You have the answers

August 2005 » Columns » VIEW FROM THE TOP
Firms that resolve their challenges often find the answers by looking in the mirror. Following are some challenges common to civil engineering firms, and suggestions for overcoming them.
Mark Goodale

After working with hundreds of engineering firms and meeting with thousands of engineers during my career, it is evident to me that many of you face similar challenges. But, while some firms make progress on these issues, others seem doomed to revisit the same problems month after month, year after year. Firms that resolve their challenges often find the answers by looking in the mirror. Following are some challenges common to civil engineering firms, and suggestions for overcoming them.

What does it take to get people to stay past 5 o'clock around here?—It takes a conscious effort to make your folks feel like they're wanted. It takes an understanding that the same thing that motivates you may not motivate them. It takes sharing information about the firm. It takes projects that interest them. It takes professional development opportunities. It takes an attractive compensation package. People live most of their waking hours inside the company's walls. If you want them to act like owners, they need to feel like owners. And that takes more than pinning corny inspirational posters to the break room cork board.

I'd delegate, if I had someone to delegate to.—What kind of a priority are you making it? Do you have folks who are starving for more opportunity, but you're not taking the time to bring them along? Are you giving them the answers, or do you ask questions and make them find their own solutions? And if your ranks are truly thin, what is your firm investing in finding new talent? If it matters that much, you need to open your wallet and get some help to find talent.

That branch office is killing us.—The most important factor in determining the success of a satellite office is its leadership.

Unfortunately, firm leaders often see a new branch office as an opportunity to unload a problem principal that they can't otherwise confront. Or a branch office leader sometimes is hired from outside the firm and given very little attention from the firm's top management. In any event, if a branch office is struggling, take a look at the leader. Either find a stronger leader; give the current leader the attention, guidance, and tools he or she needs to be successful; or shut down the struggling branch. Otherwise, your firm's profitability will suffer, and you'll generate resentment throughout the rest of the company.

We're not making any money, yet we're insanely busy.—There are many areas to investigate in this case. Cost structure is a reasonable place to start. Are you still paying 100 percent of health insurance costs when more and more of the industry is moving away from that practice? Do you have overpaid principals who are coasting? Can your lease be improved? Are your car allowances for principals out of whack? Of course, beyond expenses, there are other things to consider, such as whether you are working for the right clients. For example, although you have a high volume of work, maybe you shouldn't be working for some of your clients.

Perhaps they don't respect what you do, evidenced by the fact that they dictate unreasonable timelines, are unresponsive, or don't pay on time, if at all. Also, is your staff efficient? The firm's utilization might be off the charts, but if the multiplier is suffering, your revenue factor (the product of utilization and multiplier) will suffer. If this is the case, see the first challenge above.

We're really slow right now, and the cliff keeps getting closer and closer.—There's no question that the pace of leads are slowing down for some firms in various pockets of the country.

Many of these firms survived and even thrived during the recent recession, but backlog levels are dropping. What can be done right away to generate more opportunities? One thing is to host a series of client roundtables at a local hotel. Schedule a half hour for breakfast (make it better than a bunch of stale muffins!) and networking, then have a moderated session for a couple of hours. Have a note-taker at the session, and distribute the notes to the participants that same day. Also, check in with all of your past clients to see how they've been and if there's anything with which they may need your help.

One of the partners is driving me and everyone else insane.—This is a toughie, especially when this person is a key revenue generator. On the other hand, the disruption easily can outweigh his or her contributions. This person must be confronted. You not only need to define his or her role, but also what it is not. The difficult partner must understand that the situation is not healthy for you, him or her, or the company. He or she needs to know what behavior is expected, what behavior is unacceptable, and the consequences for putting a personal agenda ahead of what's best for the firm. And, he or she needs to feel the consequences when this happens. If you work around this situation, you lose your leadership status and create skepticism throughout the ranks. Some employees might say, "It's great you don't drag us into it." But more employees likely will see where the power truly lies—and it's not with you. You can't lead effectively from that position.

Why are people so incompetent?—The problem exists because you hired incompetent people and choose to keep them around. People don't work out because either they can't learn or we can't teach them. Either way, the longer you wait to pull the trigger and upgrade, the longer you'll be left doing the work of two or three people.

Do any of these challenges hit home? If so, what are you doing about them? Tell us about some of the other obstacles that stand between your firm and its goals. We'd love to hear from you.

Mark Goodale is a former vice president, consulting for ZweigWhite.


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