Would you work for you?

Jul 25, 2021

Stop lamenting the labor shortage and start doing what you should to find and keep the very best people in spite of it.

With so many growing AEC firms competing for a too-small talent pool, I think all of us should be asking ourselves, “Would I work for myself as an employee?”

If you are truly honest with yourself, many of you would say, “No, but I’m different from most people who work for me.”

If you know me at all, you would know that I wouldn’t think that is a very good answer. You may, in fact, BE special. But you know what? Everyone not only THINKS they are, but everyone else probably IS special, too.

So, what are you doing to show your people – the team you depend on every day to deliver the speed and quality of work that makes your very good clients keep coming back with more work – that you really UNDERSTAND them and appreciate their uniqueness? And how about you understand and appreciate them to the point that they feel like they are each partners in the enterprise and “in on something” good by working there?

If that isn’t your culture, watch out. There are firms out there where it is, and they are going to be able to hire your best away from you.

Here are 16 things you can do that will make your firm the place that eventually attracts all of the best people in their respective fields:

  1. Commit to growth. Growth is essential because if you aren’t growing, you are shrinking. Growth is the best way to ensure there will constantly be new challenges and roles for your people. That’s important if you want to keep them there. “Staying small successfully” is not a recipe for having the best team.
  2. Build a really great and unique brand. A great brand will mean that new projects and new clients keep coming to the firm, and in some cases that the firm will get better prices than their competitors. And that will help you find and keep good people. Building a brand costs money and requires some hard-line consistency to maintain. But it’s worth it.
  3. Hire armies of young people. Young people bring new energy and new ideas to the company. You need lots of them. Internship and co-op programs are essential to your ability to find the best young people.
  4. Show that some of your talented young people can do amazingly well in terms of pay and ownership opportunities. This is critical, because this shows what is POSSIBLE for someone to achieve if they go for it. And these people are role models for everyone else.
  5. Constantly push the limit in IT capabilities. Investments in technology and trying new things that will make you more efficient and potentially give you a competitive advantage are crucial. Plus, your smart, motivated team members want to keep learning and trying new things. They will help guide what you need to be investing in.
  6. Invest real money in recruiting. A good rule of thumb for budgeting recruiting expenses is to figure out how much you plan on growing and what your normal staff turnover rate is, and convert that into a number of people you will hire in the company year. Then multiply that number by at least $10,000 to come up with a budget for recruiting. So, 50 hires would be a minimum $500K recruiting budget. Some people will cost less to hire and others much more.
  7. Invest real money in training your people. Good people want to keep learning. The moment they think they aren’t growing and developing they will consider leaving for greener pastures. We know they need management and business training more than anything else. Budget accordingly. It may cost you an average of $2,000-$3,000 per year per employee or more. The average firm spends much less.
  8. Be an open-book management company. Share all of your financial and performance metrics with everyone. If they don’t understand these numbers then teach them what they need to know so they do understand them. This is not only essential to creating psychological ownership, it is how you will train your future managers.
  9. Solicit everyone’s input as a part of your business planning. I keep saying it, and too many firms are still only doing it with a small group of managers who get no input from their people. Good people want to have a voice in the direction of the firm. Stop acting like this isn’t important and do it.
  10. Bring in a couple good outside directors. These people – hopefully experienced and successful individuals – will help guide your leadership through all of the obstacles to their success. The best outside directors will provide mentorship to your CEO and other top leaders and have valuable connections that may help you win work.
  11. Invest heavily in marketing. Spend two or three times annually what your competitors are spending and eat their lunch. Commit to spending on marketing and promotion and spend it. Look at ANY mature industry and who the leaders are, and you will find they are out-promoting their competitors significantly. That costs money.
  12. Report every sale of new work to all employees. Do this continuously throughout the day with a simple email based on project initiation that says what the project is, what the fee is, and who brought it in (could be more than one person). It helps generate excitement, and that will keep good people there and interested.
  13. Do continuous client satisfaction monitoring. The constant flow of client feedback – good and bad – is essential to your firm. Again, everyone needs to see this information, not just a small group of managers. This process and information helps your people feel like they know what is going on.
  14. Have extraordinary benefits. I can admit it – one of the best aspects of working at the University of Arkansas is a truly great benefits program – particularly our retirement benefits. I would hate to lose that and our health insurance by not working there. You can demonstrate you care about your people by being exceptional with your benefits.
  15. Limit the number of meetings you hold. Too many meetings that are too long are huge demotivators and energy drains for your best people. Plus, it is very valuable time that your people could be using to work on a billable project or sell a new one. Get rid of meetings.
  16. Actually have a viable ownership transition plan that you have implemented. Don’t just talk about it. Demonstrate it. Ownership is critical to your best people. Without it, they will be more likely to leave and go somewhere else where they can get it.

These 16 things – if you would do them – will make your firm a place that YOU would want to work. And you know how much you contribute to the success of your business. Stop lamenting the labor shortage and start doing what you should to find and keep the very best people in spite of it.

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at mzweig@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.