Co-founder, president, and CEO of WSB (Hot Firm #34 for 2018), a 475-person full-service consulting and design firm based in Minneapolis.
By Liisa Andreassen
“The best PMs create their own brand, supporters, and clients,” Weiss says. “They quickly become ‘go-to’ people inside and outside of the firm … These high-level performers are not ones to complain until it is too late. Regular communication and sometimes action steps are necessary to lighten workload and protect these important company assets.”
A CONVERSATION WITH BRET WEISS.
The Zweig Letter: There are A/E leaders who say profit centers create corrosive internal competition for firm resources. What’s your opinion on profit centers?
Bret Weiss: While we don’t believe that internal profit centers are helpful to providing quality work and positive relationships within the firm, we do use metrics to guide the success of each of our groups. We have found that internal profit centers cause managers to hold on to work to reach their goals, but in reality, the work would have been better suited for another specialist who has more expertise in the area. This can create risk for our firm and our clients. We subscribe to the philosophy that we are “One Company.” While this isn’t the only measure of our success, we believe that it drives cross-selling of services and increases our quality.
TZL: What’s your policy on sharing the firm’s financials with your staff? Weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually? And how far down into the org chart is financial information shared?
BW: We share financial information with the entire firm every other month at our all staff meeting. I don’t believe that the depth of the information provided should be the same for everyone at our firm. We try to ensure that we share the appropriate information with each individual. Transparency is important and as our staff grows in responsibility and in their understanding of the business, we share more detail so that they understand why decisions are being made. Some staff members are less interested in specific financials and prefer to only know whether we are doing well or poorly. As a society, we are inundated with information so we try to be strategic in our information sharing. We believe that information overload is real and it’s important that we manage that consistently and effectively.
TZL: The talent war in the A/E industry is here. What steps do you take to create the leadership pipeline needed to retain your top people and not lose them to other firms?
BW: We have heavily invested in WSB University, WSB’s innovative learning center, and continue to look for ways to improve how we provide educational opportunities to current staff, as well as external talent working in the A/E industry. WSBU is an ambitious initiative for us that will continually evolve as staff continues to grow and adapt to new methods and technology. Additionally, we’re focused on benefits, equipment, technology, facilities, and our culture to elevate ourselves amongst competitors. There is no one step that will solve this issue for us, but we are convinced that by striving to be the best that we can be, we will retain at a high rate. Our biggest challenge is losing staff to our clients. Lifestyle is becoming more important to some, which means that our industry needs to continue to evolve. This is challenging, but necessary for all of us to retain the best in the industry.
TZL: As you look for talent, what position do you most need to fill in the coming year and why?
BW: Mid-career staff is always the most difficult to find throughout our service areas. We have been successful recruiting new graduates and don’t see an issue competing for young professionals. Finding experienced staff is always difficult and seems to be where we lose staff who leave based on lifestyle needs or a shift in their career paths.
TZL: While plenty of firms have an ownership transition plan in place, many do not. What’s your advice for firms that have not taken steps to identify and empower the next generation of owners?
BW: Wake up! Stop being greedy and start sharing ownership with those who are helping you be successful! This is not an industry where you can transfer ownership without using your profits. Our salaries don’t support a big investment and your staff have other responsibilities and commitments. You can retain your best staff by helping them become owners, if you have a transition plan that will motivate your team to grow and increase your value. This is a win-win situation and if you haven’t started, you are doing a disservice to yourself and your team.
TZL: Zweig Group research shows there has been a shift in business development strategies. More and more, technical staff, not marketing staff, are responsible for BD. What’s the BD formula in your firm?
BW: We prefer the seller/doer model since it seems to create continued success, but we also recognize that business development staff are necessary to set the table. We have a combination of staff in each area and are focused on developing more as we grow.
TZL: Diversifying the portfolio is never a bad thing. What are the most recent steps you’ve taken to broaden your revenue streams?
BW: We have been committed to this philosophy since our firm’s beginning. We don’t set any specific goals, but rather remain nimble and watch for opportunities. We ensure to set aside investment dollars to develop new services or markets. These don’t happen overnight. It takes courage and patience. We empower our staff to develop their own services and provide the funds to help them develop a business within a business.
TZL: The list of responsibilities for project managers is seemingly endless. How do you keep your PMs from burning out? And if they crash, how do you get them back out on the road, so to speak?
BW: The best PMs create their own brand, supporters, and clients. They quickly become go-to people inside and outside of the firm. Using project controls to manage the level of workload for all staff is the first step to managing potential stress and burnout. These high-level performers are not ones to complain until it is too late. Regular communication and sometimes action steps are necessary to lighten workload and protect these important company assets. It’s vital to maintain some work/life integration to mitigate burnout that could lead to a potential resignation for a less stressful opportunity. Often, it is the person that causes the stress and it is hard for them to see it. We have had some high performers that we did not manage well and unfortunately you can lose them. We have learned our lesson and identify those that are predisposed to that behavior and manage them closely.
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