The next five minutes

Apr 13, 2020

What differentiates us now as leaders is our ability to roll with the punches and make sharp, sober decisions.

Over the last month, our inboxes and news feeds have been flooded with extreme reactions, the least flattering among them from my fellow management consultants across the internet, who claim to hold various secrets to thriving in the face of this disaster, if you’ll just join them for a webinar or sign up for free information alerts. Scrolling one post down from a bold claim that COVID-19 is “the best thing to happen for our industry” was another consultant’s prescient guidance to prepare for “the greatest economic depression our country has ever faced.” Beware those who try to sell you solutions to a situation that we – as a society – have never faced.

There was a five-day gap between the close of our 2020 Principals, Partners, & Owners Report of AEC Firms and the launch of our AEC Industry Outlook & Response to COVID-19 Pandemic survey.

On March 7, participation closed for our 2020 Principals, Partners & Owners Report of AEC Firms. A selection of data points that aged like milk regarding AEC industry outlook from a simpler time:

  • 38 percent of principals felt that the AEC business would outperform the U.S. economy.
  • Second-to-last in the list of challenges for firm principals: financial issues or cash flow.
  • 50 percent of principals felt that the likelihood of layoffs or pay cuts in 2020 was “all but impossible;” only 1 percent believed this was “highly likely” or “likely.”
  • 0 percent of AEC firm principals felt that the 2020 business environment will be much worse than the prior year.

On March 12, just five days after closing participation in our Principals, Partners, and Owners Report for 2020, we launched an urgent study of how AEC firms are responding to COVID-19 with “live” participation to allow new information to be incorporated into our reporting. A selection of data points from participants:

  • Collection period/accounts receivable scored in the upper half in a list of negative impacts of the pandemic.
  • 67 percent of firms believe the impacts of COVID-19 will likely cause a decrease in their 2020 revenue compared to 2019.

So, is coronavirus the best thing that’s happened for the AEC industry? Absolutely not. Will it inevitably lead to catastrophic disaster for the AEC industry? Not likely. It is beyond question, though, that coronavirus has required some degree of change. Even if you were able to replicate your exact workstation from your office into your home, you are still approaching the workday in a way you have not done before, even if, like me, you have long been an adherent of social distancing.

While change itself can be neutral in that it is neither inherently good or bad, applying intentional thought into how to approach something mundane, like going to work in the morning, can be a spark. I believe that diversity of perspective is a catalyst for innovation. Do you get your best ideas sitting at your desk after 10 hours? I don’t. Changing the scenery, tearing myself out of the spreadsheet and taking a walk or closing my laptop during a flight and pulling out my notebook and opening up a blank page has been the spark behind some of my best creative contributions to the challenges that confounded me for hours at the office. It is those small shake-ups in routine and in business as usual that create the space for shaking loose new ideas.

As an advisor, we rely on experience, analysis, lessons learned, case studies, and precedent to guide our clients. This is an interesting time in that none of those resources squarely fit the current situation; the “experience advantage” no longer applies, and the “new normal” is a thing we continue to constantly chase as the situation evolves. With a somewhat leveled “experience advantage,” what we have left as a differentiator is the ability to make sharp, sober decisions. To roll with the punches. To incorporate new information that doesn’t compute with traditional perspectives on work, productivity, professionalism, and communication.

We will keep on collecting the data here at Zweig Group and staying as informed as we possibly can. In the meantime, the words of Tom Peters are the best advice I can impart: “Excellence is the next five minutes.”

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

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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.