Think Differently

Nov 02, 1998

If you consider the truly successful people you know who own and manage A/E/P or environmental firms, I think you’ll find that they think differently from everybody else. They are irreverent. They defy logic. They don’t play by the established rules. They aren’t bound by tradition. They are non-conformists. Many of our readers could be happier, more successful, and feel better if they could break away from some of the thinking that holds them back. Here are some examples of what I mean: The client is always right. Wrong. The client is not always right because the client does not always know what they want. The job of your firm is to educate them on their options and then get them to make the right decision. If they (clients) all knew exactly what they wanted and needed, they wouldn’t need to hire you. They could do it all themselves. Sure— there are some clients who know exactly what they want and view you only as labor. But are these the kinds of clients who will pay you top fees and help you to feel good about yourselves? Probably not. There are also clients who know what they want but cannot communicate it to you. They end up telling you what they think they are supposed to tell you or what they think their superiors want them to tell you, not what they really want to tell you! Staff turnover is bad. Not necessarily. To start with, there are two kinds of turnover— forced and voluntary. Forced turnover is where you let someone go. Voluntary turnover is where they decide to leave you on their own. Either can be good if you shed yourselves of a partner who doesn’t grow his area. Now you have a slot for someone who might. Or if you rid yourselves of someone who is negative and whose negativity is infecting others around her. Or if you move someone down the road who didn’t embody the quality standard that is essential to keeping your firm’s reputation in the market. More often than not these staff changes are good, not bad. And one last point: I am not one of those who celebrates a laggard quitting. I would much rather take the action to ask that person to leave before they come to that conclusion on their own because there will always be people on the floor who will use that person’s departure as justification for something being wrong with the company. I hate that! Stop spending in a recession. Not always. Many firms adopt this posture during lean times. But it is during those times that the best people may become available (those who are tired of working in poorly managed firms) and you may have a real opportunity to upgrade your staff. It’s also during the tough times that the best real estate opportunities may present themselves and you may have a chance to buy a building at a ridiculously low price or enter into a lease that two years later will give you a huge cost advantage over your competitors. And during the tough times you may need to actually increase your marketing spending, something that most principals will agree with me on today but when faced with the actual situation, they’ll cut marketing instead! Diversity in client types served helps insulate the business from the ups and downs of any one client group. Not necessarily. If you are a mega-firm (1,000 people or more), I would probably agree with this. On the other hand, I find that a much bigger problem in our industry is fragmentation coming from too many client types being served! These firms aren’t really very good at any one thing because they try to do too much. They get work because there is not enough supply to meet demand or because they are cheap. And when any particular market goes into a “down” period, they are the first to feel it. Then they get into the trap of looking for the next hot market where a mediocre service provider can get work if their prices are low enough. I have always said it’s better to be the best in fewer markets than mediocre in many. Just do many different things for those markets! You should always strive for consensus amongst your management group. Not in every case. Sometimes the politicking, energy, and time that it takes to get (or work toward) that consensus is costlier than the negative outfall associated with making a decision yourself that you didn’t have a consensus on. Now I know this is a tricky area, and really hard to practice in professional services firms, but this is part of what the art of leadership is all about. We have big opportunities and big problems in A/E/P and environmental firms that we are just too slow to react to. There is a huge opportunity cost associated with this molasses-speed decision making from the leaders who think everyone needs to agree 100%. I want to personally challenge every reader of The Zweig Letter to question everything that you take for the gospel management-wise as we wrap up 1998. Thinking differently has many rewards that go far beyond monetary success. Although there’s nothing wrong with making money! Originally published 11/02/1998

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