Killing your profitability

Highly profitable firms differ from others in 5 main areas; how does your organization stack up?

When you see some A/E and environmental firms making record profits right now – and others still barely breaking even – you have to ask yourself: “Why?”

The truth is, there are some MAJOR differences in how highly profitable firms operate, how their people feel, and even how you feel when you walk in their doors, as opposed to the operations and feelings associated with firms that aren’t highly profitable. Here are some of those differences:

  • Highly profitable firms are NOT slaves to conventional wisdom. They don’t constantly look outside their firm to other mediocre-performing firms for management and marketing practices of that they can imitate and implement. They have confidence in their own abilities and instincts and instead only do what is best for their own firm. For example, just because many firms have a 12-to-one staff-to-owner ratio, doesn’t mean they automatically strive to have a 12-to-one staff-to-owner ratio.
  • Highly profitable firms eliminate unnecessary activities. How many times have I written that too many meetings kill productivity and morale? Highly profitable firms get this idea. They know more people involved doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of decision-making. They respect everyone’s time and don’t call meetings for things that don’t require a meeting. Those big marketing meetings to discuss potential projects, for example, are usually a waste of time. Why have them? Ditto for formal performance appraisals. Tell people what they’re doing well and poorly as it happens. And, why review time sheets before entry to the system. These and many other needless activities can be eliminated, and everyone can go back to work.
  • Highly profitably firms have strong leaders who focus on their clients and markets. The less profitable firms focus on internal matters and politics. Every highly profitable firm I see has someone(s) acting like competent leaders. These leaders minimize distractions for their people so everyone can stay on task and focused on what’s really important. In unprofitable firms, ineffective leaders are constantly distracted with some minor problem or side-tracking opportunity or another.
  • Highly profitable firms know their numbers. They have good accounting that quickly closes out the month, cleans out the WIP, bills, and collects, and gives everyone in the firm the information they need to make good decisions for the present situation and the future. The numbers are so incredibly important and the profitable firms have good CFOs and Accountants who “get it” and are valued. The less profitable firms are in a constant state of confusion and debate about what’s working and what isn’t.
  • Highly profitable firms won’t tolerate non-performance from their people. Everyone is productive – moving up – or, if not, moving out. The unprofitable firms have tons of dead weight – most often in the highest levels – that their leaders resolve themselves to carrying until the end of time in the name of “family” or some other nonsense. Highly profitable firms know you are only as good as your weakest link AND that good people absolutely hate being dragged down by duds.

So, where do you stack up? Are you highly profitable and enjoying these high times, feeling good about your future and that of your employees? Or, are you missing out? Maybe it’s time to do things differently.

Mark Zweig is president and CEO of Zweig Group. Contact him at

© Copyright 2015. Zweig Group. All rights reserved.

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Diligently Do Your Due Diligence Dutifully

Forbes released an article today titled Trying To Sell A Business? You Need To Look At It The Way A Buyer Would by Steve Parrish outlining the process potential sellers should follow to make themselves more attractive to prospective buyers once the Letter of Intent is signed.  I found this article to be a great summary of how to best prepare yourself navigating the due diligence process, and it all begins with preparedness.

Trying To Sell A Business? You Need To Look At It The Way A Buyer Would

Within our company, we would call an intense self due diligence process an operational audit.  The audit includes operational and financial review, interviews with key personnel, and a preliminary strategic plan.  If you are beginning to consider selling your firm, we can facilitate the process and help set you up for success to get the most return on your years of hard work.  If you’re interested in how to best prepare yourself give myself of Jamie Claire Kiser a call at 800-466-6275, or email me at

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Is that light – or hell fire – at tunnel’s end?

Industry prosperity can’t last forever, but preparation now can help you be ready if – and when – the cycle ends.

Tlight-tunnel-01he A/E industry is hot right now, People! The overall industry is as healthy – or healthier – than I have EVER seen it in 35 years in this business. We have seen some companies doing incredibly well. Growth rates are up. Profits are high. More people are making more money in this business than I have ever seen. It really is something.

But, a word of caution: If you are successful right now, make sure it is because of what you are actually DOING as a company and not in spite of it. If you are just riding the wave of a supply shortage combined with high demand, you could be in BIG trouble when the cycle ends (which it always does).

Here are my thoughts:

  • Make sure your marketing is working and you are getting good jobs with clients who enhance your reputation and pay their bills promptly. A good brand will help you survive the next downturn. Minimizing marketing investments NOW because you can get away with it will ensure suffering later.
  • Take care of your people. Yes, you may have made a lot of sacrifices, cut your pay every which way to Sunday, and made less in the bad times and now are making hay and feel you deserve it. You probably do. But don’t forget about the good people, too, who are making it happen every day. I’m not talking about everyone in the firm – everyone has some less-than-star-performers – but your best people can’t be forgotten now that times are improving. If you do take them for granted, they could be gone.
  • Get some money into some other assets. Look – I love private firm ownership and love to see people reinvesting in their own businesses, ones they understand and ones they control. But I also realize the benefits of SOME diversification. Your 401K is part of that, but let’s face it, we’re all pawns in the scheme of things when it comes to the public markets. Someone always knows more than we do. I would be looking at real estate (it is still favored tax-wise), other businesses you have an interest in or want to get your kids or other family members into, and even investing in hobbies such as classic guitars or antique cars (antique cars, by the way, have done better supposedly than any other investment over the past 20 years). Get some money into some other stuff, so if it gets ugly, you won’t wash out.
  • Look ahead. Think about what you really want to do with what’s left of your life. You may live into your mid-‘90s like my parents, who still live in their own house and drive daily. Or you may die next week from an illness you don’t even know you have. Either way, you should be planning for your exit from the company. Who is your successor? Does this person know it? Does everyone else know it? If not – or if you don’t have one – get on it NOW. The value of your ownership – the very fate of your company – depends on it.

I hope these good times continue. But if they don’t – and you know they won’t – it’s best to be prepared.

Mark Zweig is president and CEO of Zweig Group. Contact him at

© Copyright 2015. Zweig Group. All rights reserved.

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How Many Hats Can a Project Manager Wear?


SPM-4-14Here’s another snip-it from the 2nd Edition of Successful Project Management by Ernest Burden.  

Many project managers are more comfortable with the technical side of the business. The marketing hat that firms are now asking the project manager to wear is just another example of the “PMs are responsible for everything” concept. The project manager gets pressure from both ends. Administration asks them for the financials, then marketing asks for project write-ups, and meanwhile they have to manage the project.

The Zweig Group Project Management Study of Architecture, Engineering, Planning & Environmental Consulting Firms, identifies the multiple tasks that project managers have to perform in the marketing/business-development are firms that have project managers assisting in the preparation of proposals (81%), participating in business development/sales (55%), conducting presentations (60%), making teaming arrangements (47%), and assisting in the promotion of the completed projects (27%). Only 4% of those surveyed indicate that their project managers have no involvement in marketing. Since project managers touch every single part of the business, it’s safe to state that they are the backbone of a firm.

According to Jerry Novacek, President, NovaConGroup,  project managers are also expected to perform a long list of other responsibilities in a firm, and he points out the three different models of project managers, which are:

  • Model 1  The project manager does some technical work but has a few other people working under his or her direction.
  • Model 2 A project manager who has developed interpersonal skills and some marketing and planning expertise and spends less time producing deliverables than the Model 1 project manager. He or she is looking for 40-hour blocks that are billable  but is partnering with the technical project managers on a continuous basis to learn their skills. Jerry says that you only need one project manager for every five technical people involved in projects.
  • Model 3 Project managers are usually the market sector leaders of a group and can manage all Model 1 + 2 project managers. They are highly developed in marketing activities and are able to handle multiple market sectors.

According to Novacek, there are four primary knowledge areas and 12 skill sets – three for each for each knowledge area – that Model 3 project managers are involved with.

The Four Primary Knowledge Areas:

  1. Marketing and Business Development
  2. Project Planning
  3. Work Execution
  4. Project Administration

The 12 Skill Sets

Knowledge Area #1: Marketing and Business Development

On the client front, Novacek identifies the first three skill sets by dividing a firm’s clients into three distinct groups, as follows:

  1. Maintenance clients: Repeat clients based on good client service.
  2. Replacement clients: New clients from the same project types or same market sectors, but clients that may have run out of work, or sectors that the firm is trying to expand their services into.
  3. New growth clients: New clients in other market sectors.

