What it REALLY means to be a principal

Oct 14, 2016

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It’s time for a quick review of what firm leaders should – and should not – be doing.

There are a lot of people with the “principal” title in A/E of environmental firms. But I don’t think enough of them really understand what that means. Here are my thoughts on what it SHOULD – and SHOULDN’T mean:
  1. Being a principal means you make sacrifices if sacrifices need to be made. I’m talking about financial problems. If there isn’t other fat to be cut it’s going to cut what you can take out of the firm. Your personal financial situation is not germane. The financial viability of the firm and it’s ability to meet all of its other obligations to people inside and outside of the firm is critical.
  2. Being a principal means you are a role model for everyone else in the firm. This means you have to dress appropriately, return emails promptly, turn your timesheet and expense reports in on time, not abuse your expense report, and put in the hours required of everyone else in the firm. “Do as I do” vs. “do as I say” is the rule!
  3. Being a principal means you are supposed to create work for other people. You probably didn’t get to be a principal just because you are such a talented designer or technical person or outstanding businessperson. More likely it was because you demonstrated you could sell work – or at least had the potential to do so. Just because you are billable doesn’t mean that’s good enough. You have to sell work for other people to do.
  4. Being a principal means you work to get people working together. Pretty much everything we do takes a lot of cooperation from a lot of different people. Problem is they don’t always get along. Feelings get hurt, personal conflicts develop. As a principal it is your job to figure out how to get people working together productively who may not even like each other.
  5. Being a principal means you think long term and do what it takes to protect and nurture the institution you are a part of. The survival and prosperity of the firm is the most important part of your job. In my experience, that often involves putting off consumption or luxuries or letting everyone do whatever they want with their time. Your job as a principal is to be a watchdog for any decisions that could affect the viability of the firm over the long term. It’s that “vision thing” that you have to have.
Here’s what being a principal should NOT be about:
  1. Being a principal is not about being treated as special inside the firm. You shouldn’t be worried about special parking places or overly luxurious personal offices or personal secretaries who go shopping for your spouse’s birthday present. All of those things do nothing but demotivate people and make you look bad.
  2. Being a principal doesn’t give you veto rights over all management decisions. Some principals think just because they are a principal they should be consulted on every single decision made by the firm. Marketing material – they wordsmith it all. Buying anything – they review the order. Hiring someone – they weigh in. This is a sure-fire way to trap yourself and have a firm that won’t grow because everyone will be paralyzed. And in larger, multi-principal firms, it shows no trust for your fellow principals and they’ll all resent you for it.
  3. Being a principal doesn’t allow you to violate the organization structure and commandeer staff. This is a huge issue. Many principals think it’s ok to just reach down into someone else’s office or department and start telling people – people who formally report to someone else – what to do. This creates a lot of stress for your people and alienates your managers.
  4. Being a principal doesn’t mean you represent the interests of your office, dept., or discipline. You are not the ombudsman for an oppressed group and representative against bad, overhead-causing corporate management. When principals take on this attitude they become part of the problem instead of part of the solution. Yet many times this situation develops because the principal uses “corporate” as a scapegoat and way to rally their troops.
  5. Being a principal doesn’t mean you claim all the credit and glory. If you are smart – and you probably are – you realize your eventual exit and payback for years of sacrifice will not happen unless you have other people behind you who can sell work. Promote them – not yourself – to the outside world. It will be motivational for them and help them be better sellers as well as feel good about themselves and working in your company.
Got anything to add to this list of “dos” and “don’ts” for principals? We’d love to hear from you! Send ‘em to me! MARK ZWEIG is founder and CEO of Zweig Group. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com. © Copyright 2015. Zweig Group. All rights reserved.

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