What it REALLY Takes to Train the Next Generation

Sep 27, 2004

We all know it. If we cannot train a second generation of leaders who will be able to take over the firm and run it successfully after we are gone, we probably won’t see any return on all those years of hard work that are reflected in our firm equity accounts. Very few companies can pay off their retiring owners immediately in cash. The firm has to go on— profitably— for you to get your money! Not to mention the fact that firm principals usually feel a strong sense of responsibility to their employees to leave their organizations under good stewardship. The second generation (or third, or fourth, or whatever generation succeeds the present one) has to know what they are doing in all facets of the business to keep it healthy and profitable. So what does it take to really train this second generation? Here’s what I think: Exposure to all the numbers. No one can be ready to take over a business for which they have no familiarity with the numbers. And I am NOT just talking about the project financial reports. Too many principals think they are an “open book” company if they share project information with their key people. THAT is not the same as sharing firm performance data with everyone. Not everyone will understand these numbers, but many more can understand them if you help them. And the more people in your firm who understand the numbers, the greater the odds are you will have qualified people for any management slot left open by a departing principal or manager. Time— lots of it. You cannot bring in someone and then a year or two later, hand over the keys to the company to them. This, too, has been tried (and failed) many times in A/E/P and environmental firms. If you don’t have the right people inside to take over, you cannot just go outside for them. You may need to bring in outsiders, but it will take time to turn them into INSIDERS who can understand the dynamics of the firm and the various personalities that make up the key players. You cannot shortcut the process! Sharing all of your hopes, dreams, and fears. If you really want to get to know someone so you can fully understand them and teach them all you know, you will have to be willing to open up to them personally. This means sharing what you are thinking about— the good, the bad, and otherwise. This makes some people very uncomfortable— particularly introverted architects, engineers, and scientists— but it has to be done IF you want the kind of relationship that allows you to effectively coach someone. It cannot be all about you simply telling someone else what to do. Good raw materials. If you want a trainable second generation, you have to start with the right raw materials. It’s a very subjective thing— but I find most firm principals agree that you need people who are smart, work hard, have integrity, and are good communicators. My own prejudices are that I like people who made good grades, but not a 4.0. If they are below 3.0, they were probably just screwing around. If they are a 4.0, they probably have no life outside of school and are imbalanced. I also like people who are first-generation college graduates who came from families where the parents had to work and work hard to survive. These people seem to be a little tougher and more resilient than those born with a silver spoon in their mouths. And there’s just no way to get around dishonesty or a lack of integrity. You simply cannot hire people who demonstrate that is their personality. Finally, the ability to write and speak is very hard to teach someone. I don’t want to do it. I want to hire people who can at least do that! Oh, yeah— one more point: there is NO room for anyone at any level who cannot move up. Once you start rationalizing that “Joe” or “Sally” is only being hired to perform certain tasks, you are ruining your chances that you will have a key player there ready to move up when you need them to do so. Occasional confrontations. Brutal honesty in the feedback department is a requirement IF you want people who are equipped for progressively more responsibility. When I look back on my management career, every time I copped out and avoided this confrontation I regretted later. You cannot delay on giving the feedback to people that they really need to hear. A lot more than PM training. I cannot tell you how many firm principals who I speak to about this subject think that it’s covered by their spending money on PM training. I’ve told our readers many times what I think about most of the PM training that’s available— it doesn’t do a thing to make better project managers. And it does even less to make effective FIRM managers. So what do you think? How would you rate the job you are doing in terms of getting your second generation ready to take over? If not so good, don’t delay any longer! Originally published 9/27/2004

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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.