Knowledge Area #2: Project Planning

The skill sets required in this area are:

  1. Project workplan: Laying out the tasks for the project in a logical sequence.
  2. Project contract: Participating in or assisting with developing contracts.
  3. Project negotiation: Participating in negotiations for terms of the contract.

Knowledge Area #3: Work Execution

  1. Standards and guidelines: Governing the execution of the work effort.
  2. Products and deliverables: Items that the client receives.
  3. Project phases: Production management within the project team.

Knowledge Area #4: Project Administration

  1. Client management: Beginning with identifying expectations of the client.
  2. Financial management: Including project budgeting, billings, and collections.
  3. Communication management: Control of the entire team throughout the project

Marketing and Business Development

The project manager’s task in the marketing area is to identify all present and past clients that should be listed as targets for the next year’s marketing plan. Most project managers also take responsibility for keeping in touch with these clients. As they become involved in the sales process, they are more likely to discover other work that the client may need in the future that the firm could perform. The next step for the project manager is to take on potential new clients with whom they have something in common.

Other marketing activities that the project manager is accountable for include knowledge of the firm’s marketing plan, marketing materials, and database functions; active lead development; and securing follow-on work from existing clients. The project manager must contribute significantly to the firm’s efforts in all areas of the firm’s practice, including a marketing role with both existing and previous clients as follows:

  • Bring in additional work from current and previous clients.
  • Participate in initial marketing meetings to discuss proposal requirements.
  • Assist in formulating and preparing proposals.
  • Manage the project team in presentations for new work.
  • Expand the scope of existing work contracts.
  • Get the client to hire the firm for an upcoming phase or new project.
  • Actively seek opportunities for referrals to other prospects.
  • Maintain contact with previous clients to identify new projects.
  • Cross-sell and up-sell all the services the firm has to offer.

Clients should be asked about the next phase in the present project at that facility, related work at that facility, or other operational and maintenance expenditures at that facility. They should also be asked about any of the above at other facilities within the  organization. The project manager’s ability to sell both actively and passively can be one of the most significant factors in the selection process for add-on or future assignments.

Other marketing skills will be highlighted in the following three chapters, and the remaining three knowledge areas and nine skill sets will be dealt with in subsequent chapters.

Project Manager versus Marketer

There is traditionally a push-pull that goes on between project managers and the marketing staff. Marketing directors say they need specific for a proposal, such as project information for resumes, project solutions and the project schedules. Project managers say they are spread too thin. Is there an answer to this pervasive dilemma? The following viewpoints have been expressed by veteran marketers relating to project managers and seasoned project managers relating to marketers on a variety of subjects where their responsibilities may overlap in an integrated AEP and Environmental firm.

About Marketing

The marketer points out that his or her job does not end until there’s a comfort level with the client. They must get the project managers involved up front. Project managers need to be at the meetings with the prospective client to get a sense of any urgency that may be discussed. If the project manager falls down at the beginning of the job, he or she has let the marketing arm of the firm down.

The project manager indicates that when a project is signed up, a marketing form is filled out, naming the client, location, size, and services expected. After a project is completed, the same form asks: Can you take pictures, and was it successful? The photographer takes the pictures, the project manager does a write-up that produces a project sheet on details of the success of the project that goes into the firm’s marketing database.

About Social Connections

The marketer is tasked with making sure that proposals go out on time, as well as making new connections through existing client relationships. There are also social events and personal connections, such as golf outings, dinners, and attending conventions, that keep the marketer connected to current and future clients. In one week’s time the marketer can touch 10-20 clients all in one place, and it’s all budgeted right into the firm’s revenue stream.

The project manager recognizes that one of the most important roles is communication; socializing, developing relationship with the project sponsors, understanding how the project is going to be handled, and preventing surprises. That’s part of the ongoing marketing for the next job from the same client.

About Proposals

The marketer knows that proposals are the best vehicle to show a firm’s expertise, and you really need good marketing materials. Quality is everything. It sends a message to your client that you care about the project.

The project manager explains that part of the deliverables in proposals is scheduled meetings, and looks for reasons for the client to periodically review the work in face-to-face meetings. In this environment, something usually comes up – and it often leads to new work.

About Trust

The marketer advises that, if you have invested a lot of time on a potential client, there has to be a level of trust that the project manager assigned to that client is going to do a great job and that he or she will successfully market that client for future work as well as manage the project.

The project manager looks for someone who can step in and take the ball and run with it. The hand-off is really based on the trust that the client has in you.

About Opening Doors

The marketer can often hold a client’s interest in conversation, then as soon as it gets technical, the project manager can step right in. That technique opens up door after door after door.

The project manager sits down with clients and their representatives all the time and has the opportunity to have a foot in someone’s door every day. That has to be capitalized on to keep your company afloat and growing.

About the Firms Direction

The marketer feels that principals may not want project managers to influence the destiny or the direction of the firm.

The project manager knows that principals have always turned to the project manager to see where the coming market would be and where the future of the firm would be. Project managers definitely have the ability to shape that vision

These scenarios show just how the project-delivery and marketing functions intermesh, and why integrated management practices are needed throughout the firm in order to effectively control the process. The Zweig Group Project Management Study of Architecture, Engineering, Planning & Environmental Consulting Firms, showed that a large majority of firms (62%) track revenue from new clients versus repeat business, and that the firm’s repeat clients (72%) account for a large percentage of the their gross revenue. There is good reason to thank project managers for those numbers.

How Firms Assist Project Managers in Marketing Efforts.

Some firms have developed “Sales Survival Kits,” or manuals, which teach project managers how to market. They explain what materials are available from the company resources and give pointers on proposals, techniques for cold calling, Go/No-Go forms, and other information from published articles. These manuals offer help to get started in the sales process, since it’s not something that comes naturally to most project managers.

Other firms use a client relationship management (CRM) database program that keeps detailed information on all items relating to a client and their project. Salesforce ( is a widely utilized CRM. Notes on meetings as well as research are all stored and easily accessible in a CRM. Project managers have access to it, not just the principals or marketing directors. Critics of CRMs say that some systems are complicated and not very popular with the project managers, since they not only have to do their jobs, but also put their information into the system. On the other hand, people in the design and engineering profession are numbers-oriented, so it can help to keep track of this information in a database. Technical people may not always keep track of how many proposals they worked on or how many times they were rejected. If it’s kept in a database, it’s far better than not knowing. For example, those results help firms stop chasing projects they are losing and start concentrating on those they are winning.

Another helpful source for information is the Project Management Institute (, an international organization of over 100,000 members worldwide. Initiated in 1969, it has been recognized as the international standard for best practices in project management. PMI publishes a body of knowledge which has become an ISO standard for best practices as to the way a project should be addressed for different processes and nomenclatures. PMI has a certification program, with a written examination where you have to requalify every three years through continuing education. It is the protocol of choice, and some governmental agencies require a Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) to run their projects. You can capitalize on PMI and certified project managers in your marketing efforts by promoting that this is considered as industry’s best practice. However, according to the Zweig Group’s Project Management Study of Architecture, Engineering, Planning & Environmental Consulting Firms, a negligible few firms (1%) require their project managers to hold management-specific certifications. Of those that do, the most common is the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification.

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Managing AR drift

Allowing late payments because ‘this is the way the client has always paid us’ is a cash-flow killer.

Accounts receivable is, for most of our clients, the source of all the cash that fuels the firms operation. The timely collection of AR is a critical component of the cash flow machine for the firm.

The CFO, controller, business manager, and financial team spend a good deal of time projecting, reviewing, and collecting the funds that drive the firm. And project principals and managers are called on to update the status of outstanding AR.

Some firms even have a dedicated AR collection staff member, whose only function is to manage the collection effort and AR. There is a large amount of time and effort devoted to collecting the firm’s funds.

One of the biggest issues that firms encounter is “AR drift.”

AR drift is the gradual lengthening of the days outstanding – from 30 to 60 to 90 days and beyond – for the same client or clients. Work continues, the client does not pay, and there appears to be no consequence to the client, who takes advantage of this, and the firm’s principals and project managers accept that “this is the way this client has always paid us”

Sound familiar?

If so, it might be time to take a serious look at why this has been allowed to occur and what the broader impacts are to the firm.

