Staying up at night

Jun 25, 2018

If you lead an AEC firm, you have a lot of tough questions to ask yourself, and the answers aren’t always pretty. But ask and answer you must.

In a romanticized view of the business world, firm leaders are never lacking in confidence and always make the correct decisions the very first time. However, being imperfect, having self-doubts and second guessing our decisions are just part of everyday business operations. To think we are somehow endowed with super human organizational and leadership skills is simply not realistic.

If we agree that we are human, we also must agree that there are times we cannot sleep at night because we are tormented by those lingering questions about the validity of our actions. Instead of being a weakness, this self-evaluation can produce benefits to the firm as it can form the basis for change. So, what questions should you be asking yourself to be a better leader?

  1. Am I the right person? This is the most important question you can ever ask, but it is also the hardest as it requires you to question your own abilities. No one likes to admit their shortcomings, but failing to properly assess your strengths and weaknesses and then act to adjust your approach to counter those weaknesses will only impair your firm’s potential. Too many times I have seen a firm leader maintain their position at the top when it is obvious to everyone that their time to step aside or delegate some of their responsibilities has come. We don’t get participation trophies in business, so if there is a better player on your roster you need to put them in the game.
  2. Am I tough enough? The proverbial buck stops at the top which means that many times leaders are dealing with the most difficult and stressful issues facing the firm. Instead of being a leader, sometimes a more apt job description may be janitor, as we must clean up the mistakes of others. Methodically working toward resolutions of the problems faced by a firm, which probably include unwanted compromises, can be taxing and can wear you down both mentally and physically. If you are not prepared or willing to deal with such issues, you probably have answered the question about toughness – as well as the one about whether you are the right person for leadership.
  3. Whom do I need around me? Leaders wear many hats, especially in new or smaller firms. As your firm grows, you can no longer afford to do everything and must acknowledge that you are not an expert in everything. This will necessitate the addition of others who possess the skills needed for the firm to flourish, be it financial, human resources, or technical. This means you must be prepared to share the benefits of leadership. The best people come at a price. You should also engage outside advisors such as external board members or industry peers as there is no reason to develop a new answer if someone may already have the best answer.
  4. Who is on the bus that needs to get off? Just as important as knowing who you need to have around is knowing who does not need to be there. Loyalty is typically seen as a prized trait, but blind loyalty is more detriment than benefit. If you have staff or even partners who continually fail to perform their jobs, they need to be offloaded as quickly as possible. Whether you recognize it immediately, your staff will. Continued failure to address the issues will demoralize everyone who is doing their job and raise questions about your true leadership skills.
  5. Where are we going? Day-to-day challenges take time to address, but you must also focus on the future path of the firm. When times are good, you may tend to just go with the flow and take on all the opportunities presented by your clients. Absent a plan, however, you will inherently drift and suffer when business slows down. The real question is, do you want to control your own destiny? Most of us started our firms or rose to leadership because we wanted to have input and control over our futures. So, create and follow a strategic plan so you can understand and control that future.
  6. Who is my successor? This is a critical question and the answer takes time to develop and implement. Allow yourself that time and start to mentor the firm’s potential future leadership now. Be prepared because your successor will not be your clone. The firm will change and evolve. If you have built the best team, your culture, vision, mission and purpose will carry over into the next generations of the firm.

Be inquisitive! Too often those in leadership are overwhelmed by the day-to-day and forget to question or further evaluate themselves and their decisions. Through introspection, we can learn from our prior actions and chart a better path for the future of our firms. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions or make tough decisions as these are just part of your job description as a leader.

Stephen Lucy is CEO of JQ with offices in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Lubbock and San Antonio, Texas. Contact him 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.