Are you an amateur?

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 9.30.42 AMA professional firm should have professional collateral, but all too often, bad photos, poor design, and sloppy writing dilute the brand.

Of course you’re not an amateur. You are a professional. You work for a professional organization. You put the “pro” in professional. So why do you let bad grammar and poor graphic design impair how your firm is represented to the world? We set such high standards for our profession, yet we allow a constant flow of bad brochures, reports, communications, proposals, and presentations to influence our brand image. Even our routine emails to clients say something about our organization and incrementally affect how we are received. Even though there are numerous examples that could be discussed, I’ll focus on the ones that seem to be the most common in this industry:

  • Bad pictures. Even though I am seeing improvement, this is a huge problem. The improvements I am seeing are mostly driven by technological advances, rather than an intentional strategy to improve project pictures. Are you sending your junior staff out to take photos of projects with no direction or training? This is how we end up with images taken through the bug-splattered windshield of the Ford Taurus company car. Pictures of poor pixelated quality, bad angles, people frowning or in odd poses, and pictures that do not show anything meaningful, are just some of the bad graphics that need to be culled from your inventory.
  • Bad grammar and spelling. The misuse of me, myself, or I, incorrect punctuation, jarring fonts, overuse of center justification, improper indentation, and incorrect spelling are some of the offenders in this category of brand busters. These also represent the most common and most visible of mistakes your people are making in their communications. This is happening all day, every day, in emails, reports, proposals, and presentations. The list goes on. Now that we have moved from verbal communication to almost all written, our shortcomings in this area are greatly enhanced and visible to our audience.
  • Bad message. Another way we look like amateurs is saying things like: “Our projects are on time and within budget.” Congratulations! That means you provide the minimum standard of performance to be a practicing professional. The further translation of such statements is that you are an amateur among your peers. This industry seems obsessed with overused statements like: “We pride ourselves in offering cost effective and innovative solutions.” If you are saying the same thing everyone else is saying, then you are calling yourself a commodity. We are not putting enough thought into what we are saying and instead our messaging is being lost in a sea of similar messages from competing firms.

The overarching point here is that your brand is defined daily by a number of influencers. It is everything written, visual, and experiential that involves your company. Bad uses of graphics and pictures, grammar, and spelling incrementally erode the image of quality that nearly every firm is trying to project. I would challenge you to do an audit on the pictures and communications that are being used by your firm right now. I’m certain you will find at least a few examples that will make you cringe.

The situation can be improved, and the problem even solved, through education and accountability. There are a number of resources available that offer basic training on grammar and graphics. Online sources such as Lynda.com can provide employees simple courses to work through. Access to the site can be purchased for your entire organization. Also consider “lunch and learns” to engage staff and foster ideas for best practices.

Additionally, a quality control process for outgoing transmissions and materials should be developed and implemented. Recognize that everything your firm produces defines the level of professionalism of your staff and the firm overall. Don’t look like an amateur with bad pictures and written communications, silly fonts and stale messaging. Set the standard high for everything your firm does and have it permeate every area of the organization. Say something different and say it correctly and you have already set your firm apart from the others!

Chad Clinehens is Zweig Group’s executive vice president. Contact him at cclinehens@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1151 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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The blue pill or the red pill?

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 10.15.34 AMSuccessful ownership transition is difficult to achieve, and for it to happen, the first tier has to embrace the transformation brought on by the second tier.

Over the last two years, Zweig Group has supported more than 20 architecture, engineering, and planning firms in their pursuit of transitioning ownership from the founders to the second tier. We have assisted in moving them both financially and holistically to engage the new generation.

Passionately engaged in the work of the firm, these founders worked their entire professional careers to build their organizations. It is no wonder that most often ownership transition is not just a financial transaction, but a process of letting go. “Breaking up is hard to do,” but letting go is harder – and can create potential opportunity beyond anything they could imagine.

The fear is often the realization that they are turning over what they created, the very end game of their career, and placing their annuity in the hands of a younger generation that has to make good on its promise to safeguard the legacy.

The challenge of the founder is to not just sell stock to another tier of leaders, but most importantly, to let second- and third-tier leaders handle vision, business development, and day-to-day operations. We have helped those in their seventies realize and materialize their idea, and we have assisted those in their thirties with creating their end goal transition so that when they reach their 50s, they have a strategic succession plan.

When we finally get into the details of the leadership transition, we often find that the senior leaders have often not thought about “Who are the Whos?” – the most critical and often least thought about question.

Recently, we provided strategic planning to a highly dynamic firm that could not make the decision as to “Who are the Whos?” from a leadership transition perspective. Turning to wisdom that transcends even our rational thought, Dr. Seuss provided the answer to the conundrum. It was classic Dr. Seuss, in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. All of the Who’s in Whoville were saved by Mary Lou Who, the Who who transformed the Grinch and saved Christmas. Without the courage to step up and challenge the Grinch, the Who’s in Whoville would have been lost. Mary Lou Who saved them, just like identifying the Whos that will take over the leadership of a firm and propel it in a new direction.

We are often placed into challenging positions to force the leadership transition decision, to radically transform a founder’s thinking and to go out and recommend who we believe could provide significant change to the organization.

In the cult classic, The Matrix, Neo is faced with an extreme decision from the character Morpheus: Take the blue pill and nothing changes, or take the red pill and his world is radically transformed.

Without change, the status quo is maintained, the firm does not change and grow, and senior leadership runs the risk that without embracing the ideas and enthusiasm from the second tier, they compromise their annuity. By taking the risk, the status quo is radically shifted. Change is managed and mentored and the second tier takes the firm to places that the first tier never imagined.

In recent engagements, we have recommended that highly valued, highly competent staff members in their early thirties become, in one instance, the chief vision officer, and in another, president of the firm. In both cases, the staff members were women, offering a radical transformation to the firm’s previous leadership culture and organizational structure.

This change does not come without thought, exploration, and vetting of the second-tier ideas and ideology. Ultimately, it is their responsibility to prove to the first tier that they have what it takes to lead the firm.

Change, in any situation, is never easy. Simple as a concept, but the ramifications are usually sudden, short-lived and over, and everyone moves forward. In ownership transition, the dynamics create the opportunity for long-term change, to radically alter the way the firm moves and operates. That risk has to be assimilated and embraced by the senior first tier.

When change is fully accepted, and the second tier steps in, the first tier need only guide their successors. Their best approach is to gradually phase away from the day-to-day, allow the new team to engage the market, transform the firm, and successfully grow the organization into the future.

The blue pill or the red pill? An apparently simple choice, just not an easy one!

Ted Maziejka is a Zweig Group financial and management consultant. Contact him at tmaziejka@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1150 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

1461791672-InsiderGuideTransition_book_cov_webZweig Group is releasing a new book on ownership transition on August 5, 2016.  See the Insider’s Guide to Ownership & Succession Planning for Architecture, Engineering & Environmental Consulting Firms

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Trade shows, yes or no?

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 9.33.48 AMTake a look at the strategic plan, the budget, and the checklist, before making the decision on whether or not to attend.

Attending trade shows can be a very expensive proposition, ranging from whether your firm sends only one person to having a booth and maybe hosting a hospitality event. So I get asked this question by my clients pretty often. And I have a definitive answer to the question: IT DEPENDS!

There are a number of questions that I believe must be answered in making this decision. The checklist at right shows the questions I always ask myself in making – or helping a client make – the decision about trade show attendance.

If you’re not sure about the answer to question #1, ask your accounting folks. They will know if the firm ever wrote a check for that event. And their records will show whether you registered one person, multiple people, or a booth.

An email to firm leadership down to the department head level will give you the answer to question #2. If the answer to question #1 is “yes” and the answer to question #2 is “no,” this event might be an automatic “no go.”

If questions #1 and #2 result in “yes” answers, look at questions #3 and #4. If either or both result in “yes” answers, the prospects of attending are looking rosier.

If the answer to question #5 is “yes,” there is someone you have been trying to meet who will be at the show, this event might be an automatic “go.” How will you know? Ask the event sponsors. If it is within a month of the event, they will probably share the current registration list. If not, ask for a list of last year’s attendees to get an idea of who really attends. If there are other attendees you want to meet, keep a separate list of them. You will use that list later.

For question #6, compare the description of the event and its attendees to your firm’s strategic plan. If there is convergence, it will be obvious.

