Thursday, August 21, 2014

On Becoming an Owner: What You Need to Know

To be a successful owner in a design firm, you must recognize at a minimum, four points:

1. The informality you have enjoyed with your coworkers will radically change as an owner. By necessity your professional relationship with them will become more formal and business like.

2. Your management and leadership style influences the firm’s ability to attract and retain top talent. While there are examples of successful firms with autocratic (dictatorial) leadership, the trend is clearly toward a more participative management style among the most successful firms. Young professionals will only stay under the strong hand of a centralized, autocratic management style as long as it is convenient to them. As soon as they reach a certain professional and financial level, the most capable professionals will move to a more acceptable leadership environment.

3. You must become a team builder. The skills needed to build an effective team are substantially different from those required to become proficient professional designers. Some leaders have natural talent, but most have to work hard at it.

4. The key to achieving success in any business is directly related to bringing in new work—new clients. Whether or not you enjoy the marketing and sales aspects of business, you must develop your ability to manage clients, establishing and maintaining relationships with them built on trust and mutual respect. The one who “owns” the client has the clout, every time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Winning the job does not mean the marketing of the firm and the team is over. In fact, the moment of highest anxiety for the client is right after they have hired you for the job. "Did we make the right choice? Will they deliver what they promised, or what we thought they promised? Will we be able to get along with these people for the next two years?

Be sure your project teams keep the following in mind:

1. Clients always chose us for reasons other than what we think. Debrief to find out what promises were actually bought.

2. Communicate the results of the debriefing to the entire team at the project kick-off meeting.

3. Understanding the project goals is not enough. Be sure you understand how the client will evaluate your performance.

Right from the start, give the client reassurances that they will be able to work compatibly with you during the process of delivery.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Are You on the Brink of a Bad Turnover?

According to PSMJ research, at least in design firms, people don’t leave because of money—only about 20% cite wages as a reason for leaving and about half that give “workplace conflict” as their reason for quitting. The biggest cause? Insufficient recognition coupled with limited advancement opportunities.

To ascertain your level of vulnerability to bad turnover, take the following short quiz. It will increase your awareness of the factors that can erode employee satisfaction and lead to bad turnover.

  • Are you in a competitive labor market with lots of new job opportunities?
  • Does your firm have a strong orientation program for new hires?
  • Do you have a good mentoring program?
  • Do you have good hiring practices that ensure you hire the right people for the right job?
  • Do your employees believe they are effective in their jobs?
  • Do employees believe they are wanted or needed by the firm?
  • Do your employees see a clear career path and understand how to move ahead in the firm? Is the path to principal clearly understood?
  • Is compensation data readily available to all staff so comparisons can be easily made?
  • Are your employees dissatisfied with their pay?
  • Is your fringe benefits program competitive?
  • Do employees believe there is strong communication between employees and principals?
  • Do your employees respect the management skills of their supervisors?
  • Do employees believe they are being taken advantage of or exploited?
  • Are employees given the training and resources to complete assignments successfully?
  • Do you conduct regular, fair, and timely performance appraisals?
  • Do employees believe they are not being informed of what is going on in the firm?
  • Do employees perceive that management does not have a plan for the future?
  • Are employees asked to act in a manner they believe is unethical?

Now talk with your staff about the important issues the quiz raises.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Age-Old Question: Who Should be Involved in BD?

The answer, according to PSMJ’s salary survey, is almost everyone! From the Chairman of the Board to a junior project manager, your people need to be involved. And who better to sell your firm and services than those who know it best.

Here’s the breakdown of average percent time spent on BD activities by personnel category, as reported in the 2013 PSMJ A/E Management Compensation Benchmark Report:

Time Allocated to BD Activities (%)
Chairman of the Board
Chief Executive Officer
Executive Vice President
Senior Vice President
Other Principals
Director of Finance
Business Manager
Director of Administration
Director of Operations
Director of Quality Control
Director of Business Development
Director of Human Resources
Director of Computer Operations
Branch Office Manager
Department Head
Senior Project Manager
Junior Project  Manager

Follow these tips to increase participation from key people:

* Senior executives. Include them in the BD accountability list. This list provides a reminder that, without clients, your organization is nothing. And who knows the top echelon at your best clients’ organizations better than your senior executives?

* Director of operations. He or she may enjoy the day-to-day in-house routine of running the office. Assign specific BD responsibilities such as client sponsor roles to this individual. Who else knows the full scope of services the operation can provide and war stories to back it up?

* Junior project managers. When a staff engineer gets promoted to any “project manager” role, be sure to sit down with the new PM and clearly state your expectations related to business development. And assign a good mentor (see article on page xx).

You have a wealth of BD assets. Take every opportunity to involve your personnel at all levels!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

5 Reasons Why You Need a BD Plan

Does your firm (or branch office) have a Business Development Plan?

If so, does it really work? Is it complete and functional? Do you point to it with pride as you interview potential staff members? Does your Board of Directors consult your plan and use it for benchmarking?

If your answers to any of these questions is a resounding “No,” then this issue is intended for you. And if your answers are all an enthusiastic “Yes,” then this issue can give you a way to consider an alternate way as you update your plan.

Your firm needs a robust BD plan for many reasons:

1. A BD plan drives your entire business development program

2. Developing the right business from the right clients drives your entire business plan… and your success

3. The BD plan allows you to benchmark your operation throughout the year, and take corrective action where necessary

4. The BD plan enables you to measure individual staff members’ success in developing new and expanded business opportunities, and take corrective action where necessary

5. In firms with multiple offices, the BD plan provides a measure of continuity of mission and approach among the offices

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What’s the Secret to Nailing the Interview Q&A?

by David Whitemyer, AIA

What’s the secret to nailing the questions during a project interview? Easy, ask your own questions.

A few months ago a few colleagues and I were in Arkansas interviewing for a fairly large (at least by our standards) project. We were among the two shortlisted firms who had been invited to meet the selection committee.

The firm we were competing with was an established organization, nearly 50 years old, with numerous projects overseas, shelves of national accolades and awards, and dozens of employees. Our firm was just two years old, very small, and had only a few projects under the belt of the company name.

Our strength at the interview was in knowing that we were long shots. In putting together our slide presentation, and knowing that there would be time for Q&A at the end, we decided to include pre-prepared questions in our presentation. We began the Q&A period by saying to the selection committee, “If we were you, these are the question we would be asking us.”

We focused the questions on our appeared inefficiencies and youth, and the clear fact that we were not the safe choice; and we turned them into strong positives. It paid off, and we were unanimously selected for the project.

Try it during your next interview. Here is a list of some suggested questions to include in your presentation (in no particular order), written as read by the interviewers.

1.   Specifically, why should we pick your firm instead of the other(s)?

2.   Do you have any inefficiency associated with performing our project? And if so, how will you overcome it?

3.   Why, personally, are you interested in our project, other than just wanting the work?

4.   What challenges do you foresee in our project? What worries you most about it?

5.   Is our schedule realistic? If not, how do you recommend that we change it?

6.   Will we be dealing with the team here today for the life of the project?

7.   When we call your references, what are they going to tell us?

8.   What’s stronger in your firm, technical abilities or communication and management skills?

Prepare your responses, but don’t create a script for them. You want the Q&A to be honest, candid, and conversational. Not all of these will be applicable to your situation, but you’ll get the idea. Tailor them for your own unique culture, projects, and firm structure.

David Whitemyer, AIA, is a Contributing Editor at PSMJ Resources, Inc., a licensed architect, and project manager at a Boston-area design firm. He can be reached at

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