Contract Terms. Your firm’s contract with the client is the starting point for all issues related to collections. It outlines, from the project kickoff meeting forward, the adherence by your principal in charge and project managers to the terms that govern how your firm will manage the AR process.

Your client hired your firm for superior qualifications, expertise, and value. Your contract, which establishes the ground rules for performance, allows your firm to provide those services, and you are authorized under its terms to invoice and be paid by the client. The AIA has established “pay upon receipt” as standard language, other contracts specify payment 30 days after invoice date, and your contracts have your unique terms and conditions.

Why are you not holding your clients to the terms of the contract? More importantly, does your contract have terms and conditions that govern the invoicing, collection and suspension of work for non-payment?

By not providing a sound business approach and adherence to the contract terms, your firm runs the risk of fostering and condoning AR drift.

Client Communication. Are the firm’s project managers practicing effective client communication?

A weekly short email that informs the client of progress on the project and delineates completion of milestone goals is a critical component of effective cash-flow management. If the PM sends out a weekly status report, the firm’s invoice is less likely to receive scrutiny by the client, who has been informed of the progress of the project.

The invoice will most likely be paid faster, and this will break the AR drift cycle.

Collection Policy. Does your firm have a collection policy that is adhered to and written down? Do the PIC, project manager, and accounting department all adhere to the terms of the policy? Here is a guide, though other factors – such as prime versus non-prime contract agreements and specific unique contract terms – should be taken into account. The following policy is based on payment upon receipt:

  • Five days after invoicing: Accounting emails client to confirm receipt and ask when payment can be expected.
  • If payment arrives as scheduled, no further action, if not:
  • 35 days: Accounting calls client to ascertain  the payment status, if no acceptable answer, accounting contacts PM.
  • 35-37 days: PM contacts client PM to determine issues.
  • If corrected and payment is received, no further action, if not:
  • 40 Days: Your PIC calls the client PIC to determine the issues, and if resolution will result in payment.  The date of payment and amount should be confirmed by PIC and communicated to PM and accounting team. No other response is going to aid in establishing payment. Statements from the client such as: “Payment is forthcoming; we will get it out to you” are meaningless without disclosing when and how much!
  • 45 days:  If no payment received, the PIC calls the client and stops work until payment is resolved.

Clearly, the best way to ensure that cash will flow is having expectations clearly defined up-front at the start of the project.

One further way to avoid this is the review and approval of a project cash flow with the client. The cash flow mirrors the deliverable schedule, shows the client that you are concerned about the organization’s resources, and will allow the financial team to have a much more predictive way to manage the flow of funds on the project.

Adherence to the collection policy will also break the AR drift cycle.

Monitoring the Average Collection Period. The critical metric that assesses collection performance is the average collection period. This metric should be reviewed for the firm, office, line of business, PIC, and PM.

An annual review of ACP compares the outstanding accounts receivable, divided by the gross revenue over 365. For example:

  • Annual AR = $ 3,600,000
  • Gross Revenue = $ 11,500,000
  • ACP = $3,600,000/($11,500,000/365)
  • ACP = 114 days
  • The ACP can be reviewed by month, accounting for the period being reviewed:
  • March AR = $ 1,950,000
  • March Gross Revenue =    $ 3,600,000
  • Days through March = 90
  • ACP = $ 1,950,000/($3,600,000/90)
  • ACP = 48.75 days

Zweig Group publishes annual metrics that address the ACP in its Financial Performance Survey of A/E/P & Environmental Consulting Firms. Based on the 2014 Survey, the mean ACP was 72 days outstanding.

How does your firm compare? Comparisons of AR outstanding by PIC and PM are some of the most effective tools that a firm can employ in reviewing, assessing, and monitoring cash flow in the firm. Collaborative and cooperative review of the AR by the financial team and the project team will go a long way to improving the cash flow performance of your firm. By consistent monitoring, the ACP review will aid in identifying where AR drift is occurring.

Your Banking Relationship. Those of you that manage the banking relationship, line of credit and loans with the bank know that your firm’s accounts receivable is normally the primary asset that the bank will review on a consistent basis.

Most banks tie the line of credit and loan values to the age of your accounts receivable. Your firms’ loan ability is directly tied to the firms’ performance on collections. Any AR over 90 days is normally deleted in the analysis of the loan or line values.

Some banks will assess loan ability at 80 percent of the total AR. Others review the client-percent of total; any client over 25 percent is eliminated. Others look at AR that is 30 or 60 days, and where there is 90 day AR, the bank reduces the 30- and 60-day amounts by 50 percent!

By allowing the clients to drift, you risk putting the firm’s access to cash at risk for both the short- and long-term.

AR drift does not have to be the norm for your firm. Effective client, project, and financial management are the keys to breaking the cycle.

Ted Maziejka is a Zweig Group financial and management consultant. Contact him at

© Copyright 2015. Zweig Group. All rights reserved.

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You need to make more money

A/E owners should consider whether their ‘average’ income is contributing to a culture of mediocrity.

It’s interesting to me to see how the owners of A/E firms seem to fit into one of two categories: A few make a tremendous amount of money – high six figures or, in some cases, millions, annually. Then there are the rest, people who are happy IF they can pay themselves whatever a salary survey says is “normal” for someone in their position in a similar sized firm, located in the same geographic area. Obviously, this is a whole lot less than the first group.

What I am going to say may seem odd to many of you, but I will go ahead and say it, just the same: You need to make more money NOW, and it will actually be good for your firm and the other people in it if you do.

You and your fellow principals are the role models for everyone else in your company. If they see you being successful in this business, there’s a chance that they will believe that they, too, can be successful in it. That will hopefully inspire them to work hard and stay with the company, in contrast to believing it is futile to do so and that one has to leave the company or worse, leave the industry, to be successful.

Many years ago (about 30?), I was giving a seminar at the NSPE National Convention in Austin, Texas. I was the overall moderator for a group of engineer speakers, each from a different industry, who were talking to student representatives from all 50 states. Represented on the panel were speakers from academia, government, industry, and consulting.

When the consulting guy got up there – I remember he was a high-level guy from one of the larger national firms at the time – he started out his by saying: “If you ever want to drive a Cadillac, don’t go into the A/E business.” I thought: “What a terrible thing to say to these young people!” And, when I had my opportunity to address the audience, I made sure to let them know that I worked for an A/E firm and had, in fact, driven there that night in my then-new Porsche. That got a few laughs, but I was serious. The opportunities for financial success in this business are fantastic.

When you examine the psyches of the big money-makers versus all the rest, there are some major differences. First and foremost, they think they deserve it. They know if they can run a business that is so profitable that it can afford to pay them that well, then they must be doing something pretty fantastic.

Those who are paid the “industry average” for someone in their position are, by and large, not unhappy with it. And the longer it goes on, the more likely it is that they will just give up on the idea that making serious money in this business is even possible. That, in turn, affects every decision they make and lowers their overall expectations, which reduces the company’s performance. Their firm may become one that actually demands less from everyone working there as a result, and the low performance expectation becomes the reality of the situation.

I’m not advocating that you turn into a greedy person who loots the company and squanders the money on personal luxuries. But I am saying that your success – as measured by how much your business pays you over the course of the year – is actually important for creating a culture of success in your company. And that culture will help you and everyone else working there be more successful over the long haul.

Think about it!

Mark Zweig is president and CEO of Zweig Group. Contact him at

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A leading strategy

Tony Mirchandani_resizedRTM’s CEO Tony Mirchandani has built his career pragmatically and encourages sustainable growth within his firm.

By Liisa Andreassen

Tony Mirchandani, CEO, RTM (South Barrington, IL), a 100-person engineering
consulting firm, has expertise in business development, financial management, and engineering. Upon joining RTM in 2001, his vision and leadership resulted in a three-fold growth in revenue.

Before joining RTM, he was involved in corporate venturing with HON Industries and two start-ups in the technology and consulting fields. He received a B.S. in electrical engineering and a technological entrepreneurship certificate from the University of Iowa in 1998. In 2006, he received an M.B.A. from the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University.

Mirchandani has been included in Lexington’s Who’s Who of Executives and Professionals for his successful service business and an e-commerce business start-ups. He was also featured on the cover of Inc. magazine in March 1998 as one of the future “HOT” entrepreneurs in the Midwest. Additionally, Mirchandani sat on the board for the Governor’s 2010 Strategic Planning Council of Iowa.

In his role as RTM’s CEO, he consistently seeks out opportunities for the company to grow its market share, while enhancing the services it offers to clients.

