The role of the CEO in an A/E firm

Oct 11, 2020

These six traits are most likely to lead to success and are absolute “musts” for whomever is the CEO of the firm.

They’re far from a figurehead – the typical CEO of an A/E firm. Whomever is in this job, like it or not, is one of if not THE single most important person to the success of the firm.

We all know it’s not an easy job. There will always be critics who tell you, “It’s not like it used to be here,” or, “We used to be like a family,” or, “When we had only 30 people we made a 27 percent profit and now we only make 15 percent,” or other such criticisms and complaints. When you are in the job sometimes you’d just like to scream at people but you can’t. You have to maintain your cool at all times.

Here are some other attributes of a CEO for A/E firms that, in my experience, are most likely to lead to success in the role:

  • They are a good “doer.” Many will argue with me on this point. No, the best architect or best engineer is not always the best person to be the top leader/manager for the firm. But it sure helps. At least being competent in the actual work of the firm will get you a lot more respect and credibility with the rest of the people. There are very few instances of non-architects or non-engineers who have successfully led and managed an A/E firm. After more than 40 years in this business I could count the ones I’m aware of on less than five fingers of one hand.
  • They are humble. No one likes to work with someone who is an ego maniac or credit hog. Being humble – being able to publicly admit mistakes, say you are sorry when necessary, and promote the accomplishments of others is endearing, and it sure helps if the other partners and staff like the CEO.
  • They are visible. The CEO cannot go hide out in their office. They need to be moving around the office, stopping in at meetings, asking people what they are working on, and offering suggestions or asking necessary questions. They also need to be the public face of the firm and should have a visible public profile, although this can be taken too far such that they are the only person in the company known to the outside world and that isn’t good, either.
  • They keep commitments. Establishing a history or pattern of doing what you say you will is one of the most fundamental qualities needed in the CEO. Without that no one will believe what they say and that is going to create a whole host of problems. You can’t schedule meetings and then cancel them constantly. You can’t always be late. You can’t say you will look at something and make suggestions and then not do it. Even things as simple as saying, “I can’t talk now but will call you back,” are important.
  • They are trustworthy. Anyone who is in the CEO role has to be able to keep a secret. If someone says, “Don’t tell anyone else about this,” you can’t tell anyone else. As soon as you do you will be cutoff from all information on that and any other looming problems out there that could be getting ready to take a bite out of your hindquarters. And if people are afraid to tell you something that could affect the firm, you will have a very hard time dealing with it effectively.
  • They are a good delegator. This is so important for the CEO. If they think they are the only one who can do a job, they will fall into the trap of trying to do everyone else’s job and that is going to lead to burnout and a lot of unhappy people. Neither of those will be very helpful to running a successful company.

There are other requirements for a CEO of a firm in this business. Being a good businessperson and understanding the numbers. Being a good judge of character. Being someone who deals with difficult situations and people head-on. Plus a whole bunch of other things unique to one organization and perhaps not another. But these six traits listed above are absolute “musts” for whomever is the CEO of the firm.

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

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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.