For questions #7 and #8, you might turn to your professional network – whether in your address book, or on LinkedIn or another online platform. Ask if others you know have attended this event and what they thought of it, whether they met people they wanted/needed to meet, whether opportunities to present or propose came from those meetings, etc. They will have useful insights about the event and the need for various levels of attendance and/or hospitality.

An additional consideration for question #8 is exclusivity. At one municipal association, no attendee can host an event when there is a trade show event going on. So all the breakfast events are the same morning and all the cocktail parties are the same evening. Under such restrictions, attendees tend to “work their way down the hall,” stopping in each room for a drink and a snack and then moving on to see what’s in the next room. If you are lucky enough to be at either end of the hall, you may keep your visitors for a longer period of time. Otherwise, they will probably be in and out within 10 minutes, and may even make dinner plans with others.

If you host an evening event, be sure to have 6-10 cards to give special attendees inviting them to join you for dinner later that evening. Otherwise, you could end up losing every prospect to someone else’s hospitality.

The answer to question #9 depends on the level of hospitality you choose. If you just want someone to attend, who can wander the exhibit floor, giving out business cards and brochures, and maybe giving out dinner invitations, one person might be enough. If you take a booth, you need at least two, so the booth is always attended. If you choose to host a hospitality suite, you can always have additional people there just to help in the suite without having them give up work days and paying for them to attend the show.

As for question #10, make sure your estimate also includes the salaries of anyone who attends for all the travel and attendance hours they spend, as well as the cost of your give-aways and any hospitality expenses.

For question #11, I like to have one or two inexpensive items that I can keep on the table, and one more expensive item that I keep under the table and give only to those people who spend some time with me telling me about their firm’s needs and letting me share information on how my firm can help with those needs. These are the interactions more likely to result in an extended conversation later, an opportunity to present or propose, or even a contract for a specific project.

Whether you decide to put a representative on the exhibit floor, host a booth or host a hospitality event, make sure to invite the people you listed in the answer to question #5. If you’re just having one or two people attend, you can still contact someone, express a desire to meet them for 10-15 minutes, and offer to “buy the first cup of coffee.” If one or two of the people you want to meet agree to meet you for coffee or a meal, you might consider attendance at the trade show well worth the price.

Bernie Siben, CPSM, is owner and principal consultant with the Siben Consult, LLC, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultant located in Austin, Texas. He can be reached 559-901-9596 or at bernie@sibenconsult.com.

This article is from issue 1150 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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Believe it: Quality counts

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 9.01.27 AMIf a firm wants to succeed at a high level, it must keep a keen eye on the documents, and have an ear for what the client needs.

It’s my experience that too many firms give lip service to quality assurance and quality control. Quality assurance is the process or set of processes used to measure and assure the quality of a product, while quality control is the process of ensuring products and services meet consumer expectations.

Do you have an active and thorough QA/QC program in your firm? If not, why not? If you were to ask your clients, “How important is it that we have a QA/QC program?” how do you think they would respond?  Probably with something like, “WHAT? What kind of question is that? How could we trust you if you didn’t?”

While most organizations I talk to claim they have QA/QC processes, when I look deeply into the firm’s practices, the reality of any rigorous QA/QC program is virtually non-existent. I’ve pressed the firms I’ve worked with to query their insurance carrier about what the impact of a well-documented QA/QC, metrics-driven program could have on their insurance rates. Their jaws have dropped.

Yes, QA/QC can pay for itself many times over – not just with reduced rates, but with reduced claims for errors and omissions and fewer claims from contractors for time extensions, which usually find their way to your doorstep if an error in your drawing is the cause.

In our business, quality assurance relates to the accuracy and completeness of the documents from which a project will be built. There are a few excellent methods to catch problems before your drawings get into the contractor’s hands.

In 1976 when I opened an office for Gensler in Los Angeles, one of the young, aspiring architects I hired came to me one morning and said, “We need some grey hair around here,” meaning someone who had seen every flaw in a set of drawings that could be made and who would review and mark up the drawings for correction. Subsequently, we got a three-for-one package when we hired the senior architect the young architect recommended.

John Perkins had an eagle eye for errors, inconsistencies, missing information and inappropriate or impossible-to-build details. He was also a great coach and a wonderful specification writer.  He had the ability to teach a group of young practitioners how to put together a complete and consistent set of drawings, but also how to completely connect the drawings with the specifications. The latter is one of the greatest flaws that lead to claims in the field or, worse, in the courtroom. We made it a practice never to let a set of drawings out of the office without John’s scrutiny and feedback. No one ever resented it, and all of us became stronger practitioners.

We kept metrics on how we were doing:

  • Number of plan-check corrections
  • Number of Requests for Information (RFIs) from the contractor
  • Number of Change Orders & Claims

When John finally retired for good, and we grew, it was too much for one person. We had several senior production people who took on John’s role. At various milestones in a project (schematic design, design development, then at 50 percent completion of construction documents, and finally at 100 percent), someone reviewed each project, looking for buildability, completeness and accuracy. The overseer shared the responsibility to guide and instruct the person or team that had done the job.

Not just anyone is well suited for this quality assurance role. It’s essential to assign someone who has a keen eye, a clear understanding of how drawings and specifications support one another, and a personal coaching style that is supportive of learning.

Beyond making sure drawings are completed and accurate, quality control ensures the work is a consistent and creative solution to what the client is trying to accomplish. Think about it: The building has been completed on time/on budget, with no errors or omissions, no disputes, and a very happy relationship between owner, architect and contractor – but it’s the wrong building! It doesn’t accomplish its purpose very well. It’s a church where the parishioners don’t feel spiritual and don’t put much in the offering plate. It’s a call center where turnover increases, raising recruiting and training costs. It’s a hospital where rates of infection go up and post-operative patient stays increase.

We always started every project by asking key questions about the metrics our clients wanted to track to be sure the building was affecting business performance indicators in a positive manner. We asked the client why they had hired us, what they saw in us that they felt would make their business perform successfully. We needed to know what was important to them.

We displayed these client notes, often in the form of a large storyboard, at each design meeting, so we could check in with the client to see if these were still the priorities, or if something needed to be added. We presented each design element, describing how it would affect behavior in such a way that it enhanced business performance. Post completion, we gathered statistical evidence from the client to be certain our design had accomplished what we and the client set out to do. This process kept us focused on the project goals, and gave us a body of data about our work. It also helped set a cultural attitude about what we were doing on each succeeding project.

Give these ideas a try. Let me know if your work improves, your insurance rates go down, your staff has a better time, and your clients tell other potential clients how terrific you are. 

Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at efriedrichs@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1149 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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Competition and the Theory of Relativity

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 9.31.44 AMYou have to keep your firm moving if you hope to stay ahead of the competition, and if you want your firm to age gracefully.

If you’ve ever spent any time at the beach, you may have noticed two distinct characters. One is the tanned, 50-year-old blonde basking in the sun on her lounge chair. Her leather-like skin makes her look 20 years older than she really is. Contrast that with the 50-year-old surfer, effortlessly maneuvering his longboard on the rolling waves. He’s nearly indistinguishable from the other surfers 20 years his junior.

Albert Einstein thought about this. Well, not about this beach scene. But he did discuss the relationship between fast- and slow-moving objects in his Special Theory of Relativity.

So what does this have to do with the AEC industry, you ask? I’m one of those people who is always searching for a way to connect the dots, and I found that Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity provides another way of explaining the difference between fast-growth entrepreneurial firms and slow-growth small businesses.

In a previous TZL article, I recommended reading obscure books few others read as a way to broaden your river of knowledge in leadership and business concepts. The current book on my nightstand is Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Released in 1988, Hawking’s book does a great job of explaining the space-time concept of Einstein’s theory that we can use to understand how some firms out-compete other firms in our industry.

In very simplistic terms, Einstein’s theory suggests that objects in motion, and traveling at very high speeds relative to slow-moving observers, will age more slowly than the static observers.

Imagine two successful engineers, Andrew and Ben. They begin working at the same design firm straight out of college and at age 40 each decides to leave the company to establish his own firm.

Andrew begins building his business by reaching out to his past clients and grows at the industry average of 5 percent per year. Ben decides to take another path and competes for projects beyond his firm’s current capacity. His strategy pays off and he’s able to grow at the rate of 20% each year.

By the time Andrew and Ben turn 50, Ben has increased his firm’s revenue four-fold relative to Andrew’s firm. Both have likely worked a similar number of hours each week, but it’s also likely that Ben’s work hours were more productive with a flurry of activity. Not the 186,000 miles per second speed of light kind of flurry, but it sure felt that way to Ben. I’m sure Andrew was busy, as well, as he enthusiastically prepared project proposals with the non-inspiring lead in: “We provide innovative solutions to give you a competitive advantage.” It’s no wonder Andrew’s is a slow-growth firm.