“To achieve a balance between our external and internal goals, I am continually striving to construct internal systems that support pragmatic sustainable growth,” he says. “Some of the ways I support this growth is by developing a strong leadership team and a company culture that makes RTM one of the best places to work.”

A conversation with Mirchandani

The Zweig Letter: What are your key strengths? What do you feel the key strengths are for an effective leader?

Tony Mirchandani: As a leader, I constantly demand more of myself and seek ways to improve. I know that I don’t have all the answers, so I make a point to consult with my industry-savvy colleagues for guidance. I strive to create a work environment that encourages knowledge sharing, and RTM has achieved this by hiring and empowering great team members.

A fundamental requirement for a great leader is to provide a common vision and a strategy to achieve it. A key strength of my leadership style consists of challenging the traditional approach to doing things, taking responsibility for failures, and being able to commend a job well done. As the firm grows larger, I believe it is important to keep a humble, yet strong, company culture where everyone, from intern to principal, succeeds and fails together.

TZL: How would you describe your work style?

TM: My work style is continuously shifting; I enjoy juggling many different topics or subjects at any given time. I always think 10 steps ahead, strategizing for one, three, and five years down the road. I believe it is important to continually improve my knowledge in leadership, as well as in the A/E industry.

TZL: What has been your greatest challenge to date, and how did you deal with it?

TM: The Great Recession was simultaneously one of the most challenging and rewarding periods in RTM’s history. It forced us to think long and hard about what we needed to do to be better tomorrow than we did yesterday. When someone has a heart attack, it serves as a reality check: Change your habits, or you won’t be around for long. During the recession, it became apparent that the only way to survive was to grow the firm with a purpose, rather than for the sake of growth alone. We approached the challenge by re-vamping our organizational structure and focusing on our marketing and business development efforts. We built a base of clients whose design philosophy aligned with ours and left the rest behind.

TZL: What is your leadership style?

TM: I approach leadership by empowering my team to the fullest extent possible. In doing so, the company has successfully avoided the sporadic and political conditions that naturally develop in any growing organization. A key requirement of a leader is to not only share the vision of the organization, but to also have the ability to roll up your sleeves and help accomplish it.

TZL: What is your vision for the future of RTM?

TM: To become one of the top three engineering firms in any market in which we operate.

TZL: What do you enjoy in your spare time?

TM: If you read any of the first seven answers, you’d see that I really have no spare time. All joking aside, I do enjoy spending time skiing, sailing, and traveling with my family.

TZL: What is something that no one knows about you at the firm? 

TM: I spent 10 days in Israel, 10 days in China, climbed Mt. Fuji, and backpacked through Alaska for five days. Another interesting fact is that I started my career at a furniture manufacturing company in Iowa.

© Copyright 2015. Zweig Group. All rights reserved.

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Scoping out the competition

PPO_graphIt is a good to be to be a principal, partner, or owner in the architectural, engineering, planning, and environmental consulting industry!

In its 2015 Best Jobs rankings, U.S. News & World Report lists Architect as its No. 2 Best Creative Job, No. 19 Best STEM Job, and No. 81 Top 100 Job.

Engineering also makes the list: Civil Engineer is the No. 7 Best Technology Job, No. 10 Best STEM Job, No. 17 Best Paying Job, and No. 22 Top 100 Job; and Mechanical Engineer is the No. 5 Best Technology Job, No. 7 Best STEM Job, No. 16 Best Paying Job, and No. 18 Top 100 Job.

Additionally, in its most recent Compensation Report, the American Institute of Architects shows average principal, partner, and owner compensation between $100,000 and $150,000, regardless of geographic region and firm size.

It has been nearly 25 years since Zweig Group’s Principals, Partners & Owners Survey was developed to assess A/E/P and environmental consulting leaders. Though the basic compensation package components remain the same – base salary, bonuses, and overtime; stock options; retirement plans; and health, life, and disability insurance – a lot has changed. It is not unusual for today’s organizations to offer perks such as company cars and cell phones, telecommuting or flex-time options, and reimbursement for educational programs or health club memberships.

This year’s Principals, Partners & Owners Survey, which was released May 4, allows readers a glimpse into other companies to assess how they recruit and maintain talented principals. It offers points of comparison: How does your firm stack up to its peers? What are the companies that you aspire to imitate doing? Are there things you can do to level the field or make strides toward your goals? Along with an executive summary, the publication includes a workbook for readers to track where their firm is and where they would like for it to be.

The Survey provides comprehensive data on A/E/P and environmental consulting ownership, management, and leadership broken down by firm type, size, and headquarter region. The pages lay out all you could need to know about the types of compensation, work, and perks that principals, partners, and owners can expect, and it goes even further, outlining the backgrounds and attitudes that principals express and the conflicts and challenges that they typically face.

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Measuring performance measures

Though harder to apply and evaluate, assessments of interpersonal skills can promote team performance and increase morale.

I have had a number of discussions lately about how to measure performance. The people I’ve spoken with, both employers and employees, all gravitate toward what I term “hard metrics,” such as billable hours.

For project managers, it’s all about meeting the fee budget and schedule, profitability, number of change orders, and the like. For principals, it may be work brought in or deals closed. All of these things are important and, in most cases, fairly easy to measure. But they can also be “gamed,” for example by blaming deviation from targets on someone else or hiding time (i.e., principals or project managers asking team members to put in extraordinary hours without logging time on their timesheets in order to meet the fee available).

This most often leads to finger pointing, blame, and resentment. The result is, invariably, bad morale (which I spoke about last month). Various circumstances can lead to poor hard metrics performance.

“We just had to have that project, so we went after it with a fee that was too low,” the person who negotiated the deal says. “We knew going in that this was going to be a challenge; you all said you would work hard to tailor the services to meet the fee available, and now you’ve blown through it.”

Or the building department goes off on a tangent about a conflict in the code, delaying the project and causing extensive modifications to the drawings to gain approval. The client says, “Your contract calls for a code compliant design. Why should I pay extra?”

Somehow these things never quite seem to be appropriately accounted for at bonus and raise time, leading to more finger pointing and blame as to whose fault it was that we didn’t make the profit we’d hoped for. In other words, my poor performance is always someone else’s fault. It’s usually impossible to lay an economic performance failure at a single individual’s doorstep. Besides, our objective should be to recognize that success in our profession is a team effort where, together, we’re all looking at the issues that arise and working to address them. Hard metrics often seem to result in each person trying to move the blame onto someone else’s plate.

So, what should we do? While I’m certainly a proponent of keeping hard metrics, I like to use them as a learning tool. What have we done right? What can we learn from our experience to improve our performance in the future?

But, when it comes to evaluations that lead to bonuses or raises, I favor a series of soft metrics:

  • Has the person worked collaboratively, taking personal responsibility for helping the team to perform at its highest level?
  • Has an individual reached out to help another team by sharing an area of expertise that the team needed?
  • Has the person acted in such a way as to shine a positive light on the firm with the client, consultants, building officials, contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers? After all, that’s where future repeat and referral work comes from. We can’t just say: “That’s marketing’s responsibility.”

These are much harder characteristics to evaluate. They require that the evaluator has a close working relationship with the person being evaluated. He or she has to care about the individual’s success. That involves being a good coach and counselor along the way, offering advice on how to do the things that will help the person grow as a professional, making the firm stronger and better respected, and our teams more successful.

In the end, hard metrics, while required, have the potential to bring about dysfunction, resentment, and blame if used as the only measure of success. They can be antithetical to strong team performance if used in isolation.

Soft metrics, while harder to apply and always subject to judgment, are equally, if not more, important in promoting stronger team performance, better utilization of each person’s unique talents, and higher morale.

Let me know what other soft metrics you think are important, contribute to the success of your organization, and should be used to evaluate performance.

Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a Zweig Group consultant and former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at

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Being strategic about marketing

Diverse firms can implement rules-of-thumb to establish priorities and see results for years to come.

140By Andrea Bennett
Managing Editor

A/E/P and environmental firms have several items on their to-do lists at any given time: RFPs to consider; go/no-go evaluations to make; constant communications with past, current, and potential clients; not to mention HR and other internal priorities. On top of all of that, savvy firms know that in order to keep business coming in, they must continue putting their message out through continuous marketing of their services and successes. Though the actual means and message will vary by firm and industry, Zweig Group’s Executive Vice President Chad Clinehens says that most A/E/P and environmental organizations can utilize some basic principles and strategies to ensure that they stay at the top of their marketing games – and ahead of their competitors.

