Talk it out

Apr 27, 2020

Lessons learned from conversations with industry leaders about separation anxiety, empowerment, and calm confidence.

When I sat down to write this article, I had every intention of focusing on what I am seeing in the M&A world in the current transactional environment. But this isn’t the time for that commentary. This week, I’m going to write about my least favorite thing: feelings. Because, though we may all prefer talking about multiples, over the last couple of weeks, I have had more conversations with industry leaders that have dovetailed from their original purpose into something more important: acknowledging how much this really is impacting many of us. Here are a few themes I’ve picked up from the conversations that I have had recently:

  • Separation anxiety. It’s not just how leaders have shared that they are coping with isolation, but a yet-more crippling feeling of anxiety from being separated from the teams they lead. I have a great deal of respect for the leaders who know that their energy is felt even from afar. I will also add that most of the brilliant people that AEC firms employ would prefer a leader who is forthright over one who is charismatic – we conduct management interviews for all of our strategic planning engagements; no one is nearly as cunning at concealing their true feelings as they give themselves credit for.
  • Empowerment. I’m frequently reminded of and inspired by a comment from our 2019 Courage in Leadership Award footage describing Paul Greenhagen of Westwood Professional Services as someone who (to paraphrase) “bought us all computers during the recession. That might not seem like a big deal, but he cared that we had the tools we needed to do our jobs well.” In our firm, when conversations about what to cut have been raised, I have tried to espouse the same mindset: Will this limit someone’s ability to be effective? Applying the “Greenhagen Paradigm” has, I think, already helped our staff feel confident speaking up instead of applying duct tape and making do. It’s unfair to expect our team to offer white-glove service without reciprocal investment from our company, and there’s no way I can expect them to charge appropriately for our expertise when they don’t have best-in-class resources.
  • Calm confidence. An oft-repeated concept that resonated with me is controlling what you can control and building “plateaus of confidence.” Maybe you cannot do something that you’d really like to do, for example, maybe you’d normally go to lunch with a client, but you can do something else to stay connected, and that is an accomplishment. Noting that accomplishment, and then building from there to something else that you can do to take control of the situation, can be a helpful way to build a foundation when so many of the “rules of engagement” that have helped us be effective in our roles have to be entirely re-written.
  • Utter powerlessness. I’ve also heard the question of how we can mitigate the damage raised. And the response is so consistent: “What can an interior designer do to solve a global pandemic?” Or “I’m just a business developer, what can I do when it’s really hard to develop business?” If I may offer an alternative construct: if you define yourself by your profession, redefine yourself as a leader, as a mentor, as a teacher, as a thinker. If you can channel your talents and your energies into something, you will realize that your profession is not the same as your purpose, and when that moment hits, physical distance is no impediment.

My final feeling: gumption. We will get through this. Make the decisions today that you are prepared to be held accountable for decades from now (shall we start with hoarding toilet paper?).

Jamie Claire Kiser is managing principal and director of advisory services at Zweig Group. Contact her at

Click here to view a message from Zweig Group’s principals, Chad Clinehens and Jamie Claire Kiser.

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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.