Business Q&A

February 2005 » Business
Dear Dave, My partner and I are both in our late 50s. We have shared a fruitful and enjoyable business relationship. In anticipation of someday retiring, and not wishing to see the firm sold to outsiders, we designed a strategy to transfer leadership and ownership gradually to five key individuals who are now in their late 30s to early 40s. We took the first step of our transition plan a little over a year ago when we reorganized the day-to-day operations of the firm into four project teams and one administrative team, each led by one of our hand-picked successors. The idea was for me and my partner to step back from the details, focus on big-picture issues, and coach and support our second generation as they took over the reins.

by DAVID M.WAHBY

Group dynamics

Dear Dave,

My partner and I are both in our late 50s. We have shared a fruitful and enjoyable business relationship. In anticipation of someday retiring, and not wishing to see the firm sold to outsiders, we designed a strategy to transfer leadership and ownership gradually to five key individuals who are now in their late 30s to early 40s. We took the first step of our transition plan a little over a year ago when we reorganized the day-to-day operations of the firm into four project teams and one administrative team, each led by one of our hand-picked successors. The idea was for me and my partner to step back from the details, focus on big-picture issues, and coach and support our second generation as they took over the reins.

While we're pleased with the progress to date in general, we are concerned at times by the relationship between our five successors.

Individually, they are excellent people. However, when you put them together in the same room to discuss an issue that may not have an easy or obvious answer, it can get heated and uncomfortable. My partner and I never had a problem with exploring options, resolving issues, and coming to an agreement. Our successor group seems to be struggling.

Should we be concerned at this point or is this to be expected?

K.C., Wash.

Dear K.C.,

I would not be overly concerned; you're still early in the process. It can take many years for a group to knock the prickly edges off its interpersonal relationships and find its collective personality. After all, you and your partner only had each other to contend with (not four others), and you've had many more years in which to achieve the peace and harmony you enjoy.

Here are some helpful ideas to keep in mind: Be sure that the company has a well-defined sense of direction, priorities, and goals. Having a clear, central agenda can go a long way toward reducing conflict in an organization by serving as a focal point to channel your leadership team's efforts.

Next, don't hesitate to intercede when an issue has gone too far. Your strategy to step-back and coach the group is an excellent one. However, you must balance between letting the group learn to work things out and stepping in when situations become counterproductive. Think of you and your partner as control rods in a nuclear reactor, and your leadership team as the core. You extract the rods to let the reaction warm-up to an appropriate temperature to do its work. But when it gets too hot, you lower the rods gradually into the pile, in time to cool things off before the situation spins out of control and causes irreversible damage. As the group matures, you should see the frequency of your interventions abate.

Within the group, teach the new managers that it is perfectly acceptable to disagree with each other, but be sure the disagreement is expressed as being with the idea or suggestion, and never perceived as a personal attack against the person with whom they disagree. Also, condition your managers to practice the following when their belief is in contention with a point being expressed: They cannot object without contributing a workable, alternative solution to the suggestion being made. Finally, in dealings with staff and clients, the leadership group must speak with one voice at all times, regardless of disagreements within the group.


Professionally frustrated

Dear Dave,

I own a consulting firm and have been in business for 16 years. One thing I notice is that people give more importance to architects than engineers.

Even architects treat engineers badly. How can we change this attitude?

H.S., Mich.


Dear H.S.,

Many engineers share your concern. The root of the problem -- at least in the building market, where engineers typically work on teams with architects -- is that the architect is usually the prime and the engineers are subcontractors to the architect. Therefore, engineers may or may not have much contact with owners, so it's really no wonder at all why engineers have less public awareness and recognition than architects. If it's any consolation, I often hear similar laments from architects. This community feels vastly unappreciated as a profession.

From a broad perspective, engineers and their professional societies need to do a better job promoting the profession and educating the general public about the vital role engineers play in creating the quality, safety, and comfort of everyday life.

At the practice level, learn how to market your firm directly to owners to become a prime. Wean your firm away from dependence on subcontracting to architects for your work. Many engineering firms have taken this route over the years, and they are almost always better off (by any number of measures) for having made the effort to do so. Get answers to your questions about design firm and project management, finances, marketing, and related topics by sending them to Q&A c/o: CE News, 775 One Premier Plaza, 5605 Glenridge Drive, Atlanta, GA 30342, or faxing them to CE News at 404-497-7899. Include your name and telephone number in all correspondence.

Your name will not be used in connection with published questions. David Wahby is president of Wahby & Associates (www.wahby.com), a management consulting firm serving A/E clients. He can be reached at 616-977-9756 or via e-mail at wahby@wahby.com.


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