For starters, Clinehens says, it is essential that firms stop thinking of marketing as another overhead expense.

“Marketing is an essential business-building function,” he says. “It should always be viewed separately from support services like payroll and other general overhead functions. The healthy perspective is: ‘With every dollar I spend on marketing, I should expect to get some return in the future.’ Growth starts with marketing.”

Though there is no specific formula or ideal media mix that can be implemented across-the-board, Clinehens says that firms can use some rules of thumb to determine their ideal budgets and channels.

“In general, firms spend an average of 3.8 percent of their net service revenue on marketing, and we suggest that firms outspend their peers by at least 30 percent to gain a measurable competitive advantage,” he says. “There is not a generally accepted ranking of activities that all firms should use to prioritize their investment. Rather, the priorities should be defined by that firm’s unique position in the market and its strategic plan for modifying or expanding that position. Firms, in general, however, need to make sure that they distinguish what is true marketing, versus what is business-development.

“Regardless of size, firms need one person that is solely accountable for driving return on marketing investment. In smaller firms, that could be the CEO, but, as firms grow, having someone specifically tasked with marketing is crucial. We normally recommend this for firms with 50 or more people. Firms should also carefully consider who has this role: Understanding the unique spects of this industry, combined with creativity, is a must.”

As far as where to look to begin making these decisions and distinctions: Clinehens says that it all goes back to the strategic plan.

“Firms must have a clear and concise strategic plan that is updated yearly,” he says. “Have goals and activities in that plan that are designed to advance the firm and its vision. Then provide adequate resources to accomplish the short- and long-term goals in that plan. The marketing priorities included in the plan should be set by a clear vision and mission for the firm.

“At the end of the day, everyone is looking for measurable results. Measurable results, however, are particularly difficult to define in our industries, because we do not sell products in the retail sense, where a sale can be tracked to a specific activity. Rather, marketing activities in firms aim to build a brand, which results in purchases for possibly years out. This is why marketing is an essential business function, not an overhead expense.&rdquo

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Common business problems

Many lessons from ‘Small Enterprise Management’ can be applied to A/E/P and environmental firms.

As most readers know, one of my “other” jobs is that of a college professor, teaching entrepreneurship at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas’ main campus in Fayetteville. Each Spring, I teach two sections of “Small Enterprise Management,” a class where my students work with a privately held company’s owners to improve their growth, profitability, value, and reduce their risk.

While I give them suggestions, I let each student use any means they want to gather information on the business. One requirement is to share their financials with the class. Doing this for 12 years and having 90-plus students a year – each working with a different company – has given me an incredible view into the successes and failures of privately held businesses of all types. It is so interesting to see who is making money, who is losing money, and why. Of course, I always get ideas for new businesses I want to start (or never start!) based on what I learn. Here are some of my observations – and I think there are lessons for A/E/P and environmental firms here:

  • Marketing is the No. 1 problem for small businesses. Most of ‘em don’t do anything. They over rely on “word of mouth.” Most small business owners think marketing is too expensive or a waste of time and, as a result, spend almost nothing on it. Then their businesses don’t grow and their response is to either keep doing nothing or to work on building a better mousetrap – but rarely is it to start marketing! Most owners of AEC firms – in spite of countless examples of firms who have been incredibly successful through sustained marketing investments – operate the same way.
  • Transition planning is frequently ignored. Most small business owners build organizations that are entirely too dependent on them and then don’t get anyone else in there who could take over one day soon enough to have a transition. As a result, the majority of these businesses will start and end with their first owners. Same situation in the AEC world – no transition and a firmly rooted belief that the company won’t be worth anything anyway.
    Family businesses have many special problems. The majority of small businesses have more than one family member working in them. In some cases, the payroll is loaded with family members who aren’t doing anything and who all act like they own the business and can tell anyone else what to do. In other cases, sons and daughters – and sons and daughters OF sons and daughters – are all working together under one roof, and there’s lot of frustration with an aging founder who won’t adopt technologies needed and who doesn’t want to invest in the business so it will grow. Family business is tough and, in my mind, most relatives should start at the bottom and prove themselves or work somewhere else and come back. No family member should automatically get a job. We have seen plenty of these issues in the AEC world over the years.
  • Many businesses are ill-conceived from the get-go. Who really needs another stained glass company, or the 41st undifferentiated Mexican restaurant in a city that already has 40 of them, or a screen printing T-shirt business? AEC firms are much the same. The engineer or architect who starts the business hangs their shingle out with little thought of what will differentiate them from other similar businesses and how they will be set up so the probabilities are in their favor for success.
  • So many small and private businesses have terrible accounting! It’s crazy. I have learned about companies – some of them doing millions of dollars of business annually – with NO accounting. The owners throw everything into a shoebox or run the show from their checking accounts. It’s really crazy. You have to have good numbers to know what is going well and what needs fixing, as well as what could be going wrong soon! We have seen some of this same nonsense in AEC firms, believe it or not. I knew a guy once who ran a second-generation A/E firm as the sole owner. He had 14 different checking accounts and boxes full of paper but never knew how he was really doing.

In any industry or market, some people are a lot more successful than others. The difference that these companies achieve may be two, five, 10, 20, or even 50 times better than the “norm.” You won’t get better results by doing everything the same way everyone else does it in your business, either! Don’t fall into these common small-business/private-business traps.

Mark Zweig is president and CEO of Zweig Group. Contact him at

© Copyright 2015. Zweig Group. All rights reserved.

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Spotlight on Strategy – Brand Building: ‘It’s ours to lose’

OpenResponseSuccessOver-confidence going into a proposal or interview can create a self-fulfilling prophecy; front-runners must be sure to wow clients.

We have all been there. We find out we are short-listed for that project that we feel really good about winning. We did our homework, met with the client before the RFQ was released, and have relationships at the levels of the client organization that we believe we should have. We start discussing the interview presentation and someone says: “It’s ours to lose.”  I wonder if there is a mental effect of saying that out loud that causes a subconscious adjustment of strategy or level of effort toward the presentation.

Whether officially notified that you are the front-runner or you found out otherwise, take note of what your reaction should be. It should be that now you must try harder and invest even more into the last phase of the selection process. Do not allow that sense of accomplishment to distract you into fantasies of receiving that congrats letter and running down the hall and high-fiving your colleagues. Being the front-runner means one thing: The client will expect more from your team.

I recently saw the results of a survey that ranked influencers on decisions-makers when selecting professional services firms. The respondents ranked personality and attitude as the top influencer, then team culture, then project approach, and lastly related experience. These same respondents stated that they find it easy to differentiate firms. I think that statement might surprise many of you who work on the consultant side of the equation.

We constantly obsess over becoming a commodity, as, from our vantage point, firms look very much alike. But when you sit on the client’s side of the table, and personality, attitude, and team culture are your top concerns, then firms really do look quite different. This presents a real paradox for firm leaders. The things we focus on in the interview development are project approach and experience, because we think that distinguishes us from the firm down the street. That focus influences a number of decisions that ultimately lead to an interview that looks just like everyone else’s.

Front runner or not, everyone needs to start looking at project selection processes as more than just a data dump of your qualifications but rather the opportunity to create an experience for your clients. Here are some pointers that everyone can use to close the sale:

  • Choose your team carefully. From the first client contact, match your people with your clients in a way that considers how likely it is they can work together. Don’t look at just the most qualified in the firm; you will always choose the most senior person, and that could really be a bad idea. When putting this in the context of an interview presentation, choose those who attend the interview just as carefully. When personality, attitude, and team culture are being judged, you must make sure the team has chemistry. This is a rare opportunity to show a client who the team really is and how they get along and communicate with each other. A team that is assembled with only the technical merits considered could be an awkward pairing of individuals, and a client is sure to sense that.
  • Take risks. The conservative wiring of technical professionals often keeps them from being bold when it comes to marketing and business-development. Whether you are in first or last place, taking risks and being bold is critical to standing out. Do something memorable and impactful in your proposals and interviews. If you shy away from this, you will only be able to provide cost-effective, innovative solutions to your clients — the same things your competitors are offering. Don’t be afraid to show your clients who you really are.
  • Never assume anything. Assuming that being in first place is an opportunity to relax and even save some money on the interview because the odds are for you, is the quickest way to go to second place.  In the famous words of Ricky Bobby: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” There is only one spot where being in first place matters, and that is at the finish line. Nothing that happens in the race before that matters. Other assumptions that matter include assuming your client does not care how you or your team is dressed, assuming that your team cannot outnumber the people on the selection committee, assuming that the client is not keenly aware of the chemistry of your team, and assuming that the client will strictly follow the scoring sheet that you so cleverly got a copy of.

