The optics

Jul 17, 2017

How you dress and how you work send a powerful statement to everyone around you – just make sure it’s the right one.

A company has a brand, and so do you. It’s called your personal brand. Everything you do and say affects it, both internally and externally. And as you climb the corporate ladder, the “optics” of your personal brand become more and more important in the eyes of your peers and subordinates.

Scrutiny of your appearance and actions increases as you move up the org chart and up in paygrade, making optics more important. If you do not desire to make more money or if you do not value job security, you can stop reading now. If you have any level of ambition, keep reading and take note of these important rules and statistics.

Currently, the average-performing firm in the AEC industry has an average 50-hour work week. AEC firms overall are very busy. High-performing firms have an average 55-hour work week. High-performing firms and those who work for them make more money, significantly more. Total annual compensation for principals in average-performing firms is $194,000. Average compensation for principals in high-performing firms ranges from $290,000 to $420,000. Considering the strong correlation between a firm’s work habits and overall firm and personal performance, I want to specifically address some issues below:

  • A 40-hour work week is the absolute minimum and is the baseline for a functional organization. For those who “work to get in their 40 hours” each week, they are likely to perform at an average level. Of course, someone can perform at a high level and contribute greatly to the organization in a standard 40-hour work week. But if the firm overall is having to work 50 hours a week, then the 40-hour employee is not contributing or performing at the average level needed to sustain or grow the organization.
  • The majority of staff in a firm will judge a person’s value based on very basic optics, like how much they are in the office, as opposed to some other performance metric like output per hour worked. If a firm overall is busy and in an overtime situation, as many are right now, those who work their 40 hours and hit the door erode their personal brand. The optics are even worse for those who arrive at the office late and leave early – something I see far too often.
  • Taking long lunches or having frequent “personal” appointments are other ways to erode your personal brand. It’s those optics that alienate your team and greatly decrease your chance for success and advancement. Refer to the stats above for the inspiration needed to change your perspective on the number of hours you should work, if needed. Effort expended and personal benefits have a strong correlation.
  • The increasing trend toward flexible work policies can benefit company culture, but you must be careful that these policies don’t affect your personal job performance and your ability to get things done. The reality is that the optics do not look good for the staff that follow these policies precisely. Case in point, for a firm that has half-day Fridays, the staff that hits the door at noon on Fridays are frowned upon in many organizations, despite the policy allowing it. Unless you are an extremely high performer, taking off early looks bad, even if “policy” allows.
  • While performance can be difficult to measure, optics are not. For most, time spent in the office and working more than 40 hours a week translates into better optics and, usually, better performance. As such, better optics and performance then correlate to higher compensation as proven by the stats previously mentioned.
  • Another flexibility trend is “working remotely.” This can also be a real problem, both for individuals and organizations. I work with a number of companies where this flexibility is decreasing performance. We hear it directly from your clients. Accountability and measuring performance is even more difficult when an employee is remote. Some situations require this work arrangement. But for most firms, having employees in the office and collaborating with their team members translates to better overall performance and certainly better optics. Additionally, it actually contributes to higher employee satisfaction. The reality is that the optics of employees that are “working remotely” translates to the perception that they are not working, whether that is the case or not.
  • I don’t particularly like dress codes and I certainly don’t like draconian policies, but how you dress communicates your ambition and how willing you are to differentiate yourself. Look around and see examples where performance and dress correlate. I see it in nearly every firm I work in. The fact is, business casual has gone too far in many organizations. Set yourself apart and start dressing for success. How you dress heavily influences optics. In other words, dress up. The higher ups certainly notice this and usually appreciate it.

Optics are important because they can have profound impacts on culture and performance. Those in any leadership position have a particularly important role in creating the right optics. Even though corporate culture continues to relax, it does not excuse you from performing at a certain level or of the importance of creating optimal optics.

Frankly, the bar is lower today than ever before, creating great opportunities for anyone who wants to differentiate themselves and work hard to accelerate their career. We need to get back to the work ethic and professionalism that made this country a superpower. Today, organizations and individuals are experiencing the same struggle – to genuinely differentiate themselves in an increasingly average world. Break free from the romanticism of mediocrity and make big things happen for your firm and yourself. Aggressively manage your optics and create a strong personal brand for success.

Chad Clinehens is Zweig Group’s president and CEO. Contact him at

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.