Strengthen your Leadership

May 27, 1996

One reason the A/E/P and environmental consulting industry is predominated by small, not-so-successful firms is that it has too many weak leaders. A firm can end up with a weak leader for many reasons. The most likely explanation is that the firm is in its second generation, ownership- and management-wise, and it has a second-generation leader. Many second-generation leaders got where they are because they were good followers— not good leaders. They did what they were told by the entrepreneurial, first-generation leaders. Some firms have weak leadership because the other principals want it that way. People who reach principal level are usually pretty smart. Many don’t want to be told what to do, or they don’t want to work in an environment they consider too authoritarian. So they select a weak leader who won’t try to assert his authority over the rest of the “power” group. Generally, high-level architects, engineers, and scientists will not blindly accept someone else’s authority simply because that someone is in a “leadership” position. Yet, when we poll principals each year on what type of leadership they think is best, the top response is always, “A single, strong leader who gets input from others, then makes most of the decisions.” I’ve worked with a lot of leaders in A/E/P and environmental firms of all types and sizes and I’ve discovered many ways a leader can earn the respect of his people. These include: Do what you say you are going to do. This is always crucial if you want other people to listen to you. The best leaders don’t say they are going to do something, then fail to deliver because a project got in the way, the economy turned sour, or someone didn’t do what he was supposed to. Don’t shy away from confrontation. I’ve always said that people are more like dogs than we care to admit. Dogs can sense fear. That’s when they attack. No one respects a leader who backs off when he or she should press on— whether it’s dealing with the firm’s landlord who won’t fix a leaky roof or another tenant who keeps parking in one of the firm’s spaces; confronting a client who won’t pay but who expects the firm to continue working at his beck and call; or expelling another principal who is charging personal items on his company credit card. Sell your vision of the promised land and how to get there. If you cannot tell people where you want to go and what the plan is to get there, you will be an ineffective leader. People want to know how large the firm is going to get; what services it will be providing; what clients it will be focusing on; and where it will be doing business. That’s what “vision” means— not a bunch of mumbo-jumbo about being “the best engineering firm in the Southeast,” or “an innovative, highly creative team of ethical designers who meet or exceed client demands in all cases.” Don’t allow excuses for lack of performance. It’s easy to let people you like get away without carrying their weight. I have done it myself. But that doesn’t make it right. The best leaders hold everyone accountable, especially those with whom they have a personal relationship. It doesn’t mean you can’t be sympathetic to someone’s woes, or that you don’t listen. But a good leader expects his people to overcome obstacles. Exemplify the behavior you want from others. I don’t know any way to lead other than by example. If you want people to make 20 cold calls a week, you need to. If you want people to turn in their time sheets by 9:00 a.m. every Monday, you need to. If you want people to work 55 hours a week, to put out error-free projects, and to collect money promptly, you need to. Allow other strong people in the firm to save face. The Chinese understand the concept of “face” better than many Western cultures— perhaps 4,000 years as an organized society gave them a leg up. Always consider the egos of the people you are trying to lead— and this is especially important in the A/E/P and environmental business— when you make a decision, implement a new policy, or change something in the firm. Think (and act) long-term. One of the most important attributes an effective leader can have is always thinking long-term. By doing what’s best in the long-term, it gets easier and easier to be successful— not harder and harder. It’s like putting a little money away with every paycheck. You have less to buy groceries with during the week, but you’ve eventually got a nice little nest egg. Our firms are much the same. Making long-term decisions on hiring, organization structure, ownership transfer, computer systems, and marketing all greatly impact the company’s ability to grow and prosper down the road. Yet dealing with these issues well inevitably requires some short-term pain. You won’t learn to be a good leader from most of today’s popular management books. The key to effective leadership does not lie in a better understanding of buzz-terms like “empowerment,” or “self-directed work teams,” or “facilitation.” Most of us would probably learn a lot more about leadership from learning about people such as Genghis Khan or Winston Churchill, reading James Clavell’s fictional novel Tai-Pan, or watching movies such as Mel Gibson’s Braveheart than we would from some academician’s theory on what it takes to be successful. Originally published 5/27/1996

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