You Have to Get Through It!

Aug 30, 2004

Regardless of your opinion of Bill Clinton (and I am sure, for the majority of A/E firm principals, it’s negative— as a group, you are 48% Republicans and only 17% Democrats!), you cannot deny one thing. Like the famous Timex watches promoted by John Cameron Swayze in the ‘60s and ‘70s, “He takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” The guy survived more attacks, more bad publicity, and more problems than any other president I can recall. And now, much of the press gives him “rock-star” status, something few politicians ever achieve. When it comes to A/E/P and environmental firms (something I know a lot about after 24+ years in this business), some firm leaders can face obstacles, deal with setbacks, and get beat up, yet still persevere, whereas others get crushed, throw in the towel, and give up at the first sign of trouble. Those who are able to get past these negative events inspire their people. Those who dwell on them lose the respect of everyone around them. I sit in on a lot of meetings where the merits of one person or another are debated in the context of who could be the next office manager for the firm, or who could be the next CEO, or who could be the next land development services group leader. Rarely, if ever, is this particular aspect of an individual’s personality discussed. Yet, it may in fact be one of the most critical determinants of eventual success in any managerial or leadership role. How can you tell if someone has this ingredient— the “I-don’t-give-up-and-let-it-all-crush-me” quality? It certainly helps if you’ve had the benefit of lots of time to observe them. Is this individual quick to make excuses if their performance is not up to standard? Does this person give up on winning a project before giving it their best shot? Does this person react well to questions or criticisms in meetings with clients? Does this person go around with a smile most of the time or is the predominant face that of a frown? If you haven’t been able to observe the person over time, as is the case with an external job candidate, there are ways you can help determine whether he or she has what it takes to power through problems and persevere. Look at the candidate’s academic record. Did he or she stay in one school to get their degree in a normal amount of time, or did they move from college to college or take semesters or years off along the way? How many jobs did the person have— did they make it through at least a couple years in their first job out of school? Were the reasons for their job changes credible, or were they punctuated with stories about bad bosses, inept coworkers, and miserable clients? I really believe that if you look for this quality (or evidence of a lack of this quality), you will make better promotion and hiring decisions every time. I have said before that I don’t subscribe to the theory that those who have failed at something may ultimately be better than those who succeeded at it because of the lessons they learned from failure. (I’ll bet on a winner every time!) But I will add that those who have failed but bounced back are sure a lot better prospects than those who failed and are now bitter about it. Regardless of the economy overall or in a region, or what’s happening in any particular market sector that a firm serves, the fact is the talent shortage in our business shows no signs of abatement. We will all probably be “satisficing” (seeking an outcome that is simply “good enough,” i.e., taking the best person we can find, either internally or externally) vs. optimizing (taking the best person, period) for 99% of the openings we’re faced with. The fewer quitters you hire at any level, the more winners you will have in your firm to pick from when you really need one. Originally published 8/30/2004

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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.