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity states that when two bodies later converge, the slower-moving body will have aged considerably relative to the fast-moving body. Indeed, when Andrew and Ben meet again at Zweig Group’s Hot Firm and AEC Industry Awards Conference 10 years later, there’s a distinct difference between the two firm owners.

Both are now age 60, but look at the work years remaining. Andrew has only a few years left to increase the value of his firm before he reaches normal retirement age. At this 20-year point, the revenue at Andrew’s firm is the same as Ben’s firm at the 5-year point. In other words, Andrew’s slow-growth firm will have aged 20 years to Ben’s fast-growth firm’s 5 years. To me, that sounds exactly as Einstein predicted when he published his theory over one hundred years ago!

With a much higher firm valuation, Ben is in the driver’s seat and can command a better price for his firm when he decides to sell. That would afford him the opportunity to move to a place where it’s always sunny and warm and he can hit the surf every morning. Andrew, on the other hand, will have to decide between working late into life or retiring and selling his firm at a much reduced price relative to Ben’s firm.

What can you do to slow your firm’s aging process?

  • Move! Keep your firm in motion, and as car aficionado Mark Zweig says: “Don’t let up on the gas!” Slowing down to bask in the glow of last year’s successes accelerates the aging process by forcing you to work harder to catch up with the fast-growth competition.
  • Develop a growth plan and stick to it. Don’t get too comfortable with the status quo. Push yourself and your firm beyond the “business as usual” mentality. View every decision your firm makes from the lens of: “Will this contribute to the growth of our firm?” If it doesn’t contribute to your growth, it could be slowing you down and causing you to age faster.
  • Stay engaged. Continue to improve the skills of your principals, project managers, and team members by ensuring they’re educated and trained in the latest concepts and techniques. Attending conferences to stay abreast of the current issues in the industry will keep your eyes fresh.
  • Constantly read to keep your mind active. It doesn’t matter whether you’re reading a newspaper or a physics book. Reading exercises the synapses in your brain and, according to one study, can rewire your brain and transform you into a continuous learner. Create a “Recommended Reading List” for your firm.

Which path is your firm on? Are the decisions you’re making today designed to keep your firm young, vibrant, and competitive, or is your firm simply lying on the beach growing old?

Bill Murphey is Zweig Group’s director of education. Contact him at bmurphey@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1149 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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12 quick bits of advice from a war-torn veteran

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 9.14.22 AMNow in my 36th year of this business, ‎I am still learning. Here are some quick bits of advice that have helped me over the years:

  1. Never lose your temper. Being calm is always best. But if you do, say you’re sorry. And mean it!
  2. If something goes wrong on a project, eat it. Don’t try to fight doing what you know you need to do and will do anyway. The sooner you get to fixing the problem, the better.
  3. Don’t ignore HR problems. They will just get worse. Deal with them head-on, sooner rather than later.
  4. A productive team member is far better than a destructive “star.” A destructive star may do the work of two or three people but run off 10 or 20. You can’t let that happen.
  5. The best time to sell is when you don’t need the work. You’ll be more honest with the client and more confident. That will lead to a better fee and relationship.
  6. There’s always something to fix in every business. But you can’t let that make you negative and cynical. Negative, cynical people are not ultimately successful.
  7. Focus on building your strengths versus trying to fix every weakness. It’s always good to figure out what you like to do and are best at. Do more of that and less of what you aren’t so good at.
  8. Longterm relationships are worth investing in. It’s easy to be seduced by a brighter smile or lower price but it takes a long time to build a relationship with a subconsultant or supplier. Don’t cast those aside quickly – especially for those you know have good intentions.
  9. Do as I do, not as I say, is always best if you’re the boss. Set a good example. Don’t be above any job. Demonstrate your competence in the basic work to be done. Pitch in and help out.
  10. Don’t create your own trap. It’s good to be good at doing stuff but not if you are so good that no one else can come close to meeting your standard. You’ll never get away from anything if that’s the way you operate. Trust the other guy to perform.
  11. There’s some truth to every rumor. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Investigate and find out what is really going on with your clients, subs, and employees, because it could affect you.
  12. Take care of your people. They aren’t easily replaced. Loyalty and care for the business should be rewarded.

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s founder and CEO. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1148 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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Underperforming teams

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 3.52.50 PMThere’s a lot to evaluate, and measures can be severe, but if fiefdoms form, or if turnover is high, it’s time to take action.   

Are you frustrated because some of your teams, groups or offices are not hitting their financial goals or performing at their highest level? If you have groups that struggle to be profitable, have high turnover, or don’t embrace your firm’s culture, it can be difficult to pinpoint what the issues are and get them on track. Very often an office is opened or a new team assembled in order to accomplish one of the firm’s strategic goals such as entering a new market, geography or client. Depending on how the group was created – from breaking off from another successful division, to an acquisition, to a key strategic hire, many things can cause a group or remote office to underachieve.

A recent survey of our clients found that the average A/E firm has between two and six teams that are underperforming, and there are many different reasons for this. Options to confronting this problem include replacing team leadership, closing a remote office, or other severe measures. So how do you figure out what the primary problems are?

In measuring the performance of our groups or teams, we often look at revenue or profit goals, but it is also important to understand the other key metrics behind the scenes that are causing the group to miss their primary targets. A variety of key metrics, such as win-rate, backlog and utilization need to be evaluated, as well as other intangible factors including:

  • Poor leadership
  • Ineffective operational and business processes
  • Winning enough business to sustain backlog and utilization
  • Skills and talents of the team
  • Types of projects and clients being pursued
  • Failure to embrace the firm’s mission and culture
  • Unsatisfactory client satisfaction
  • Reporting and group compensation plans

It is important to analyze your organizational structure and compensation practices to determine if you are rewarding the type of behavior that will drive profitability. Remote offices or groups are often not incentivized to share staff, cross-sell or provide work to other offices or groups when measured primarily on their own performance. It is also common for bonus plans to be given on a discretionary basis which promotes individual performance over the best interests of the firm.

Another problem is failure of individual teams to follow company processes and use systems. These groups develop their own processes, use spreadsheets to manage projects, and don’t embrace the company strategy and vision. Silos form and remote offices are often referred to as “fiefdoms.” This is usually the opposite of the desired culture, and stems from a lack of training and oversight, as well as failure to hold staff accountable for performance and not adhering to company policies. This can have a substantial impact on profitability and limit the ability for your company to grow and thrive.

These issues are especially evident when another firm has been acquired, and has completely different systems, processes and values from the corporate office. It can take a lot of time and effort to integrate a completely new company into your mainstream business practices. And when resources are tight to begin with, this is an area that is often not given enough attention.

If possible, moving a key executive to a new office can have the best results. Bringing the discipline, values and knowledge of company practices to a new office or group is challenging, and having someone there from the beginning that already believes in your firm’s mission, follows established processes and embraces use of systems may get the best results. In addition I recommend:

  • Conduct a business assessment to determine primary issues
  • Get one-on-one feedback from staff
  • Schedule regular meetings by firm leaders to all remote offices
  • Include group leaders in regular corporate leadership meetings
  • Evaluate whether organizational structure and compensation practices are encouraging desired behaviors

In some cases, you may try everything possible and discover that a group, team or office is just not working out. So how do you know when to cut the cord? Obviously you want to try everything possible to turn things around, especially if you have made a large investment in them, and have a lot of talented staff that you could lose. The final decision must be based on whether management believes that the team’s results will improve, as well as whether the team is contributing to or detracting from the overall company strategy.

If after all of these steps have been taken over a reasonable period of time, and results have not improved, then there may be no other option than to replace key staff or close an office all together. The key is to make improvements quickly rather than let problems fester and deteriorate. Real improvement can be made with clear communication, determination to instill accountability at every level of the organization, and swift action to stop the bleeding.

JUNE JEWELL is the president of AEC Business Solutions.

This article is from issue 1148 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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RSVP in the A/E/P

234467LOGOIf you are planning an event, pay attention to the details so that your firm can reap the full benefits of publicity, business development, and old-fashioned fun.

Holding an event is not something just for the big mega firms. It is a great opportunity for smaller companies to gain exposure, especially to local potential clients, and to sell itself without the pressure of an interview. Here are a few ways to make it a sure success.

