Wake up!

Apr 10, 2022

Will Swearingen

Succession planning requires owners and leaders to wake up and get out of their own way.

We do it every day. We wake up and face a new day, a new set of opportunities, new challenges, and a world that is changing quicker than ever before. It can be difficult to focus and prioritize each day. We have our routines, our responsibilities, and our ways of processing information.

As we age, we get more set in our ways and our routines – probably because our hearing, eyesight, and stamina begin to deteriorate and we stick to what’s familiar. But young people don’t operate like this; they are quite the opposite. They consume information at breakneck speeds and can lose sight of the big picture, but they crave purpose. This requires your attention.

Recently, I’ve been challenged with our 2-year-old’s 4:45 a.m. wake up routine. Luckily, he’s easy to please at that hour. He just wants Fruity Pebbles and “lechita.” Some of us, like my wife, have insomnia and do not sleep at all. Others savor every minute of rest, and yet others relish the sound of an alarm clock. Regardless of whether you’re up early or snooze to the last minute, getting out of bed and putting your feet on the ground is a defining moment. It’s the moment we set our course and begin to program our moves for the day.

In this industry, we have been slow to wake up, put our feet down, and program our moves for the foreseeable future. Looking around and listening to the highly fragmented industry, I can’t help but think that many leaders have been asleep at the wheel for some time. I get it, it’s difficult to balance the daily requirements of our staff, our clients, and proactively challenge our business model, while focusing on the long-term goals. It takes time, money, energy, and an element of risk to stay in front of the trends – or even just keep up. But maintaining an edge in the market requires a constant reimagining of how we do things. This is imperative to achieving our goals.

Being from Northwest Arkansas, I’ve been privileged to witness the growth and transformation of a perennial Fortune 500 No. 1 company in my backyard. In recent history, Walmart made fresh produce a huge focus and used this as a differentiator in the market as Amazon and other online retailers surged. Walmart aggressively grew its online presence, but it focused on fresh food and fresh produce as an area where its brick-and-mortar stranglehold could maintain its global dominance.

Similarly, fresh perspectives and fresh ideas must be embraced in your firm as it looks to differentiate itself in the marketplace. Your employees have plenty of options for employment, so owners and leaders must focus on creating a firm that’s viewed as an employer of choice. It’s critical to the viability of your business, as the expectations from staff change and become increasingly urgent. Right now, we’re in the midst of the “great retirement.” An entire generation of owners and leaders are looking to exit the profession. This brings operational and business continuity challenges, but it also exposes a common dynamic in this industry. Many owners have been the main obstacle preventing them from realizing the true value of their equity investments.

Succession planning requires owners and leaders to wake up and get out of their own way. It’s only natural for people to cling to the tasks and responsibilities that elevated them to a role of importance. But, if you pick your head up and look around, you’ll find several capable people who are eager to help carry the load. Change is inevitable. Embrace change by working with the next generation to equip them with the tools needed to become a leader, understand what it means to be an owner and what it means to carry the coffee pot for the next generation. 

Will Swearingen is a principal and director of ownership transition advisory services at Zweig Group. He can be reached at wswearingen@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.