The troubleshooter

Mar 26, 2018

The true character of any firm can be determined by how it responds to adversity, and that character is usually embodied in the troubleshooter.

The troubleshooter. Every A/E and environmental services firm has at least one, no matter how large or small the firm is. You probably won’t see that position on an organizational chart or find it on a business card. In fact, that individual may not even know that they are “the troubleshooter,” but no firm can succeed without a good one.

So, what is a troubleshooter? It is someone who has enough years of experience, political savvy, and the people skills needed to identify a potential problem and address it immediately. To do that successfully, a troubleshooter must wear many hats – counselor, anger management, mediator, team leader, and sometimes, most importantly, one who can offer a sincere apology when necessary. Ironically, troubleshooters generally do not enjoy what they are called upon to do. Here at Pennoni, and in other firms, troubleshooters are generally at the senior management level.

There are many different types of situations that require the special skills of a troubleshooter. Here are some examples:

  1. When there is a design error. Let’s face it, we are all human and despite our best QA/QC efforts, issues happen. When presented with this situation by an embarrassed project manager, a good troubleshooter will call or visit the client, admit the misstep, and promise to resolve the issue immediately.
  2. When there is a construction dispute. The troubleshooter may learn about an escalating argument involving his or her project staff and a contractor. This situation normally starts with emails that are “copied to all” containing accusations and increasingly aggressive language. The contractor may even bring up the dreaded “D” word, DELAYS. A good troubleshooter recognizes that this is a potentially dangerous situation and will pick up the phone and call the decision makers involved. It is amazing how quickly and painlessly construction issues can be resolved by getting involved early before too much time has elapsed.
  3. When there is a staff vs. client conflict. Sometimes a well-meaning employee upsets a client by something he or she said or it’s simply the result of a personality conflict. A good troubleshooter will talk to the client to see if there is any way to resolve the conflict, and if not, suggest and make a personnel change.
  4. When there is a missed or misunderstood deadline. We work in a deadline driven industry, and occasionally it becomes apparent that a project team is in danger of missing a deadline. The client should be notified immediately before the deadline has passed on the project manager level, but a good troubleshooter will also step in and call the principal-in-charge to apologize and offer assurances that all hands are on deck until the project is back on schedule.
  5. When there is a legal claim. Most would agree this is the worst part of our business, but on that rare occasion when the process starts with a lawsuit or subpoena, it must be dealt with. Lawyers who represent us are normally very good at what they do, but the best outcome will be achieved when they have the assistance from a knowledgeable firm representative. The troubleshooter is usually the best person for the job.

The troubleshooter plays a key role in all successful firms. His or her most important tool is an old-fashioned telephone call or a face-to-face meeting when necessary. The best troubleshooters do not act alone, they engage the project team throughout the entire process for technical support and as a learning experience.

The true character of any firm can be determined by how it responds to adversity. The proper response to a negative situation can gain a new client or strengthen relationships with an existing one.

That is the role of “the troubleshooter.”

E. Michael McCarthy, PE, is associate vice president at McCarthy and Associates, a division of Pennoni. He can be reached 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.