Use Your Top People

Mar 18, 2002

In some previous articles we’ve talked about principals who are too involved and wreak havoc on budgets and schedules due to their last minute involvement on projects. But there’s another problem, and it may be an even bigger one— particularly in larger A/E/P and environmental consulting firms, but not limited to them exclusively. That problem is one of underutilization of the firm’s top people. All you need to do is load up with some unbillable principals at high salary rates and it won’t take long to turn a profitable firm into a dog. And there’s a deeper malaise there that lingers on well beyond that— demoralization of everyone. These people often have a lot to offer. They got where they are for a reason. So why not turn a liability into an asset? Common objections to using these people include “his billing rate is too high” and/or “she’s too slow.” But you know what? Many times these senior principals bring a lot more to the table than it would appear on the surface. And even if they are slow or expensive, some income from them is far better than no income! Here are some thoughts on how to keep your top people going and contributing to your bottom line: Understand that if these people aren’t busy, they probably feel bad about it. Don’t be angry with them— help them! Your anger or resentment will simply make them retreat. You don’t want that. You want them doing something that helps cover their cost. Bring them along to help close a job. Selling is usually a strong suit of those who have risen to the principal level. That’s typically one of the main reasons they got to where they are in this business. So let’s acknowledge that and get some of these idle hands back at work helping close the deal. Maybe all it takes is five minutes in a presentation to assure any skeptics that the firm is really interested in the project. Maybe it’s an hour in a project presentation planning session to give some insight into what the firm has done that worked in similar situations. Maybe it’s an old friend of the principal inside the organization who could be taken to lunch and useful for gaining insight into the client’s needs or the selection process. But why cut yourself off from a resource that you already have under your roof? Bring them in early. Get the top-level person (or people) involved in the project as early as possible. Beyond helping close the job, they can often provide valuable input during the planning, programming, and concept design phases. So use them! It’s better early on than it is later because if they do have something to offer it would be best to incorporate it without having to redo everything. That’s hard on the staff who got the job along as far as they did before the principal saw it. Use these people as mentors and trainers. There really is something to the wise old sage. They have experience that can benefit others who haven’t been through all that they have. The obstacle is often that the people who need their guidance the most may not want to listen. And that’s just a bunch of poop if you tolerate that kind of attitude from anyone! Keep them out there in the limelight. Going to the professional society meetings, being involved politically, guest lecturing at universities that you recruit from—these are all activities that the more senior principals can do and do well. Make sure that you are encouraging this kind of activity! And promote the heck out of it when you do get this kind involvement so everyone else inside the firm can see that these senior folks are still doing something to earn their keep. There may be a vast underutilized resource in the form of underutilized principals sitting right there in front of you. Originally published 3/18/2002.

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.