, in my opinion! Originally published 12/10/2001

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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.