Planning an event takes time. Zweig Group holds a yearly event, the Hot Firm and A/E Industry Awards Conference. Planning for this event starts over a year in advance (prior to the previous year’s conference even happening). Your firm’s event doesn’t need to be elaborate and overly time consuming, but be sure to give yourself enough time.

We know that every marketing dollar counts. Make your firm’s event pay off – it should eventually translate into new clients and better jobs. Open houses with bad Sam’s Club appetizers and cheap wine/beer do not usually do that.

Get specific with a targeted audience. Decide who you want to come and why they should come. Hosting a new product demo, holding a seminar or educational event, or bringing in some kind of entertainment can get people together. Friendly competition such as a chili cook-off, sports teams, or a 5K run is also a powerful incentive.

A local firm we work with hosts an event called “Catfish, Corndogs, & Cornhole.” In addition to the event’s catchy name, it has plenty of good food and attending businesses form teams to compete in Cornhole, which is similar to horseshoes except players throw corn bags into wooden boxes. The event benefits The Boys & Girls Club, giving it a charitable aspect that further encourages attendance and publicity. This event brings a bunch of potential and current clients together and everyone gets to interact with the dynamic leader of the company.

Get help, partner up with another firm, or even bring in something/someone outside your industry. Hickok Cole Architects (Georgetown, DC), took home first place in Zweig Group’s 2015 Marketing Excellence Awards in the Special Event category for its social marketing event – Art Night. Every October, HCA transforms its four-floor offices into a huge art gallery and the proceeds from the sale of artwork are split between the nonprofit organization, Washington Project for the Arts, and local participating artists. Even though Hickok Cole foots the bill, the event brings in over 700 people and the firm estimates the press/media coverage is equal to at least $10,000 worth of advertising and exposure.

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Timing is everything. Consider other area events, industry events, holidays, location and weather.
  • Alert the media (and not just through social media).
  • Charge if necessary (even if the money is going to charity or a speaker/presenter). Guests who are willing to pay the price to attend an event often anticipate that their experience will be valuable or, at the very least, they are interested and curious about what you have to offer.
  • Don’t overlook the details. Whether you are holding this event at your firm’s office or somewhere else, have appropriate lighting, music, sound, food/drink, restrooms, and whatever else will keep people comfortable and having a good time.
  • Capture the event with photo/video so it can continue to work as marketing.
  • Make sure every attendee is walking away with something of value (can just be information).
  • Keep a guest list and follow up with every attendee.

Follow these tips, get a little creative, have some fun, and you’ll be well on your way to hosting a successful event!

Christina Zweig is Zweig Group’s director of research and marketing. Contact her at christinaz@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1148 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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Timing, acceptance, and corporate culture

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 11.02.19 AMNo two M&As are alike, and the more you know about them, the better prepared you are for the unknowns.

Westwood’s long-term plan includes organic growth and the strategic procurement of companies and people that align with our values and vision. Over the years, we have entered several new geographic markets and have learned that no two opportunities are alike. When considering a new geographic location, there are always a variety of entry options to choose from. For example, we might open an office and then staff it with existing employees, relocate a senior leader to drive the local strategy, acquire local experts, or procure a local and established firm and kick-start national expansion. Or, we might do a combination of those things. Westwood has experienced all of these scenarios, but I am certain we haven’t experienced everything that goes with them. There is always more to learn.

As with any opportunity that presents itself, I believe that success requires the backing of a larger strategy and alignment with our business objectives. Westwood’s strategic plan calls for increasing our revenue over the next three years through organic growth and acquisition. There are times that we look for acquisition opportunities where we can grow a particular market in a particular geographic location. Other times, we seek to grow certain markets with less of a focus on where those opportunities present themselves.

For example, we completed an acquisition a few years ago which focused on both residential market growth and geographic expansion. The talent and experience of the people we acquired were the reason for pursuing the opportunity and achieving the success that we did. Westwood was able to quickly build name recognition, enhance our local position, and expand regionally. It also set the stage for future acquisitions in the same location.

We also recently acquired a great group of eleven people in a place that was not on our radar. Our strategy was to grow our power generation group by leveraging more talented and established resources to handle and increase workload. Our newly acquired team had the education, experience, relationships, and the unique expertise to expand our service offerings. It really didn’t matter much where they were located, they were the right people to have on staff! Better people. Better results. Our people are our greatest asset.

Through our learning process, Westwood has become pretty good at focusing on our direction and doing our due diligence. Even still, there are going to be things that are tough to predict or plan for. Three biggies are market timing, market acceptance, and corporate culture.

  1. Market timing. This is when all of the stars align and we can see opportunities clearly. Or so we think. Westwood has opened offices in locations where we felt certain of our success – only to have a shift in a market economy just after we were handed the keys to the front door. These situations are out of our control. The key to survival is having an exit strategy; knowing if, when, and how to act, rather than react.
  2. Market acceptance. Anyone will tell you that it is difficult to break into a new market, especially when there are highly respected and well-established firms already there. Acquisitions should greatly increase our odds of success, yet it can be difficult to foresee how newly acquired clients will respond to the transition. Due diligence to avoid any potential conflicts of interest and quickly demonstrating the advantages of the blended companies will help build acceptance and promote new client retention.
  3. Corporate culture. In our business, the greatest asset we have is our people. Westwood works hard to instill strong values and create a positive work environment – as do the people and companies we seek. Whether through strategic hire or merging businesses, success in blending people and cultures is found when we engage early to discover each other’s personalities and principles, and enable people to share their knowledge and leverage new expertise.

Speed in transition of people, technologies, processes, and products is also vital along each step of the way – though fast is not always best. The rate of speed will vary depending on each circumstance and each step being taken.

Working with Zweig Group, Westwood recently completed two strategic acquisitions. In December, we acquired Pogue Engineering & Development, Inc., out of Dallas-Fort Worth. And, in February, Kadleck & Associates, Inc., also out of DFW. I am happy to say that we are already experiencing success in leveraging each other’s expertise to expand our mutual opportunities. As we continue our growth plan, we look forward to the next opportunity. Even though there will always be things we can’t predict, we continue to learn and become better prepared for what lies ahead.

Paul Greenhagen is president and CEO of Westwood Professional Services. Contact him at paul.greenhagen@westwoodps.com.

This article is from issue 1147 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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Newest Zweig Group research publication takes in-depth look at social media

1451491637-SocialMediasurveycover_webSpotlight Survey finds firms most likely to promote, engage, communicate, spy via various networks.

Zweig Group, the leading source of management advice and industry data for architecture, engineering, planning, and environmental consulting firms, has released its inaugural Social Media Spotlight Survey of A/E/P & Environmental Firms. The full-color, 140 page, digital document offers readers insights on social media usage across the A/E/P and environmental industry related to topics such as promotion, recruiting and retention, and marketing, among others.

“There’s no denying that social media is pervasive in our personal lives,” said Andrea Bennett, Zweig Group’s research and publications manager. “The Social Media Spotlight Survey takes that analysis a step farther – behind the doors of leading architecture, engineering, and environmental firms – to see if and how the best in our industry are implementing these tools to reach their goals for communication, recruiting and retention, and marketing.”

The data show that A/E/P and environmental firms see some social networking platforms – specifically Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, with 47 percent, 47 percent, and 31 percent of respondents reporting a presence there – as more valuable for reaching their target demographics than others, such as YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Flickr, Foursquare, and Behance.

“Firms are definitely seeing these platforms as a means to generate awareness of their services and areas of expertise,” Bennett said, “and they are strategic about including additional media or interactive elements to generate more involvement with the posts.”

The 2016 Social Media Spotlight Survey data show that firms are most likely to use their social media accounts to promote their services (66 percent); network with clients, potential clients, suppliers, etc. (52 percent); post job openings (38 percent); share blog posts, videos, white papers, etc., by employees (36 percent); and promote new hires and/or the achievements of current employees (36 percent). To make these posts more engaging, 63 percent of respondents report including photos, videos, and podcasts.

In terms of recruiting, specifically, there is various among firms’ usage of social media networks to attempt to reach the best and the brightest candidates.

Though only 23 percent of firms overall report “sometimes” using social media for recruiting purposes, among fast growth firms – those that have experienced an average annual growth in revenue and staff of at least 20 percent over the past three years – that number jumps to 40 percent. Interestingly, only 20 percent of fast growth firms report using social media for recruiting “frequently and thoroughly,” closer to one-third of high/very high profit firms (29 percent) – those with annual pre-tax, pre-bonus profits of more than 10 percent over the past three years – and firms overall (30 percent) report doing so.

