Taking Charge

Dec 29, 2003

The fact of the matter is that design and environmental firms are not easy organizations to lead. Their cultures are fragmented. The people who work in them are all too smart, their egos too big, and their opinions too diverse to get quick agreement on much. And while there’s undoubtedly value in all that divergent thinking, too much of it and the firm may find itself paralyzed— unable to make any decisions at all. And the older the firm, the more prevalent these kinds of situations are. In firms that solve this dilemma, you’ll often see that a strong leader emerges— someone who can take charge. That does not necessarily mean a consensus builder, though it sure helps if a consensus can be achieved. What it takes is someone who can make a decision and then sell it. Here’s more of what I mean: Take-charge leaders know that there’s a time to solicit input and then there’s a time to act. Not every issue requires wide-ranging input. Not every issue requires any input at all! An effective leader knows when he or she needs input and whom to get it from. I worked with a fellow years ago who had just taken over his firm as CEO. He asked me how he could get all the other principals to agree on a future course. My advice to him was to stop worrying about that and instead start figuring out what he wanted to do. He did it, and the firm enjoyed more than a decade of success. Take-charge leaders are willing to take some personal risks. I am not saying that you need to throw down the gauntlet every day and tell everyone else, “Do it my way or I’m outta here,” but it may at some point be necessary to take that kind of a stand on something that is important enough to you. For example, one firm I worked for faced declining sales for several years. The CEO determined that the only way they were going to reverse that trend would be to ramp up spending on marketing-related activities. The other firm principals could not understand why any expense should go up when revenues were going down. If the CEO hadn’t taken a firm stand on the firm’s need to trim deadwood while at the same time increasing marketing expenses, they would never have reversed the downward spiral they were sinking into. Take-charge leaders can narrow the range of choices and pick one. For just about any decision, the options are limitless. Sooner or later (and preferably sooner), you have to pick. You cannot do everything for everyone. You cannot please everyone all of the time. In an environment of limited resources someone (or ones) won’t get what they want. The key is knowing who and what is most important, and using that knowledge to make a decision. It’s also knowing what the firm will and won’t do. Take-charge leaders are not afraid to get out of business lines or areas where they cannot be effective and won’t allow themselves to get sucked into the vortex of spending all their time on the losers— losing operations, people who don’t get it, and more. Take-charge leaders can get support. They get it by setting a good example. They get it by demonstrating that they, personally, can be successful in spite of obstacles to overcome. And they also get it by communicating to everyone else in the firm that they have the firm’s best interests— not necessarily their own— at the forefront at all times. This takes a lot of sensitivity and social awareness skills that not all engineers and architects have. That’s why not everyone can be a leader. The very credibility of the leader is at stake by how effective the leader is at communicating selflessness. Not everyone can be a take-charge leader. There’s no question in my mind that many more people probably have the potential to be take-charge leaders than they will ever realize. This said, however, not everyone will be able to learn what it takes to take charge. For any number of reasons, some people will never have the confidence in their convictions that has to be at your core in order to be able to make decisions and not constantly second guess yourself. Firms that don’t have take-charge leaders often try to rule by committee. Alternatively, they may have principals who take turns at playing “boss” (or president, or CEO, etc.)— something I really think is a bad idea! You need continuity of leadership— a new one every year means a lot of disruption. You also need to grow your own leaders from within. Rarely does an outsider come into any A/E or environmental firm and be effective without either taking too long to get the lay of the land so the others lose their patience, or not enough time so the others shoot you in the back. Originally published 12/29/2003

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