Dear A/E/C Principals: It's time to lead. Your business depends on it. Sincerely, Your people.
Put simply, the better you can run your business, the more money you can make, and the more money you can make, the more money you can invest in your people, whose skills and time are the very thing that you “sell,” so it seems clear that learning how to best run a business and lead people should be of paramount importance to firm leaders.
The recent report on Engagement and Equity from the NCSEA SE3 Committee sheds light on an issue I have observed over the past twelve years working in engineering firms and working with engineers, architects, and construction professionals across the country. There is a significant cohort of people that have considered leaving the industry at one time or another, and that includes people leading firms today. If this trend continues, the future of A/E/C industry will face challenges attracting and retaining the bright minds that we need to continue to create elegant solutions for our built environment. These people will need leaders who can think big and who can lead and motivate teams in pursuit of truly elegant solutions and noble goals.
Although inserting the phrase “pursuit of profits” into this equation may seem at odds with itself, the reality is that one requires the other. In order to maintain a healthy industry that provides opportunities for bright minds to pursue solutions to some of the toughest challenges facing our infrastructure and built environment, we must create and run responsible businesses that can support and invest in these people and these pursuits. How can we as design and construction professionals be as effective as leaders and motivators of our teams as we are as professionals if we do not commit to becoming as skilled at running businesses as we are at “doing the work?”
I have yet to meet a significant group of people in the A/E/C industry that derive as much engagement or meaning in their work from the qualitative, people-focused aspects of their business (e.g. interviewing, performing annual reviews, motivating teams, completing continuing education courses) as he or she does from the technical aspects of the business (e.g. designing a beam, detailing a connection, reviewing a great set of drawings, or coming up with a truly crazy, elegant solution to a problem), and that is a problem. I am not suggesting that they are not out there, but they are a minority in my experience. After all, for most of us, the thrill of solving problems and creating elegant solutions is why we were originally interested in this field.
As I mentioned yesterday, part of the answer may lie in the belief that the skills necessary to effectively lead companies are fundamentally different than those necessary to excel technically, and that those skills are for others to achieve. As young engineers ascend their respective ladders, they find themselves transitioning to managing the people-focused, “soft” issues related to leading projects and teams and spending more time with their eyes on people than on computer screens. This is a difficult transition to make for many, and many continually look for a logical, step-by-step, dare I say "scientific" ways to advance their skillset to better meet the evolving needs of their positions.
Some thrive in this environment, but some find themselves thrust into roles that they never wanted or were not prepared for, and they struggle to excel because they fundamentally lack the requisite skills to succeed, or maybe they do not know which skills they are missing. At a critical time in one’s career development, we look to firm leadership for the answers to what we perceive to be major career development milestones, and management looks back and sometimes says: “This is how it was for me. This is how it is going to be for you.” So we stick it out, in part because we want to impress leadership and in part because of authentic belief that they may be right.
These people may try to keep up, but ultimately feel as though their career path no longer aligns with their goals, and they may leave the profession. Worse though would be staying in the profession, disliking it, underperforming, and ultimately being unable to stay in business. Put simply, we are losing great people to other industries and we are losing great practitioners because they cannot afford to stay in business, and antiquated technical, management, and leadership methodologies, or none at all, are the reason.
Although certainly not a panacea, industry and firm leaders devoting time and resources to developing fundamental business and leadership skills is a lever we can pull right now to start dealing with this issue. Some leaders and firms do this extraordinarily well, and their commitment deserves recognition. Unfortunately, not everyone does, but they can and they should. It can be difficult to justify diverting billable time to skill development time that has no immediately calculable ROI. If your goals are increased profits, increased engagement, and increased business health, it is not clear to me how you can afford not to.
But how are organizational behavior, financial analysis, basic accounting, and change management related to teaching young professionals how to build analytical models, work with new technologies, and communicate with clients in new ways? These things seem completely unrelated to each other, but they are connected in a profound way. The ability of firm leaders to master these leadership fundamentals and leverage them to empower young professionals to do their work well directly impacts a firm’s ability to thrive and pursue important initiatives, ability to make employees feel safe to discuss insecurities and issues of confidence in the way they pursue their work, and ability to accurately analyze risk and generate appropriate fees. These items add up to creating businesses that, hopefully at least, can be financially and organizationally healthy, and can continue to invest in pursuing people-focused initiatives that grow your people and help them thrive in their roles and in their lives. Put simply, the better you can run your business, the more money you can make, and the more money you can make, the more money you can invest in your people, whose skills and time are the very thing that you “sell,” so it seems clear that learning how to best run a business and lead people should be of paramount importance to firm leaders.
Unfortunately, the opposite can also be true. If we focus exclusively on creating efficiencies in our business functions and view getting more work done in less time, or getting the best people to work as hard as possible for as long as possible as the only way to sustain our businesses, there is little hope that we can continue to engage bright minds that are motivated by the pursuit of big solutions to big problems in this industry. We must lead, and we must lead by example.
I fully realize that, when we examine the busy-ness of our personal and professional lives, it may be difficult to figure out where to find the time to devote to working on business and leadership skills, and that is a legitimate concern. However, it is imperative if we want our profession and the people that make it up to thrive into the future and we, as leaders, want to fulfill the highest calling of leadership, which is to provide opportunities for many and create future leaders. At the end of the day, the ability to confidently run a healthy business will allow companies to thrive and invest in their firms in a way that hopefully improves engagement and helps us all promote and elevate our industry.
If you believe this to be true, there is only one question: So where do you want to start? Let’s talk about how to tackle these issues together.