The outlook for social media marketing as a budget line looks bleak – possibly because most of these networks are free to participate on – with almost three-quarters (72 percent) of firms devoting less than 5 percent of their marketing budget to social media activities and about one-quarter of respondents citing social media marketing as “very unimportant.”

It could be determined, from this very basic overview of the wealth of information contained within the 2016 Social Media Spotlight Survey for A/E/P & Environmental Firms, that the industry is still working to decide the best uses of these vast and ever-changing platforms. Though most firms seem to recognize the importance of a least having a presence on certain social media outlets, and there is definitely an interest in networks such as LinkedIn as tools for recruitment, there also seems to be some hesitancy to devote actual marketing or other monies to social media endeavors, perhaps because – as the Spotlight Survey shows – there seems to be no agreed upon means for determining success or return on investment when using these channels.

In any event, the 2016 Social Media Spotlight Survey of A/E/P & Environmental Firms is a definite must-have for anyone interested in the future of marketing and recruiting – especially digital marketing and recruiting – in our industry, as this inaugural edition will provide the benchmark for all that follow.

For more information on this or any Zweig Group publication, call 800.466.6275 or email info@zweiggroup.com. To purchase the 2016 Social Media Spotlight Survey, click here.

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What you track and report really does matter

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 8.58.10 AMSometimes, firms get lost in utilization and project profitability, and end up solving the wrong problem.

People respond to what you track and report. The accounting really does matter. For example, we’ve helped companies dismantle their geographic office profit centers countless times over the years‎ to implement market sector-based organization structures. It’s interesting to observe all the resistance that we typically encounter. Usually that resolves around issues such as, “Who will be the leader of the office?” (Answer – no one – the office isn’t a unit, it’s just a location and the people there report to market leaders who may or may not be in that particular location). The other frequent resistance issue is management having a hard time letting go of whether or not they “are making money in that office or not.” So, no matter what the new structure is they still insist on keeping a P&L for each office at the same time.

Doing this will completely defeat any attempt you make to change the structure. People will default to their old reporting relationships and behaviors because of the way you’re handling your accounting. Nothing is going to change. They’ll keep projects they should be getting others from inside the firm involved with because it best serves their interests. They’ll cut people in one location while hiring similar talent in another. There are many other potential problems. The bottom line is the accounting has to match the new structure. That means sales are tracked by sector, revenue, cost, profit and loss, backlog, and more. This is how you’ll get people thinking about the sector overall.

Another common issue we often see is the insistence of some companies on over-emphasizing employee utilization‎ rates. You’ll hear people saying things such as, “A one-percent increase in utilization makes us another $400K a year,” as if that was the most profound thought anyone has ever had. Problem is, that’s the greatest over-simplification there ever was. Utilization is probably down because there isn’t enough work to be done. You can’t just increase utilization – people don’t charge to jobs because there aren’t jobs with budgets to burn.

So management still tracks it, pushes it, reports on it, and penalizes those who can’t hit their utilization targets. And what is the result? Management gets what it has been wanting – higher utilization. Of course, they also get more project budget overruns and lower effective labor multiples. The increase in utilization was for naught. The problem is solved but it was the wrong problem!

One last example is the result of over-emphasizing project profitability. I have seen several companies that freak out the moment project profitability declines below a certain percentage. How could that be a problem, you may ask? It’s a problem when PMs begin choosing contract labor over the firm’s permanent staff because there’s no multiplier charged to it. The firm’s own staff suffers utilization problems while the PMs hire (theoretically) less qualified staff as contract laborers because it makes their projects “look better” financially.

We see countless incidences of how A/E firms measuring and reporting the wrong numbers can greatly impact their future. What examples do you have that you’d like to share with our readers? ‎Email me at mzweig@zweiggroup.com. See you next week!!

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s founder and CEO. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1147 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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Sometimes ‘no’ is better than ‘yes’

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 9.04.19 AMIn a good economy, it’s easy to take on a lot of work and fill the pipeline, but some of that work can be bad for your firm. 

In a robust economy like the one we are now experiencing, it is easy to get caught up in the quick pace of accepting projects and enjoying the bounty of filling up the pipeline. The same often holds true when business is slow and you accept work just for the sake of staying busy.  Saying “yes” to every opportunity may feel gratifying or even necessary at times, but it can lead to problems that you might not have anticipated.

Planning and vetting. From a strategic standpoint, you must know the clients and markets you want and that your team can capably support. Are your clients expanding within those markets, and are you aware of those projects? Are your clients entering new markets that you really don’t want to enter?  Discerning the scope of your relationship with your client and the viability of your markets are keys to planning and vetting for your team.

This will inevitably mean paring down the list of projects or clients you can pursue or maintain so that you can manage the work you secure. By being realistic about your capacity and interest in the work, you will free up time to pursue projects that you have identified as more favorable to the success of your firm. If you follow the easy path and simply accept the work that crosses your path, you can end up with a full pipeline that can disappoint you. When the right project opportunity comes along, you may be too busy to accept it.

Being honest about your capacity. Do you have the capacity to do the work and deliver it based on your client’s needs? Being honest about your capacity and ability to do the work to the satisfaction of your client is an important step to enhancing your credibility and brand value. Long-term, there is greater benefit to the firm if you are recognized in the marketplace as a firm which performs as advertised.

When you say “yes” to everything, you may develop the reputation as the “dumping ground” in the market. It is possible that you are not getting the work because your client likes your service, but only because your competitors are turning them down. If you haven’t established your criteria to accept work which should include your capacity to engage in a project, complete it and profit from the work you accept, how can you continue to randomly accept work?

Because the economy has rebounded, there is also a serious shortage of talent and staffing resources. In this hiring environment, it can be very difficult and costly to buy your way out of this shortage. Are you spending all of your profit just to staff up for business when that business is not in your best long-term interest? Also, adding people just for the sake of gaining numbers to fill jobs for projects that do not fit your strategic plan can adversely impact your firm from the inside out.

Declining: The value of a strategic “no.” Internally, it is important that you clearly define what work and clients you want to pursue. By knowing each client’s markets and future opportunities, you can best position your firm to accept the work you want and decline the work that does not fit your strategic plans. So how do you say “no” when it is best for your firm, but still keep the clients you want? You explain why you are declining this specific project.

When you explain why you are saying “no,” you also have the opportunity to articulate the strategic goals of your firm to your clients and, more importantly, how those goals align with your client’s goals. In some cases, you may even refer these clients to competitors who might serve them best for a given project. This may seem counterintuitive, but if you are a true partner, then you need to offer the best advice that you can.

Avoid commoditizing your services. When you say decline and explain why, and when you turn down work or refer it to others who are better suited for that work, you build trust with your clients. You operate as an advisor and consultant, and your client will begin to more highly value your advice and work product. They will recognize that you have their best interest in mind just as much as you have that of your own firm.

By establishing this business relationship, you build added value to your services, and it becomes easier to avoid commoditization of your work. You should be proud of your work, so why ever consider selling it for less than it is worth?

What are you afraid of? There is the risk that you might alienate a client or that they won’t return to you because you have declined them. My experience is that if you say “no” and offer the reasons why, they do return. But if you say “yes” and fail to perform according to their expectations, the road back to the client will be long and difficult.

Instead of being afraid of declining work, you should be more afraid of blindly accepting projects that randomly present themselves. Consider the example of the food chain. The more highly advanced the species, the more selective they become on what they eat. So where do you want to be in the “food chain” of our industry?

Gaining confidence by being decisive. Stepping outside your comfort zone is never easy, but knowing and doing what is best for you and your firm is always the correct decision. Taking on the perceived risk of declining work, which I consider to be minimal risk for making decisions that are best for your firm, can be empowering for you and those who are on your team. We do this all the time in our personal lives, so why be afraid in a business setting?

By being decisive and leading your team to follow a strategic path that distinguishes your firm and demonstrates your core capabilities, you will develop the reputation that you deserve and discover the kind of growth that you will truly enjoy.

Stephen Lucy is CEO of JQ with offices in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and Lubbock, Texas. Contact him at slucy@jqeng.com.

This article is from issue 1147 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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The client database – valuable yet neglected

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 3.50.03 PMYour firm’s list of contacts is critical to every marketing activity, and it can have a tremendous monetary value, too, so make it a priority.

