We’re all on the same side, Damnit!

Oct 13, 2008

When things get ugly in a firm— as they tend to do when the firm’s financial status takes a downturn— you’ll often see fights break out. Some principals form factions with other principals or principal up-and-comers. Many times these factions and their leaders will tear the firm apart with their bickering and backstabbing. My first reaction when I witness these situations is to remind EVERYONE involved that “we are all on the same side, Damnit!” We all need a strong company— one with a healthy balance sheet, profitable income statement, good cash flow, and the ability to generate a steady stream of work. Yes— there may be minor differences in our individual ideas about how to do all these things but remember, first and foremost, that we are all on the same side and ultimately want the same thing. No one wants to see the firm fail. No one wants to lay off people due to lack of work. No one wants to have to cough up personal funds to keep the business afloat. Now this attitude (that being one of we are all on the same team) may seem completely obvious to some of our readers. I will venture a guess and say that these firms either have proved they can weather all of the ups and downs any economy can hurl at them over time, or they have yet to deal with a serious downturn. It’s one or the other. So how can you avoid this internal warring? And, how can you get out of this mess if you are already in it? Here are my thoughts: Listen to those who complain the most and who may appear to be the most divisive— for a while. Fully air out their opinions about what is wrong, and how to fix it. Try putting them in charge of finding a solution to the problem if you can. Give them a timeframe to develop a solution. Rebuild your business plan. Develop a bottom-up business plan that allows everyone to air their thinking— every voice should be heard. Get plenty of outside input to the process from clients of the company. Have outside directors who are beholden to no one and who have the overall company’s best interests at heart. Listen to them. Don’t accept this as normal or acceptable. There better be agreement at the top and throughout the ranks that those in charge all have the best interests of the overall company at heart. Any doubts about anyone’s intentions must be confronted and resolved. If these doubts cannot be resolved then change has to occur. That may mean someone leaving the firm. This is obviously the course of last resort. There should be room for different opinions about what to do to solve a problem. What there isn’t room for is continuous fighting with no resolution. Have a leader who sees defusing this type of unhealthy conflict as one of his or her primary roles. Some leaders get this idea and others don’t. Those who don’t seek to avoid all confrontation of difficult problems, and either ignore them or delegate them to others. Neither of these is acceptable when you have open warfare going on at the top. Set up your reward systems to reinforce one-company thinking. The more silos you create with your accounting and your incentive comp schemes the more likely you are to have people pursuing what is best for themselves and their direct reports vs. what is best for the company overall. We all rise collectively or sink collectively. These divisive schemes are usually connected by people who are used to being pushed to achieve short-term results by either dispassionate outside investors or other people who aren’t holistic thinkers. They don’t work very well in our “industry.” Keep working at developing consensus. It’s a never-ending problem. It is easy to get along when times are good and the success and money are getting better all the time. It is not so easy when resources get tight and personal sacrifices have to be made. We are heading into some tough times economically. Increase your odds of weathering the storm by working together as a team with a common goal— one strong company! Originally published 10/13/2008

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.