The Marathon

Apr 24, 1995

I’m writing this article on Monday morning, “Marathon Day.” For those of you who didn’t know, Marathon Day is a big deal here in the Boston area. We’re planning on shutting down today between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. so we can watch the runners pass through Natick on their way from Hopkinton to Boston— the famed 26.2-mile Boston Marathon route. On the way to work this morning, it occurred to me that being in business— particularly being in the A/E/P or environmental consulting business— is a lot like being a runner in a Marathon. Why do I say that? Winning may be the goal, but survival has to be the first priority. While any serious marathoner has to have his or her eye on winning the race, just surviving to the finish line is a significant accomplishment in itself. The same thing can be said for this business. While being the biggest or the best may be your ultimate goal, none of that can happen unless you stay in business. And that’s a significant accomplishment in and of itself! Even some of the most successful firms eventually fail— The Architects Collaborative (TAC) (Cambridge, MA) being one of the latest and most prominent examples of a firm that didn’t survive. You need a plan. Every marathon runner knows how he or she will run the race. They don’t just start at the gate and run as hard as they can until they run out of steam. They have a plan. They know that their energy is limited, and therefore have thought about when they will pour it on and when they will hold back— deciding, in advance, precisely what they will do and when they will do it along the 26.2-mile marathon route. The same can be said for anyone in the A/E/P and environmental consulting business. You need a plan. You need to know where you will spend your precious time and money, and where you will hold back. And you also need to know how you are going to tell when you have crossed the finish line. That takes goals and milestones, and a strong commitment to stay with the plan. It takes discipline to stay in the game. Nobody can make it through a marathon unless they are in tip-top shape. And the only way I know to get there is to have discipline. To be a successful marathon runner, you have to watch what you eat. You have to work out and run regularly. You have to keep your weight down. The same can be said for an A/E/P or environmental consulting firm. You, too, have to be in great shape. You have to watch what kind of work you take on— the wrong clients or projects may be tough to digest and could kill your firm. You have to keep doing real work yourself (yes, that means something that is job-chargeable), because if you get out of it, you won’t have credibility with your troops or your clients. And you have keep your overhead down so it doesn’t outstrip your ability to support it through the work you are able to get in the door. You’ve got to be tough. Nobody can tell me that someone who runs 26 miles in a day without stopping isn’t tough! It has to tap into everything you have to do it. The same can be said for our business. You won’t be a success in the A/E/P or environmental consulting business unless you tap into everything you have. You have to be tough. You have to make sacrifices in terms of how much time you have to spend with your family or on your other interests. You have to trade off short-term income for longer-term gains. You have to fight hard to get every job. And you have to do lousy work sometimes to get the kind of work you really want. There’s a lot of competition. This year, according to The Boston Globe, there are 9,410 official entrants to the Boston Marathon. That’s a lot of competition. You have a lot of competition, too. There are 69,000 firms in the A/E/P and environmental consulting business in the U.S., alone! To distinguish yourself and rise above the masses, you have to have a strategy— a clear idea of what will make you better than the next guy. And unlike a marathon, being successful in this business requires a team effort. It’s not just good enough that you know what makes your firm better than the other firms. You have to communicate this to every other person on the team. No question about it, everyone who crosses the finish line in today’s race will feel pretty good about him- or herself. And you should feel pretty good yourself for being able to make it in this business! Originally published 4/24/1995.

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