This industry is still doing a poor job of building and maintaining a good client database, also known as CRM, or client relationship management. We see it all the time when we are working inside firms. Furthermore, our research shows that the average A/E firm’s database equates to 40 names per employee. That is horrendously low. Just think about the number of work-related contacts in your mobile phone and how that would affect the number you could claim as your contacts. I often stress the importance of making the distinction between marketing and sales for the purpose of measuring return on investment. The client database is clearly a critical marketing function that requires investment. Your client database is essential for many of your marketing activities so it’s time we start acting like it. Here are a few suggestions to inspire some changes in your client data management policy:

  • Less is more. Consider tying your CRM into your financial management software. Fewer databases is better. I am shocked at the number of firms that have three or more. Consider the inefficiencies and inaccuracies created by multiple sources of client information. We don’t dedicate enough resources to adequately keep up with one database, let alone two or more. Firms have more options than ever for client data management. You can buy an all-inclusive product or you can even tie in multiple databases using scripts or apps.
  • View it as an asset. Your client database is an asset that actually has a monetary value. The more you invest in it, the more it’s worth. You realize this value in being able to better market your services, which in turn drives growth in the enterprise. You can also realize a nice return in the form of cash if you were to sell your firm to the outside. In a transaction, a buyer is going to consider a great client database as one of your most valuable assets. For those of you who view marketing as nothing more than an overhead expense, maybe this will motivate you to start investing there.
  • It will grow your firm. Investment in the database should include both adding names and keeping the data accurate. A constant commitment to data integrity allows you to be more tactical and effective in your marketing. As such, you can increase the dollars spent on marketing with more confidence. Our research consistently shows that firms that spend more on marketing than others are more profitable and grow faster.

Once you commit to improving your client database and getting more out of it, consider making these items a part of the strategy:

  • Share the database companywide. Allow all employees access to client info. That does not mean you have to give everyone editing rights.
  • Assign one person to be in charge of the database. Make this person accountable for the data integrity, training people how to use the platform, and building the database.
  • Mine the data you already have. The widespread use of Microsoft Outlook means that many employees have work contacts in their phones and computers that need to be integrated into the company database. There are programs that can mine the contacts out of Outlook and put them in your main company database. Some of these can intelligently separate personal contacts from business contacts. Also consider integrating other places in the firm that house client data.
  • Use the database more in marketing. Have your marketing staff think of new ways to connect with your clients using the database. Newsletters, targeted white papers, and other information can better connect your clients to your company.

The quality of your database is a reflection of your brand. You cannot preach that you know your clients and take care of all their needs while mailing them a newsletter that has their name spelled wrong or the title they held before their last promotion. This kind of thing is happening everyday in firms everywhere. Your client database either works for you or against you. Start viewing your database like the valuable asset it is and start making it work for you!

Chad Clinehens is Zweig Group’s executive vice president. Contact him at cclinehens@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1147 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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Being involved … just enough

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 9.35.39 AMMistakes happen, and to minimize them without demotivating your people, a measured response is critical.

We had a situation this week – a headline had been added to my recent article on millennials in the workforce by one of our TZL editors that inadvertently distorted what I wanted to say – and it caused some consternation from some of our readers and staff. As they say, “those things do happen” from time-to-time, but it indicated a need for us to change our review process here.

These things happen in A/E firms every day. Someone puts something in an email they shouldn’t put in an email. Or a change gets made to a project right before it’s shown to the client when the principal-in-charge knows that is not the direction the client wants to go. Or a proposal goes out with something majorly wrong with it. There are many more of these situations we have all experienced.

So yes, these things DO happen, but what matters is your response to it. A/Es typically respond by creating some sort of unsustainable review process that there’s no way to actually follow because it is so bureaucratic it eventually collapses. Or, the “boss” jumps in and starts trying to do everyone’s job – equally horrible and detrimental to the company. Neither of these is really the ideal way to handle things.

People hate bureaucracy. More forms to fill out. More meetings. More steps to get something done or “out.” It is a huge demotivator. It slows everything down. It really just doesn’t work very well in actuality even if the logic behind it seems sound. And when it comes to quality, having any steps in writing that you don’t always follow can be the exact evidence needed to prove your negligence.

And as far as the boss stepping in – this is part of the art of leadership. Don’t get involved when you need to and bad things can clearly happen. Get involved when you don’t need to and alienation and demotivation occurs. Do it all of the time and eventually you will be responsible for doing everything yourself. Your people will just throw up their hands.

I think the only real answer to this conundrum that all of us find ourselves in (probably daily), is this: You have to inject yourself – just the right amount of your input at the exact right time – so you get the end result you want but don’t demotivate anyone. You’ll also grow better people who can make good decisions on their own over time and then not need as much of “your input” into what they do. ‎And whatever grows our people is what we all need to be concerned with. That’s the only way for us to grow – as individuals and firms.

Thoughts on this subject? Send me your emails at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s founder and CEO. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1146 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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Engendering trust and respect

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 4.27.49 PMThose of us in the A/E/P industry have a choice to make. Should we be adversaries or colleagues? Colleagues is the right answer.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the place of “trust” and “respect” in the work we do. What is it, how do we get it, give it and sustain it? Why do some people and teams we work with thrive on it, taking all the stress out of the work we do, and others seem to foster conflict, antagonism and tension?

I’ve been aware of the degradation of trust and respect in our society for some time. I often refer to it as a loss of civility. But that’s only the symptom. I’m currently in a work setting where the respect level among the entire team is quite high, causing me to examine closely why this is the case. In this circumstance the team includes an architect, engineers, contractor, client/developer, city staff, and elected officials. In other words, it comprises nearly everyone needed to bring a program from an idea to a design, to permits, to construction, and to reality.

This program is in Reno, Nevada. What difference does that make? Different locales and companies have personalities, just like sports teams, police departments, and all manner of entities. By and large, Reno is a more respectful town than many of the places where I’ve lived and worked. I’m much more likely to observe civility here – not always, just more often.

I expect you’ve noticed this in your own work. One community treats you as an adversary, while another accepts you as a partner trying to make the city a better place. A contractor bombards you and the client with requests for information, delay claims, and change orders, while another sits down with you and works through their question or concern as a partner. Each setting contains something I’ll call a “Respect Coefficient.” I define that as an attitude among all involved of mutual trust and respect toward each other, as people and as firms. It also means a respect for and commitment to the mission, a shared notion of what we’re doing together, the process we’re using, and what the positive effects and benefits will be for our community.

A caveat: The group I’m currently working with subscribes to a “no a – – holes” rule. This applies to individuals as well as companies. The firm’s principals have been quite selective about the people they’ve hired and the consultants and contractors with whom they partner. In other words, people and firms with a high Respect Coefficient. There are exceptions. We’re committed to a specific locale and can’t choose to pick up our tent and go somewhere else. Many cities start out with a predisposed adversarial attitude toward developers and architects, based on previous experiences when trust was betrayed because truth was not a priority. City officials may have become embittered, or caught up in their own power/ego trips.

Trust and respect are reciprocal. We can choose to trust and respect, but if the response is still adversarial, we will not have a fruitful relationship. We have to learn how to build respectful and trusting relationships. Building such relationships starts with three commitments:

  1. Always tell the truth. The slightest deviation from truthfulness destroys trust instantaneously.
  2. Learn deeply about every person with whom we’ll interact. Asking another person about themselves, who they are and what they value is the highest form of respect. Talking primarily about yourself degrades the relationship quite quickly.
  3. Work toward defining a shared mission. An clear understanding of purpose and intent on the part of each participant will lead to a successful outcome that everyone will be proud of. An agreed-upon mission that we strive to achieve together means we do well together, our enterprise does well, and each of us does well as individuals. In achieving that common goal we’ll all share great pride in what it’s done for our community.

It takes hard work and patience to adhere to and deliver on these three commitments. There are frequently obstacles and attitudes based on past experience to overcome. Conflicting ideas and circumstances spring up all the time. How we deal with them either builds or destroys trust and respect. I have learned to ask one simple question, and teach others to do the same when a disagreement arises. I don’t blurt out what’s wrong with the other person’s idea, or tell the person how we’re going to do it because they’re so obviously wrong. I simply say, “Tell me more about that.” I sincerely want to explore the issue thoroughly together, demonstrating a respect for everyone’s point-of-view. I may learn something that changes my mind or vice versa. At the very least, we build trust when we are each committed to working together to find the best solution to the issue at hand. We make a commitment to not stop the conversation until all parties concur with a decision and direction.

