Things are real messy right now, but we can all get safely to our destinations if we keep our cool.
Sure – things are real messy right now. As I write this, the new president has yet to be inaugurated. There is disarray and polarization throughout the government and citizenry.
COVID-19 is wreaking havoc, and our hospitals are full, while the disease is killing as many as 4,000+ people a day. Meanwhile, we have a new, more contagious strain of the stuff starting to make its way across the land. Certain sectors of the economy are battered, while others are exploding. We can’t visit with many of our old folks. Food bank lines are long. Everyone’s life has been affected in some way. 2021 is not starting out great.
Because of all of this, and for many other reasons, owners and managers of A/E firms may be feeling a lot of stress. I get it. While I have owned a business of some sort for most of my life, I can’t say I’m sorry not to be in that position now. And don’t think your employees are less stressed. Most know less about the financial condition of your firms than you do. They are bound to feel vulnerable and uncertain about their futures.
But, hey – you have to take the good with the bad, right? There’s been so much good in this business over the last 10 years! Many A/E firm owners had their best years in this business over the last decade. You grew and prospered. A lot of great work was done by the architects, engineers, planners, designers, scientists, and surveyors under your employ – and the needs aren’t going away for most of what your firms do any time soon.
So, as the battle-scarred veteran of this business in the room, I’d like to give you some advice. Here it is:
- Stay calm. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the vortex of negativity and inaction. This is easy to do. Things may not be the way you like them. It may feel like your world is spinning out of control. The glass is half full (or emptier). You could be angry. But guess what? If you allow all that stuff to fill up your brain you will not have the capacity or bandwidth to do your job leading your firm or team. You must remain calm and steady. Not to say you want to be a blind optimist – I’m not advocating naivety or ignorance. But if you, as the captain of the ship cannot remain calm and “on duty,” how can you expect anyone who works for you to be any other way themselves? You can’t.
- Plan plan plan. Plans A, B, and C are all needed. Contingency plans and “what if” scenarios need to be mapped out for a wide variety of different situations. Remaining calm – having a plan – and “pre-thinking” your responses before various situations present themselves are hallmarks of great leaders. There is always something you can do to make things better. Figure out how you will deal with whatever comes up when you are not under the gun. You will make better decisions if you do.
- Project confidence inside and outside of the company. No one wants to work for a leader who isn’t calm or who doesn’t have a plan. Likewise, people expect their leaders to project confidence that the firm will be able to not just survive, but actually grow and prosper in the future. This may either seem impossible to do, or it may seem too elementary to you. But believe me, I have seen many cases of leaders in this business who lose their confidence as they go into survival mode. When that happens, it is a cancer that can be hard to contain.
- Be creative in your projects. Let’s face it COVID-19 – or some other thing like it – isn’t going to go away. The need for heathy environments in the places we live, work, shop, make things, go to school, and recreate are going to be top of mind for a long time to come. Likewise, all manner of security and anti-terrorism measures will be looming issues for the foreseeable future for all types of infrastructure and facilities. Even if your clients aren’t asking you to think about these things, you should be thinking about them and addressing them in every single thing you do. Show you are looking out for your clients’ real needs even if they don’t know what those are. Be the people they can count on to protect them and their employees, clients, customers, and physical assets. You may win over some of these clients for life if you can succeed in doing so.
- Be careful with any real estate your company or your principals own. This is not something I have previously addressed in these pages, but it’s crucial. I remember some clients of ours who lost everything (or came darn close to it) in the early ‘90s because they didn’t understand the risks of owning income-generating properties (like their office buildings). When the firm is growing and establishing new performance records every day, and office rents and real estate values are going up and up, and you see how much money your developer clients are making, it’s easy to rationalize why you should own your own building or buildings. It is, after all, a classic small business wealth-building strategy. But when investment properties are financed with three- to five-year notes (even though the payments are based on a 15, 20, or even 25 year amortization schedule), those loans have to be renewed every three to five years. If there’s a big loan on the property and the value goes down, you will either have to kick in more cash to have sufficient equity, or the bank may have to foreclose. That means you could be making all of your payments on time and still lose your building or other investment property! Don’t think this can’t happen. We had a New England-based environmental consulting firm client that we had to quickly find a buyer for because they maxed out their credit line at the same time that six of their office buildings that their principals owned were devalued by a real estate crash. We had days to find a buyer for their business and real estate, and were very lucky to do so, or they all would have lost everything because they personally guaranteed the loans.
- Keep politics out of your company. We are too polarized. Don’t add to it in the office because you feel so strongly about the righteousness of your political opinions. Do not try to get your employees to sign petitions or strong arm them to contribute to any cause or candidate. It’s very dangerous. I worked at a firm in the mid-‘80s where a principal posted a petition to “draft” a particular individual they were high on to run for president. It got a lot of people upset who did not like that particular individual because they felt obligated to sign or face negative repercussions from that principal. I was one of them. Not good. People quit over it.
So, there you have my thoughts for this morning. Hang on tight. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. But we can all get safely to our destinations if we keep our cool.
Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.