What’s More Important?

Feb 28, 2005

When it comes to predicting the future of a successful A/E or environmental enterprise of any sort, what’s more important— the market conditions, the passion of the individuals leading it, or the unity of those at the top? One could easily build a case for any one of these factors being the most critical. The left-hemisphere-dominated, logical thinkers would tell you that there’s nothing more important than the marketplace itself. A/E/P and environmental firms do well in places where the population is growing and the construction activity is high. They also tend to do well in locations where the infrastructure is old and there’s money available to replace it. Logically, then, it follows that firms should seek out these kinds of markets and those should be the places where business development efforts are concentrated. Markets where demand is high ostensibly offer the most potential to the typical A/E firm. On the other hand, one could take a position that passion transcends virtually all market conditions (with perhaps a few caveats!). If one is passionate enough— excited enough about what he or she is doing— somehow he or she will figure out a way to be successful at it. When you really love something and are completely immersed in it— thinking about it all of the time— creative breakthroughs are often achieved. Relevant lessons can be drawn from seemingly ordinary everyday events because of the passionate person’s focus on what he or she is trying to accomplish. These insights can make the firm led by passionate people far more successful than the competition, and these firms can grow even when the market as a whole is flat or declining. Last, but not least, is— for lack of a better term— what I will refer to as the “unity factor.” This factor is characterized by top management/ownership all having a common goal and sense of purpose, along with strategies (written or unwritten) that are consistently followed. This, too, is a huge deal— and one of the reasons that small firms started by breakaway groups from larger firms can operate so efficiently and grow so fast (at first). These breakaway firms have a high dose of the unity factor because those who elect to leave usually have a common enemy and sense of purpose. So what are the lessons here for all of us— especially those who are one of several or many owners in a mature firm? The market— while it certainly can help your success— is not the only thing that matters. There have always been examples of successful A/E firms that were working in either flat or declining markets. And, if the bulk of your talent pool (and reputation) is in a slow market, you can’t easily pull up stakes and relocate everyone! Passion of those at the top for what they do, and the clients they serve, is a huge deal. If you don’t have it, you are out of luck. You can try to hire “passionate” individuals, but that’s a lot harder in practice than theory. Passionate people are often already on their own and don’t want to get dragged down by a group of people who may not share their passion. I believe in the value of passion— passionately!— but, if you don’t have it, I don’t know how to give it to you. It comes from within. There are things you can do to manage unity— it may be more within in your control than either the market or the passion. You can manage your team— by adding new talent who shares your vision and values and/or dropping those in key roles who are disruptive or who don’t want to do what the majority of ownership has in mind for the business. You can go through a business planning process to help clarify and articulate what that direction is for the whole staff, and you can build a case for your idea of what the business can or should be over time through personal selling efforts. In short, building the unity factor may offer the greatest opportunity to revitalize a mature but solid company in this business— the majority of firms in this business. Originally published 2/28/2005

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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.