I’ve found this very effective in interacting with public officials and staff as well. If we invest the time to seek out and agree to common goals for what we’re trying to accomplish, we build trust. If we demonstrate respect for each person’s ideas, we build trust further. What a wonderful experience it is when the entire city council or planning commission turns to an outlier, who has stubbornly refused to help find a solution, and tells the person to please take it up with one of them after the hearing.

These are not simple habits to form, but are very effective when you do. Please try them and let me know how they work for you.

Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at efriedrichs@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1146 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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Workload vs. staff

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 3.05.45 PMHow do you get a handle on billable hours and overhead without losing yourself in spreadsheets? Rely on the gut instincts of your department managers.

I’m honored The Zweig Letter asked me to be a contributor. In the 15-plus years since Crafton Tull began our subscription, we have drawn on the newsletter’s wealth of information to help our business too many times to count. I hope I can live up to the high standard of this newsletter.

First, the obligatory disclaimer: I’m the CEO of a mid-sized architecture, engineering, and surveying firm located in the central part of the United States. Like anyone, it is my personal experiences that shape my views, and my opinions may or may not be applicable to your firm, depending on its size, location, or services offered. Many of the needs and processes of larger firms are decidedly different from those of mid-size or small firms.

I think probably the most difficult issue managers in the A/E/P and environmental industry have to grapple with daily is workload versus staff. The fastest train to the poorhouse as professional service providers is to have a bunch of people without enough billable work to do. It takes revenue generating work to cover expenses (especially that of payroll), so the more our people charge time to overhead tasks, the less revenue we produce, and the harder it is to make a profit.

Industry managers use many metrics to gauge whether their business is operating as well as it should be. From reading different publications and talking to my peers, it seems that each firm uses its own variety of measures to varying degrees. Our firm is no different. We look at project variance (budget overruns), as a measure of project management effectiveness. Our departments have goals for revenue, income from operations, and sales (new contracts). However, for my money, pound for pound, staff utilization (billable hours divided by total hours), gives the quickest insight to profitability. I know when we hit a certain percent utilization, we’ll be profitable, and if we don’t hit that number (say, during the holidays), we aren’t profitable.

Granted, like any other metric, staff utilization can be manipulated by the unscrupulous. You can pump up your utilization by charging an excess of hours to jobs, but then you risk running out of fee quickly. Or, you can charge actual billable time to overhead to keep your budget looking good, but your utilization suffers. We tell our people to ‘charge it like you work it’ and let the numbers fall where they may. Most firms I know include “Integrity” as a core value, so being honest on time sheets should be a given. If you’re going to have the word Integrity on a poster on the wall, then you ought to practice it throughout your business, including the time sheet.

So, how to manage workload vs. staff, and better yet, how to predict what it’s going to be over the coming months? We used to spend many hours in spreadsheets in the pursuit of estimating our revenue vs. costs over future time periods. Each project manager had a workload spreadsheet showing each of his or her projects, and each month they were to estimate the revenue for certain time periods. Those PM workload projection spreadsheets linked to department spreadsheets which then rolled up all the PM numbers for that department. We then added “marketing projections” for projects we were “sure” would be in-house in future months; and all departments were then linked and rolled into one giant spreadsheet showing projected company revenue for the coming months.

I know firms that use similar systems, whether spreadsheets or enterprise software, to do this. You can get really intricate by projecting the hours each person will work on each project in each week. You can then roll that information into summary spreadsheets and reports to project how busy each person, department, office, or division will be. I’m not opposed to that. PM’s and department managers gain real, useful insight by analyzing the amount of work and whether the right staff is on hand to get the work done.

However, from a top level management perspective, over many years of experience, we found a much simpler system that is about as accurate as the intricate. Each month, I ask our department managers to give me a quick guesstimate of their workload over future months 1-2, months 3-4, and months 5-6. Those estimates are represented using arrows: an up, green arrow means they will be busy and will meet or exceed their target; a side-to-side, yellow arrow means they will be steady and may or may not meet their target; and a down, red arrow means they need work and will struggle to meet their target. Put them all together and you’ve got a pretty good picture of what the coming months will look like.

Too simplistic? Maybe, but it works for us. We’ve found that this approach gives us a fairly accurate picture of what our workload will be for the coming six months. It also means we don’t have legions of people spending hours and hours in intricate spreadsheets trying to project revenue and costs down to the penny. And honestly, we’ve found we get as much accuracy with the simple system as we did with the complex.

Granted, this system, like any other, requires integrity and accountability. Our managers know that I expect honesty in their “arrow projections.” If a manager paints an all green, arrows up, rosy picture but doesn’t meet their target utilization, they know we’ll be having a talk about that.

Again, I’m not at all down on PMs and department managers getting into the nitty-gritty of project planning. I’m all for it. But, from the top level perspective, this simple, gut feel approach works for our business.

Matt Crafton is president and CEO of Crafton Tull – an architecture, engineering, and surveying firm based in Rogers, Arkansas. Contact him at matt.crafton@craftontull.com.

This article is from issue 1146 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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Proper attire required

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 9.02.20 AM

I got a text the other day from an old client and reader who said it had been a while since I addressed the topic of how to dress around clients. Apparently he is still suffering through the frustrations of dealing with his people who don’t seem to get it.

He said, “I’ve got grown men asking what the appropriate dress is for client meetings … REALLY … as you said in an article regarding manners, they just haven’t had anyone tell/show them what’s appropriate … that’s my positive rose-colored glasses perspective.”

So maybe it is time to talk about how to dress once again. I’m a man so most of my comments will apply to men. Doesn’t mean I think we shouldn’t have women in our firms or shouldn’t have women in the workplace. I strongly support the idea of both! But here are my thoughts:

  1. Not all clients are the same and appropriate dress varies widely. You don’t want to wear polyester sans-a-belt slacks to go see a successful developer. Conversely, you‎ don’t want to wear a $2,000 Armani suit (or whatever is considered high-style these days), to go see your local city engineer, either. Different clients have different expectations about what is appropriate.
  1. Never is it acceptable to wear clothing that is ripped, torn, frayed, or worn out. It drives me crazy when I see people wearing suits with tears around the pockets, sweaters with holes in the elbows, or one I see in many men today – T-shirts that are frayed around the collar. Or how about shoes with round heals or holes in the soles? Bad, bad, bad! Whatever you wear, it cannot be worn out. You’ll look like a bum.
  1. Whatever you wear, make sure it fits! I see so many guys – have been one myself – with suit coats or jackets that are too small. We get older – we live the “good” life and our gut expands – and clothes don’t always fit. I see it with women, too. Sometimes it’s embarrassing for you (and them). Make sure whatever you wear you get something that fits properly – not too big or too small.
  1. ‎Fabric – natural is better than poly or synthetic – at least for men. That means wool and cotton and silk, and maybe bamboo. Slick fabrics are bad. Stretchy fabrics – not for men. My suits and sport coats are 100 percent wool or wool/silk blends. And shirts – send them out to the cleaner. For $1.50 to $3.00, depending on where you live, you’ll look so much better. A nice, starchy cotton shirt, properly pressed – to me, it’s comfortable and looks like you care about yourself. I also like to wear jeans for work sometimes. I send mine out to the cleaner along with my shirts. Cotton rules. You’ll never see James Bond wearing polyester!
  1. Belts and other accessories. Don’t have a worn out belt! They get old and tired and look bad as your waistline goes up and down. Buy some new ones every once in a while! Ditto for your ties. Old ties look dated. IF you wear a tie get some new ones every so often from a good store (not Wal-Mart). And obviously, today there are a lot of people who don’t wear ties. If you are one of them, buy new T-shirts, please! We don’t want to see your worn, stretched, frayed and nasty T-shirts. New ones cost about $10 each. You can afford it! And get a new wallet. You don’t want to be pulling yours out to pay yours and your client’s lunch bill and have one that looks like you first got it 20 years ago. They wear out – like everything else!
  1. Laptop bags and luggage. Get quality ones. I like leather. It looks classier. Nylon is OK but don’t get a color that looks like it could be used by a college student. I’m not fond of backpacks because I’m an old man. A lot of younger, hipper folks are using them these days. I don’t wheel a bag, either. My leather duffle will stuff in any bin or under any seat and I never have that last minute, “Where’d my bag go?” drama that some of these wheeled bag users seem to generate.

Other thoughts? Send them to me at mzweig@zweiggroup.com. We may help make you famous and print them in a future issue!

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s founder and CEO. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1149 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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The numbers never lie

1446739965-R&Rsurveycover_web-2New Recruitment and Retention Survey sheds light on key issues in finding, hiring, and keeping the best talent in the design industry.