All of these things are important for firms to be mindful of as they market themselves and attempt to close sales. It is also important to view business-development holistically. It is a courtship that starts with an introduction and may result in a winning interview. It is about project experience and expertise, but it’s also about team culture and your unique personality. Whether you are in first or last place at any point in the race, never take your eye off the finish line, and run as hard as you can.

Chad Clinehens is Zweig Group’s executive vice president. Contact him at

© Copyright 2015. Zweig Group. All rights reserved.

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Stop being afraid to be different!

elephantsEmbracing marketing to set you apart from everyone else can change your business – and your life – for the better.

Good marketing has the power to change your firm – and your life. If you can figure out how to drive demand for what your firm does – beyond your ability to supply it – everything changes. There’s no need to work for bad clients who won’t pay good fees. Say “goodbye” to slow-pay clients; a not-so-fond “farewell” to clients who abuse you and your staff; and “hello” to your ability to attract and retain a quality staff of competent people who always get the job done, a fatter bank account, and a lot less stress.

But, we have a problem: Those of us working in the A/E/P and environmental business – for the most part – when it comes to marketing, are conformists. We’re all doing the same thing – living our stereotypical roles and getting about the same results. What do I mean?

  • Most architectural marketing is about the same. Architects tend to focus on pretty pictures of unoccupied buildings. Or, even worse, pretty drawings of buildings that haven’t been built yet. Either way, the buildings either aren’t being used by people (people are messy) or haven’t been built (nothing screams disconnect from construction costs more loudly than selling a design that isn’t built). These kinds of images, coupled with text full of architectural-speak gobbledy-gook – and you all know what I mean: big multi-syllable words strung together in meaningless diatribes (with a subtle implication of how ignorant the readers must be by comparison) – and, you get the picture. Then, add to this kind of material limitless design competitions, messy offices, and a penchant for odd-looking glasses, and the stereotype is fully fleshed out.
  • Engineers, by comparison, have their own unique tendencies that tend to show in their marketing efforts. They love to use technical terminology and acronyms that those of us who are non-engineers don’t understand, as well as overwhelm readers and listeners with way too much information and way too many details. That 10,000-square-foot commercial building is often over-described down to the type of foundation, size of structural bays, roof spans to the inch, HVAC loads and capacities, and so on. Engineers often get so mired down in detail that they forget what they are doing and why. Couple this with a lack of confidence in face-to-face meetings, ill-fitting sport coats, and a love for gadgets, and the stereotype is well-established.
  • Both architects and engineers, as well as other allied disciplines, are handling their marketing similarly.Way too much effort is expended reacting to opportunities to submit proposals and qualification packages with little thought. Branding efforts are largely ignored. Direct mail/ e-marketing is infrequently used. There’s no good central database of clients and potential clients for each market served. Even sending a Christmas card is difficult, due to the lack of a good list. And there’s way too much overreliance on a few people who are good sellers and who have relationships with clients.

Firms who break out of the stereotypes and get off the well-worn cow paths established by other firms, from a marketing standpoint, really are doing things differently and taking some risks. They build a brand – that makes the phone ring and emails come in with new opportunities that they can carefully evaluate and follow up on IF they are compatible with the firm’s mission and goals.

But to build a brand, you first have to believe it is possible. Take a look at HOK, Gensler, CH2M-Hill, Figg Engineers,Arquitectonica, EDSA, and others. They did it. How did they do it? By focusing on what they are good at. By being consistent in how they use their names and logos. By hiring real experts. By being unwilling to work for low fees so they can actually DO a good job and spend money on people, technology and marketing – so the “virtuous cycle” repeats. By not viewing marketing expenses as overhead but, instead, as an investment in the firm. By being selective about the work they do and who they do it for. And by everyone else in their space doing lots of things differently – from proposals, to presentations, to the actual work itself.

Yes – this is ALL part of marketing. It is a wide-ranging activity that touches every single aspect of your company. It can change your future, and it can change your life. Embrace it – instead of fighting it – if you want to break out of your geographic bounds and make it to the big leagues.

Mark Zweig is president and CEO of Zweig Group. Contact him at

© Copyright 2015. Zweig Group. All rights reserved.

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Making recruitment a priority

A/E/P and environmental firms have tons to juggle, but ensuring that your company is finding the best candidates to fill openings should top the list.

Recruitment is important to the health of a company, and, if you are not seeking the best and brightest to join your team, you are making a mistake. Most AEC firms don’t prioritize recruiting the way that they should. It is usually an afterthought or a knee-jerk reaction to seek the help of recruiting specialists, and, once a fee is generated for the service, many firms opt to go it alone.

According to Zweig Group Executive Search Director Randy Wilburn, good recruiters make their clients more successful by helping them overcome shortcomings in creating the narrative for why a potential employee should work for them or any objections that come up during the hiring process and easing the transition process for the candidate.

“Especially in the AEC industry, where firms want to hire the best and brightest, they have to take this approach,” Wilburn says. “Most of the people that we recruit are happy where they are, but it is incumbent on me, as a recruiter, to get them to change their minds. When I work with a firm that understands this, we almost always succeed in making a successful placement.”

Wilburn says it’s crucial that A/E/P and environmental firms make recruitment a priority and a consistent line-item in their budgets. Firms can determine how much to budget for recruiting based on their needs, staff turnover rates, and growth projections.

“For instance, if a company currently has 200 people and an average turnover rate of 8-10 percent – near the industry average – it can expect to lose 16-20 people each year. If that firm wants to grow by 15 percent annually, it will need to hire 30 people, plus make up for the 16-20 that will likely be lost through attrition. This equates to a total of 46-50 people the firm needs to hire over a 12-month period,” he says. “If the firm has a strong HR apparatus in place that can hire and onboard all of those people in that timeframe, it should be OK. But, the average AEC firm is not set up for this and needs additional help.”

The HR department and hiring managers should coordinate their efforts to ensure that the latest technology, social media, and techniques are being utilized in searches, Wilburn says. In addition to implemented targeted social media campaigns, savvy firms should make sure that they are projecting a strong digital footprint though their website, videos, podcasts, and any other online media they produce.

“Does your online presence make clear the benefits you offer employees and why working at your firm is enjoyable? Too many AEC firms don’t take the time to accentuate their organizations as positive places to work via easy-to-use infographics or gratifying digital spaces, where so many candidates go first for information,” he says.

It’s also paramount that firms’ websites are mobile-friendly.

“More than 40 percent of job seekers are getting information on their smartphones,” Wilburn says. “Not optimizing your website for mobile is a recipe for disaster! This is an additional cost, but, as we evolve and entertain younger and savvier candidates, firms have to be on the cutting-edge of delivering their value in a way that caters to how candidates obtain information.”

Lastly, Wilburn emphasizes prioritizing interviewing.

“Flying good candidates in is also important,” he says. “Don’t vacillate on whether to spend the money to bring in that all-important candidate for a position that’s been open for the last eight months! That’s the kind of short-sighted thinking that will keep that position open. A good candidate is a good candidate, and if they are willing to come visit you, that’s half the battle. Always be willing to put your best foot forward with a good candidate, and, if that means spending a little money to get them physically in front of you, I highly recommend it.”

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The needle in the haystack

Niche positions sometimes require out-of-the-box thinking, increased diligence, and willingness to pivot in order to fill them.

Finding the best and brightest people to work at your firm may require you to think outside the box and even move outside of your comfort zone. Lately, I’ve become all too familiar with the expression, “Finding that type of – fill in the blank with an engineer or architect – is going to be tough.”  I heard that sentiment this past fall, when a client contacted Zweig Group to find a specialized structural engineer with a background in a type of engineering that is the exception rather than the norm. I’m being somewhat vague to protect the innocent, but you know the type of positions that I’m talking about: a clean room design mechanical engineer or a higher education architect with 10 years’ experience. These can be very, very, tough positions to fill.

