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Recipe For Success

Dear Dave
Our firm is entering its tenth year. We do site development engineering for residential subdivisions and also for small commercial projects. We have always been profitable and have grown steadily to a staff of 33. Later this fall we will be holding our firm’s very first “official” management retreat to review where we are today and where we should be going as an organization. What business attributes will help our firm remain successful?

Dear AU
I’m in contact with firms of various descriptions, types and sizes all across the country. Despite these differences, I’ve come to notice a number of strikingly similar attributes consistently present amongst the strongest firms. Here’s a small sampling:

The firm is balanced. There are four components to any practice: Design/Engineering, Finance, Human Relations, and Marketing. The best firms have achieved an across-the-board level of quality in all four areas. They don’t emphasize any one component at the expense of the others. The best firms are as committed to conducting well-done, on-time staff performance reviews as they are to meeting client deadlines. No one area cheats another area out of equal investment, time or attention.

The firm reigns supreme. The firm always comes first. A clear and uniform mission exists. Individuals are valued in the context of how well they serve the organization’s needs and mission, not the other way around. Staff who don’t (or won’t) “fit” the firm, no matter how qualified they may be, are encouraged to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Roles are well defined. Staff work efficiently together, not against one another. Like cogs on a gear, people are endowed with a crystal-clear understanding of how best to mesh with co-workers. No! Being a cog on a gear is not demeaning. By taking the stress and strain out of accomplishing everyday routine tasks and functions, we grace ourselves with extra time and energy to devote to higher value, truly meaningful work. A proper amount of predictability and structure is ENabling, not DISabling.

Accountability exists. An engineering firm is a team. Over the long run, few things are more destructive to a professional service organization than a systematic failure to hold staff accountable for their individual areas of responsibility. To do so demoralizes those who are performing, breeds mediocrity and, if left unchecked, eventually results in the firm’s spiraling down to the lowest common denominator.

Internal firm operations are clearly defined, budgeted and monitored in order to keep overhead in check. Marketing, administrative and accounting office functions each have expected performance goals and objectives, which are to be met.

Profits and cash flow are not taken for granted. They are planned for. Strong firms realized long ago that remaining strong requires a steady stream of earnings to reinvest back into the firm for equipment, resources, training and other infrastructure needed to keep the business current with evolving technologies and client expectations.

Final yearly compensation is based on performance. Beyond basic compensation, individuals are paid for their results, never for their efforts. Failure to compensate exclusively for performance is a prescription for disaster. Clear-cut incentive plans are often in place linking total compensation directly to company performance in order to encourage incremental profits above and beyond budgets.

People are allowed to contribute. With the firm’s mission clearly stated, roles well defined and accountability in place, an open climate of trust and mutual support can exist. People are encouraged to exercise their talents and reach their full potential. The principals have both the wisdom and the confidence NOT to know all the answers or feel they must make all the decisions. Principals come to rely on others in the firm to take on significant responsibility. The firm has learned to leverage its unique resources. Consequently: the people grow; the principals prosper; the quality soars; and the clients are absolutely amazed and delighted with your service.

The engineering profession is rapidly changing. Principals owe it to themselves and to their staff to develop attributes to effectively adapt. Working toward developing or strengthening these particular characteristics would be an excellent way to begin your firm’s second decade.

Wahby and Associates