The skills our people really need

Mar 02, 2009

There’s a popular book out right now in the education field entitled The Global Achievement Gap written by a fellow named Tony Wagner, the co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard University. I picked up a copy at the suggestion of a friend because the Fayetteville Public Schools are considering adopting the principles in the book to overhaul our school system. What I was surprised about when I got into the book a short way was how the skills that Wagner says students need to learn (but don’t) in public school are exactly the things that many of our employees in A/E/P and environmental firms lack. Take a look at Wagner’s list of the skills schools should be teaching and see what you think: Critical thinking and problem-solving. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence. Agility and adaptability. Initiation and entrepreneurialism. Effective oral and written communications. Accessing and analyzing information. Curiosity and imagination. Wow— other than limited attempts to teach points No. 5 and No. 6, our training programs for design and environmental professionals don’t address these areas. Yet I doubt many principals would disagree that these are the weaknesses in ourselves and our people that really hold us back. What kinds of training can work to teach these skill sets? It isn’t easy. It starts with a CEO who sets the right example, is adaptable, encourages new ideas, and has proved to have good judgment. The firm’s culture, set by the founders and current principals, has to reinforce the behaviors of appropriate information gathering before decision making. This can be in conflict with entrepreneurial behavior, where decisions have to be made quickly with often limited information— another quality our people need. The culture also has to reinforce the notion that teamwork— not “superstardom”— is what’s valued. That is hard but necessary. If the numbers are all tracked by person, and the incentives are all driven by individual performance, you won’t be reinforcing teamwork. Curiosity and imagination are elements of creativity. These qualities can be brought forth in an environment where management isn’t overly judgmental and one where there is time to try some new things. High margins are essential— i.e., the firm better have good effective labor multipliers or there won’t be any experimentation. Training exercises could revolve around creative problem solving in groups, art, or design charettes, either in-house or being a part of those performed for clients. I have always advocated that you will never really be able to train anyone unless you spend a lot of time with them. Typical A/E firm office environments with perimeter private offices for principals don’t reinforce this concept. Open offices where the leaders are co-mingled with the worker bees do. And of course, “on-the-job” training is going to be the biggest part of teaching these seven skills above. Junior people need to work closely with more senior people in project management, design, report writing, presentation preparation, and everything else that is a part of doing what the firm does to serve clients. Training is so much more than pumping information in and then seeing at a later point if the trainee can spit it out. That’s what our schools have been doing for too long. While it may be like trying to raise the Titanic to get them to change, it doesn’t have to be like that in our own companies. We can change our ways quickly if we want to. Take a look at Wagner’s seven points above and have a little brainstorming session about how you could help encourage these throughout your ranks. Then… do it! Originally published 3/2/2009

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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.