Good People are hard to find. When you have an important and exclusive engineering or architectural need, you only want the best for those positions. Most of the people that you are looking for are usually well established in their current firm, properly compensated, and satisfied with the amount and kind of work that they are doing.  These are the “good” people, and it may be tough to pull them away from their current employer. This is all the more reason why you should work hard to get these people aboard as quickly as possible. What do I mean by that? Well, for starters, don’t sit around hoping that you can review three or four candidates for an extremely difficult-to-fill open position. If you find a great fit for your opening, hire them!  Don’t tell you HR manager or recruiter: “So-and-So is great, but we’d like to see other people before we make up our mind.” I get it! We all like variety and options, but, in our industry, that doesn’t always happen, which means you should be ready to pull the trigger on a good candidate soon after you meet with them and determine that they are a fit for your needs, work-wise and cultural.

You have to try different avenues to achieve your objectives. Sometimes finding that perfect niche-discipline candidate may prove somewhat elusive, and this is when you have to put your “thinking cap” on and figure out creative ways to find the person you are looking for. I know … I know: It would be great to just go post a job on Monster or on LinkedIn and tap a few keys and voila, but, alas, it doesn’t work that way.

Recently, while working on a difficult search, I attended an industry event for the position I was working on. Mind you, this is a very niche area of engineering, but being at this meeting really helped me to see how challenging the position was to fill. The great thing about attending this event was that I made several contacts that could benefit my client, both now and in the future. You may have to go to specialized industry events to find the person you are looking for. Organizations such as ASHRAE, IEEE, Woodworks, Land/Water Sustainability Forum, among many others, hold events several times a year. A lot of these organizations can be found online, and almost all have meetings, both regionally and nationally. These niche engineering and architecture groups can be a great place to start when looking for that hard-to-find candidate. Grab as many cards and make as many contacts as you can; you never know who you may talk to at these events that may be a fit now or in the future or know someone who is.

Maintain an open line of communication. When you have a difficult need to fill, besides looking under every rock that you can and attending events that may hold the key to finding that missing piece to the puzzle, you need to make sure that you keep an open line of communication with your team. Keep everyone involved with the search, including, HR, the hiring manager, the recruiter – if there is one, and anyone else, up-to-date on how things are going and what the next steps should be, so that you don’t allow a lack of candidates to become discouraging. This especially holds true when dealing with a recruiter: You need to let them know if you decide to change the search. Talk to them before you make any drastic decisions, because a good recruiter can provide insights that maybe you never thought of.

You have to be willing to pivot when a position or positions cannot be filled. Figure out the best scenario and go with it. Of course, if all else fails, you can decide to pivot on the need and come up with another option or a closely related position that you might have an easier time filling. In this instance, conversations with a recruiter and others in your firm may prove invaluable. The more proactive you are, the quicker you can get things done and figure out ways to react to a difficult-to-fill search that may be going nowhere fast. The firms that can change direction the quickest and focus on another need will end up faring better than those who dig their heels in and decide to wait until you-know-what freezes over before they modify the position they want to fill. It’s a tough call, but difficult recruiting times call for difficult recruiting measures.

As always, if I can be of help in any way, in regards to brainstorming a challenging recruiting issue, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I can be found on Twitter @randywilburn and @ZGRecruiting, in addition to my email.

Randy Wilburn is executive search director of Zweig Group. Contact him at

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The PM conundrum

1477789_10152791298915678_4946862984534976341_nFlaws in current system can be overcome through strategic adjustments.

Being a project manager in the typical A/E/P or environmental firm is rarely easy. Think about it: In most firms in this business, it is a role that gets assigned to someone in addition to all of their “normal” responsibilities as an engineer, architect, department manager, principal, or something else. And then, on top of it, the majority of PMs have little or no staff reporting directly to them. They have to negotiate with technical department heads and office managers, who control the actual human resources they need to fulfill their responsibilities to their clients. It’s really a pretty bad deal, and one we don’t often talk about.

The fact that PMs rarely have the staff they need to do jobs directly reporting to them is a real conundrum. It’s the fundamental reason why we don’t blame PMs for poor project performance, too. If you agree with me that this is a problem, let me give you some ways to cope with it:

  1. Have less PMs. Not everyone is good at project management and getting the most out of people who don’t actually work for them. Those who have proven to be effective PMs should get more projects to manage. Those who have proven ineffective PMs should not be managing jobs. Most companies could reduce the number of PMs by about half and improve their overall PM performance.
  2. Get the RIGHT people in your PM roles. This isn’t necessarily the best technical person or designer nor the most senior employee. It is someone who knows how to deal with people inside and outside of the firm, someone who knows how to treat a client, someone who can juggle a lot of stuff at once, and someone who can overcome obstacles. These aren’t the skills most companies even consider the first time they assign someone to a PM role; they’re inclined to worry more about degrees and registrations and years of experience than anything else.
  3. Consider changing your organizational structure. You don’t HAVE to accept the matrix as a way of life. There are other structures – standing teams, studios, market-sector based groups – that minimize work across departments and give PMs direct control of more resources than other structures. You’ll never have enough people who are just good PMs in spite of a structure that minimizes their power. Fix it.
  4. Publish PM performance metrics and share them firm-wide. If you do nothing else, doing just this will improve your PM effectiveness. Budgets to actual variance. Client service ratings. Average collection periods. WIP write offs. Total volume of work managed. Effective multipliers. There are MANY different metrics you can set goals for. Track how you’re doing and share with everyone in the firm. Do it.

Yes – project management, as we know it, is a flawed discipline. But that doesn’t mean we can give up on the idea of doing it better!

Mark Zweig is president and CEO of Zweig Group. Contact him at

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Zweig Group announces Triton Stormwater Solutions as 2015 Hot Firm and A/E Industry Awards Conference Silver Sponsor

Triton-Logo_WEB (2)Zweig Group is proud to announce Triton Stormwater Solutions as the Silver Sponsor of the 2015 Hot Firm and A/E Industry Awards Conference held on September 3-4, 2015, at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, Mass.

Triton Stormwater Solutions has answered the call for a stronger, lightweight, comprehensive underground storm water chamber management solution that effectively addresses the maintenance issues associated with underground systems.  Triton Stormwater Solutions has also kept the environment in mind by producing a revolutionary new structural soy resin composite-based material for the chamber product. Triton Stormwater Solutions’ chamber system saves time, money and land, and offers greater LEED potential than other systems.

Triton Stormwater Solutions provide a multitude of benefits and the greatest value-engineering of any underground storm water retention/detention system available in today’s market. Triton Stormwater Solutions systems are lighter, larger, stronger, more cost effective, and easier to install than other systems.  These systems also are assembled more quickly and easily than other systems, and can be double stacked.  A 700 S-29 storm water chamber system (equivalent to 800 linear feet of 60 inch diameter pipe) can be installed in one day.

The Hot Firm and A/E Industry Awards Conference agenda includes topics on technology, leadership challenges, business planning, marketing methods, recruiting and retention, and growth strategies.  A special awards luncheon on day two of the conference will celebrate the Zweig Group 2015 Marketing Excellence Award winners, and the conference will culminate with a black-tie awards banquet and ceremony in the Fairmont Copley Plaza Grand Ballroom where awards will be presented to firms on the 2015 Hot Firm List and the 2015 Best Firms To Work For ranking, and the Jerry Allen Courage in Leadership Award winner.

“We have some outstanding speakers and sponsors for this year’s conference, each of them is bringing a valuable and diverse perspective that will really enhance the experience of this event,” said Mark C. Zweig, Zweig Group founder & CEO.

For more information on the Hot Firm and A/E Industry Awards Conference please visit:

Additional information about Triton Stormwater Solutions is available at

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Focusing on fundamentals

shutterstock_243798976Becoming a Better Project Manager aims to provide new, aspiring PMs with a knowledge base and toolbox to be successful in design, facilities management firms.

By Andrea Bennett
Managing Editor

On May 5, Zweig Group will present its inaugural Becoming a Better Project Manager seminar in Miami. Led by Howard Birnberg, the executive director of the Association for Project Managers and president of Birnberg & Associates, the one-day course is designed to equip new and aspiring project managers in architectural, engineering, planning, and environmental consulting firms with a fundamental understanding and specific tools they can use to be successful.

A single day is not a lot of time to train people on skills that many professionals spend their entire careers developing. So, Birnberg says he has designed the program to focus on the essentials.

