Stop waiting around

Feb 28, 2000

It seems to me that a lot of people in leadership roles in A/E/P and environmental consulting firms are just waiting around. Whether the discussion around the table is related to dealing with a non-performer, closing down a long-struggling office, or finally getting all offices linked through a wide area network, the answer is the same. Study some more, buy time, procrastinate, meet… in other words, do nothing. And while just plain old “doing nothing” is sometimes a viable approach, more often than not, a better approach is to do something. For example, here’s a good one for you. The CEO of a company whose name I won’t mention said to me the other day in reference to one of his 52 year-old project managers, “Eddie’s a good boy. I guess before long we’ll have to make him a partner.” Let’s think about that for a minute. “Eddie” is 52. If he retires at 65, that means he has less than 13 years left to work for the company. If the stock buy-back is phased over 5 years, that means he’ll be selling whatever stock you sell him now by the time he turns 60. If it takes him five years to buy his stock, that means that Eddie will own the stock free and clear for less than three years before he has to start turning it back in. That’s not very long. Yet, even though the time clock is ticking and the alarm is about to go off, the company can’t seem to formalize their offer to Eddie so that he can finally buy some stock. Here’s another example. The CEO of a company that has doubled its backlog from $10 million to $20 million in the last year is complaining about the company’s inability to staff up. He has been complaining about this for at least two years already! They do a quick inventory of job openings and determine they have 40 openings now and another 60 projected over the course of the coming year, plus whatever they have opening up because of turnover in the existing staff. That’s a minimum of 100 jobs to be filled! They talk with a recruitment firm. They make the recruiters talk with a half dozen managers internally and submit three different proposals. The final proposal will cost the A/E firm $200,000 a year in base fee and $200,000 in performance bonuses if the recruiters can fill 40 jobs during the year. They wait three weeks and have a meeting to discuss the proposal. “That’s a lot of money to spend,” says the CEO. “Let’s think some more.” Three months later, no action has been taken, the staffing problem is worse than ever, and the recruiters are completely disgusted with the firm. Or how about the firm leaders that were dissatisfied with their CFO. For years, this woman could not produce an accurate monthly financial statement until three months after the month was over! The company’s average collection period has ranged from a low of 90 days to a high of 132 days. Its banking relationship is in jeopardy and no one knows what’s going on. The new software the firm bought a year and a half ago has never been fully implemented, resulting in two sets of books being kept simultaneously. On top of it all, the accounting department seems to be greatly overstaffed, and the CFO keeps telling the CEO that no one can be let go. Yet, in spite of years of poor performance and every other principal being completely disgusted with this person, no action is taken by the CEO to solve the problem. The point is, I’ve been working in the A/E/P and environmental industry for more than 20 years. We have consulted to more than half of the ENR 500. And I can tell you that the ability to make headway on thorny issues that involve making long-range commitments, spending money, or confrontation of long-standing employees is key, if you want to be successful. You just have to face up to the fact that you will never have all the information you want, you won’t be right 100% of the time, and some people will get their feelings hurt despite your best intentions not to do so. It’s part of being in business, being the boss, and living up to your responsibility. Now it’s time to get out a piece of paper. Number it one through five and write down five decisions that are dragging through your system right now. Then make a decision on what you are going to do about each of these five issues within 24 hours. Originally published 2/28/00

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