One thing I enjoy about working here at Zweig Group is that we offer a variety of services and products meant to help firms in the design industry do the best job possible, both internally and externally. We have many publications addressing everything from salary surveys, policies, procedures, and benefits, to recruitment and retention, with everything in between.

The data and information we compile helps paint a picture of how your peer firms are doing in the design industry. We compile our surveys to help create benchmarks for achievement and goal setting.

We recently completed the 2016 Recruitment & Retention Survey of AEP & Environmental Consulting Firms. We uncovered plenty of great statistics and information that give us a glimpse of where things are going in terms of talent acquisition.

This survey applies to a broad audience in the design industry. The largest group, firms from 51 to 200 people, comprised 41 percent of the poll, while the second largest group, firms from 11 to 50 people, comprised 30 percent.

Here are five important findings from this report that may affect the way you recruit and retain good people in the future:

  • 55 percent of firms polled have hired an executive search firm in the last two years. This statistic interests me not just because I am a recruiter but because we are starting to see more companies create in-house recruitment teams with one or more full-time recruiters on staff. This approach can benefit larger firms that are trying to keep their cost per hire in line. There will always be a need for recruiters because you may want to pursue someone that you can’t because of a peer firm relationship. Trust me these things can be problematic if not handled the right way.
  • If you don’t use a recruiter, you will have to figure out a way to get the word out about your open positions. A well-placed job posting can make the difference. According to the design firms polled, 71 percent said the best place to post jobs was on LinkedIn, and, believe it or not, Facebook was second at 22 percent. Career Builder, the Craigslist local job postings, and Indeed.com, round out the top five.
  • I don’t find this hard to believe given how prominent LinkedIn has become these past few years. Most recruiters and executive search specialists use LinkedIn as the standard bearer for getting a search off the ground. One of the widest audiences for business people is on LinkedIn and if you are posting a job, why not go to the biggest bulletin board to advertise your opening?
  • Even more interesting is that 57 percent of all activity on LinkedIn is done on a mobile device, according to CEO Reed Hastings. That means companies better get their ads and career sites optimized for mobile viewing. Most in our industry are not set up properly to take advantage of the candidate that wants to search for jobs and interact with companies on their mobile device. We have to embrace the times for they are a changing. And once you find that great candidate, you better make sure you do everything possible to close the deal.
  • Only 53 percent of those polled discuss a counter offer with the job candidate. I was not surprised by this figure. Most firms we come in contact with don’t spend time discussing the counter offer, and this is a mistake. Our recruiting team uses a script to discuss the matter with candidates to make sure we have touched on all of their concerns and whether there could be a stumbling block to them making a decision to join our client.
  • You must discuss it early and often. Most firms leave this part of the hiring process up in the air. In the design industry, it’s hard enough to find suitable candidates let alone leave things to chance. Companies are not letting go of good employees without a fight.
  • Almost 30 percent of those polled said they have used both contingency and retained recruiters to fill positions. Contingency recruiters don’t get paid until they make a placement. Retained recruiters need an upfront retainer for any and all searches done. The contract arrangement can vary from one firm to the next. Retained recruiting in the design industry is still a bit of a secret. Most companies we come across are content to use contingency recruiters but then complain when, a year or two later, those same recruiters raid the candidates they placed. I know, it sounds crazy, but it happens quite a bit. Most retained recruiters create a “hands off” list of client firms that they will not recruit from. We’ve done this at Zweig Group for almost three decades. If the client is not taken care of, they will go elsewhere.
  • 65 percent of companies polled use an employee referral bonus program. I’m torn about this statistic. Our founder, Mark Zweig, doesn’t like employee referral bonus programs for the simple reason that if things don’t work out with the referred candidate it creates a negative effect on the employee. Mark said, “You run the risk of alienating and angering the employee and may even create a situation where they work against the new person hired, so they fail.” It’s Mark’s contention that if employees like where they work, they should want to refer others to come onboard without the promise of a referral bonus. I guess it does come down to the culture of the workplace and what works in an organization. And speaking of culture:
  • 71 percent of those polled said that cultural fit was the most important aspect of hiring a candidate. I’ve written several articles about the importance of culture and how it plays into finding and hiring the best talent. Firms that cut corners in this area can pay the price for their lack of discretion. Firms in the design industry must have a complete handle on their culture. You should know beyond a shadow of a doubt the type of person that will make it in your organization and the type that doesn’t stand a chance. Usually, firms cut corners when they’ve added new projects and need extra people to get the job done. This is the worst time not to be mindful of your organization’s culture. You have to make sure you take care of the people already in the organization, and you need to make sure that the people you bring in understand what they are getting involved with. At Zweig Group, we require everyone to be a “Go-Getter” with a positive attitude. We don’t have time for negativity or schisms. Take it from me, one bad apple can ruin the whole bunch.

This Recruitment and Retention Survey is not only timely but telling, and you should take the statistics and figure out how they apply to your current situation. The numbers only lie when we ignore them.

If you are looking for ways to refine and tune up your recruitment and retention practice, there will be several opportunities to participate in our Becoming a Better Recruiter seminars throughout 2016. Join me for a one-day boot camp where we will bring these statistics to life and show you how to strengthen your organization in the process.

Randy Wilburn is Zweig Group’s director of executive search. Contact him at rwilburn@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1145 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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Break out of your compensation rut

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 9.14.25 AMEnd-of-year bonuses and evaluations are obsolete. Try monthly or quarterly perks for your staff.

It’s clear to me that A/E firms are all in a huge rut when it comes to how they pay their people. The typical firm reviews salaries once a year ‎after doing some sort of cumbersome performance appraisal system. Then the employee gets a raise – sometimes within the constraints posed by an arbitrary salary range for someone in that specific position, say “Engineer 4″ – and sometimes not.

Bonuses are handled similarly. The principals/partners decide who gets how much with little or no information to work with beyond what the employee got paid last year in the way of bonus and maybe their utilization data. The money is paid out once a year, either right before Christmas or on the last day of the year.

If you think paying people this way motivates them and enables you to hire and attract the best talent, then I probably can’t help you. If you think there HAS to be a better way, keep reading.

Here’s what I suggest‎ – and many of you will think this is too radical:

  1. Get rid of your annual evaluation process. No one likes to give or receive these reviews. They take a lot of time and are demotivational. And they also frequently provide the plaintiff with all they need to prove a wrongful termination case. The only feedback that really matters to most employee is the money anyway. Just get your managers used to the idea of providing instant feedback to their employees – both good and bad – as close to the incident as they can. It saves time and money and is much more effective.
  1. Dump your fixed salary ranges. You aren’t a government agency. Stop trying to put people in boxes. Who says these ranges make any sense anyway? Where did they come from? How often are they adjusted? Why do you need them? People are all different even if they work in the same job category.
  1. Change salaries for people as often as necessary. Once a year is not enough for really young people unless you want them to be recruited away by your competitors. Give individuals a raise when they need it based on your assessment of their value to your enterprise. You don’t really need‎ any set schedule. That is self-imposed. You know who is worth more than someone else. Pay them accordingly with no delay.
  1. Implement an open book financial reporting system. Show everyone how much money the company is making or losing, where you stand on collections, working capital, proposals, backlog and more. Tie the bonus pool to the actual cash basis profitability. Set the percentage to go to the all-employee pool, the management/key person pool, and the owner pool each year as a part of your business planning process. Tell everyone what pools they participate in.
  1. Start paying bonuses out monthly or quarterly. Once a year is way too long to wait. If there’s a loss, make up the loss before paying out any bonus monies. Let everyone see where the money is coming from based on the open book report. ‎Pay the individual bonuses based on the employee’s salary as a percentage of total salaries of people who make up that pool. For example, if the company makes $150K cash profit for the month, and 20 percent of that goes to the “all employee” pool, that is $30K in bonuses to be paid that month. If an individual employee has 3 percent of the total salaries of those in the pool, he or she would get $900.

You can disagree with me about how to pay people if you like, but I know what works over the long haul to attract, motivate, and reduce turnover. Doing these things makes life better. People will be happier. You’ll keep more folks as you’ll have some tools to keep them there. You’ll spend less time on it all. There will be more trust in management. People will better understand your business and feel the company is fair. And you’ll be encouraged to weed out the duds because they are getting bonus money they don’t deserve. All of this bodes well as it relates to improving the value of your enterprise – one of the primary objectives of an entrepreneurial venture.

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s founder and CEO. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1145 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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