“The greatest challenge to new and aspiring project managers today is really developing a concrete understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing, how they are supposed to do it, and the tools and resources available to them to accomplish their job,” he says. “The intent of Becoming a Better Project Manager is really to give attendees background on what a project manager should be doing in a design or facilities management firm. The program has a really strong focus on foundations and what the job is about.”

What, exactly, is the job about?

“Throughout the program, I must say ‘communications’ about 1,000 times,” Birnberg says. “Communication is the most important part of project management.”

Communication, he says, is the underlying element to the other “soft skills” associated with project management and the basis for success in the tasks of the job, including delegation, time management, and facilitating meetings. Communication also includes the all-important skills of effective writing and public speaking. Even the tools that attendees are provided with are related to communication.

“In the program, I talk about a variety of tools, including project management manuals and change-order tools, which are not just for documentation and record-keeping, but also for communications because they let other people know what’s going on,” Birnberg says.
Attendees also receive a bibliography of resources they can access for additional information – the same bibliography that Birnberg includes in his forthcoming publication, Project Management for Designers and Facilities Managers, fourth edition.

The impetus for Becoming a Successful Project Manager is two-fold. First, the defacto means by which most technical professionals become project managers in A/E/P and environmental firms doesn’t lend itself to much training, and, secondly, most programs – even those offered at universities and other institutions – tend to focus on technical, rather than management, skills.

“People don’t become engineers, architects, or facilities managers to become project managers,” Birnberg says. “A lot of times, they’re in an organization and, if they have any kind of aptitude for management skills, all of a sudden they find themselves doing more project management and less of the technical jobs they started out doing.”

“There are a lot of resources and ways for people to learn project management skills,” he says. “Most end up learning on the job, or, if they’re fortunate, they’re mentored by someone more experienced in their organization. And then some people have an innate aptitude for the communication and people skills necessary to be successful project managers.”

“I commend Zweig Group for taking this series on,” Birnberg says. “A lot of programs out there really don’t focus on project management, and I think there’s a real need for it.”

Registration is still open for the May 5 Becoming a Better Project Manager seminar in Miami. Additional courses will be held on May 7 in Dallas, May 19 in Philadelphia, May 20 in Chicago, June 9 in Los Angeles, and June 16 in San Francisco. For more information, visit

© Copyright 2015. Zweig Group. All rights reserved.

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A client-centered approach

SucceSPM-4-14ssful Project Management for A/E/P and Environmental Firms, 2nd edition covers projects from inception to completion and beyond.

By Andrea Bennett
Managing Editor

On April 30, Zweig Group will release the second edition of its 2011 publication Successful
Project Management for A/E/P and Environmental Consulting Firms
Revised by the original publication’s author, Ernest Burden, Assoc. AIA and principal at AEC Advisors, the book presents an overview of the entire marketing and project-delivery process – covering topics related to how to win jobs to how to make sure they are successfully completed to how to obtain references and future work from clients, once the project is over – from a project manager’s perspective.

Successful Project Management begins with the project manager’s involvement in the proposal process, becoming the star of the client interview, and having the client’s ear throughout the project and beyond,” Burden says. “It outlines all of the tools and techniques necessary to carry out a project assignment, while keeping a finger on the pulse of the client and project through continuous feedback. Finally, it is the project manager’s job to secure future work and/or referrals from the client. This book covers it all.”

The first edition of Successful Project Management relied heavily on the 2011 Zweig Group Survey of Project Managers in A/E/P and Environmental Firms. Data from the study was referenced throughout the book and was used to substantiate claims made in the text about common aspects of project management. The revised second edition also includes Zweig Group data from project management surveys, but it has been completely updated, and a chapter outlining building information modeling (BIM) and integrated project delivery (IPD) technology has been added.

“The second edition of Successful Project Management has a completely revised look and format from cover-to-cover, making for more educational reading,” Burden says. “Case studies have been made more prominent, and they include new photographs. Several new useful diagrams have been added, and photographs were added to the chapter openers to enhance the publication’s visual appeal.”

Among the features that set the second edition of Successful Project Management apart from the plethora of publications available on the topic is its case studies, which few technical publications have, and its emphasis on clients’ perspectives, Burden says.

Additionally, Successful Project Management is designed to cover a project from cradle to cradle, to use a BIM metaphor; therefore, this single book covers many topics that are normally dispersed among several publications.

“My past experience with project management – which includes a career in architecture, for which I attended numerous seminars, workshops, and training sessions with leading project management instructors – was altered severely when I became a consultant tasked with implementing image, satisfaction, and feedback surveys on behalf of AEC firms nationwide,” Burden says. “I discovered that clients had a totally different viewpoint on firms’ performance on a project than what the firms typically believed that their clients thought. I developed a client’s attitude in my approach, and many of their comments appear in the book verbatim from audio and videotape recordings.”

Zweig Group’s 2014 Study of Project Managers identifies managing client expectations (43 percent), the project manager’s time management (32 percent), the management of project team members (30 percent), and staying within the project budget (23 percent) as the four main challenges facing project managers.

“The first three items are covered in extensive detail in this book,” Burden says. “The fourth item is conditional and will come about if the first three are met.”

Though Successful Project Management covers the basics of project management, it is neither tailored nor only applicable to new and aspiring PMs. Several members of a firm, including owners and marketers, can benefit from the book’s content.

“First-time project managers will get a valuable overview of the entire integrated process in the book, not just a one-sided technical viewpoint,” Burden says. “They will see the benefits in getting involved early in the marketing process. They will benefit from an understanding of the client’s end-goal and will see that their job is to help them accomplish that with as few problems as possible.

“Veteran project managers, who already know what they are doing but may not know – at least for certain – what the client is doing, will benefit from the chapters on negotiation and client feedback. And, finally, marketing folks may find some new revelations in the client quotes regarding proposals and presentations.”

The second edition of Successful Project Management for A/E/P and Environmental Firms is available for purchase now at For more information, please email

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Being the new guy (or gal)

1477789_10152791298915678_4946862984534976341_nFour items of political savviness can help ensure organizational newcomers are accepted and successful.

A/E/P and environmental firms are in hiring-mode nationwide. This industry is booming, and we’re bringing on new people – some of them for mid- to upper-level jobs – at a faster rate than I have seen in years.

You may be one of these people, yourself – someone who has recently moved to a different company. When you first join a new organization, it’s critical that you be accepted. You don’t want to be the transplanted organ that’s rejected by the host.

It’s not always easy, but it’s crucial to your short-term survival and long-term success. The whole process is fraught with peril, especially if you are hired as a manager. On the one hand, the reason you were brought in could be that top management wants you to be a change agent. In those cases, you don’t want to let whatever is currently a dysfunctional culture ruin you, so that you become part of the problem instead of part of the solution. On the other hand, it’s still critical to be accepted by the troops, or they’ll “accidentally” shoot you in the back before you can fix the problems you were hired to solve.

Here are some thoughts for those who have just joined a new organization to help you survive the change and make you more effective sooner:

  • Make an effort to get acquainted with everyone there. Ask people to lunch. Make conversation. Get them talking about themselves, because everyone likes that. Also – get out to see them, as opposed to waiting for them to come to you. You’ll quickly make friends this way, and friends help you succeed.
  • Make a special effort to get to know the old-timers and figure out how you can help them achieve their goals. Seek out whomever has been there the longest and get them on your side, because they are bound to be the most skeptical of any change. They’ve already seen many failures and may be able to help you. Ask these people how you could help them and what would improve their daily lives and then work on doing it. You need these people supporting you and working to help you succeed.
  • Stop. Look. Listen. Then act. Don’t be too quick to make changes before clearing them with your supervisor(s) and going through a “sales” process. Change may be necessary, and it may need to happen quickly. But too much change too fast without adequate study is the marque of a neophyte who hasn’t worked in many organizations. And, when you do decide what you are going to do, inform/communicate/sell it to all. Selling means you have to build a case as to why change is necessary (data helps) and then show why your proposal will make things better.
  • Be helpful. Helping people is always the best way to get support. What can you do to make someone’s job better, easier, or to make them look better to the people they work with and for? Do these things, and you’ll be the hero of the day.

These kinds of political skills may seem unnecessary to some readers, but, believe me, they are critical to your success and the success of the new people you’re bringing in.

Mark Zweig is president and CEO of Zweig Group. Contact him at

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