At this time of the year, many are looking ahead, pondering the new year and its prospects. Some indicators are up, others are not. Many client markets remain strong, some have weakened, a few collapsed. Some areas of the country haven’t taken even one extra breath, while in others development has slowed markedly. Most agree that 2008 will be at least an okay to good year, and some see it developing much better than that. Still, it’s hard to ignore those storm clouds out on the horizon and the reports from the field that the phone just isn’t ringing as often as it had.
Having just finished up with two great conferences, CE News’ and Structural Engineer’s Best Firm to Work for Summit and the annual ZweigWhite Hot Firm Conference and awards gala, I’ve had the pleasure of "hanging out" with leaders representing the best of the best, both in growing the size and success of their firms and in creating the types of organizations and cultures that people want to be a part of. Frankly, I’m struck by how little the discussion with these folks revolved around predicting the next year, in posturing and guessing about external factors and events and macroeconomic trends.
I’m sure it’s not because these companies don’t care about what’s ahead, or that they don’t benchmark themselves against industry standards and develop "Plan Bs" to adjust for changes in their business assumptions. No, I think what it boils down to is this: These best of firms have their eyes set out to the horizon. They are focused more on the longer term, and are busy creating legacy organizations that will be successful across all economic conditions. They act with confidence about the future—yes, it will be both better and worse, and they will be ready!
So what to do about it? I know it’s a bit of the old saw, but I’m again led to a conclusion that these best-success firms are focused on doing great things in just a few key areas. Here’s a list of some of those, which I think should also be on your 2008 leadership and action agenda:
1) Strategic planning—Success starts with focused intentionality in the business. Best firms don’t let the future happen to them; instead, they work to create their future. And in an environment where just about everyone is busier than ever, only those items that get planned and prioritized stand any chance of actually getting done.
2) Building the staff—Best-of-success firms are long past the idea that the work comes before the people. Today, they are busy building their team for tomorrow, including all levels from entry to senior staff. Some are "farm team" clubs, some are "free agent" organizations, but all are looking more aggressively to outpace the rest of the market in acquiring staff.
3) Defending the team—Excellent companies are constantly setting new paradigms in how to hold on to and energize their staff base. Skills training, mentoring programs, leadership experiences, communications, and culture—you name it and these firms are working diligently to build systems and structure that motivates employees to want to be a part of the firm’s future. And they don’t forget compensation, especially incentive-based pay and stock ownership opportunities that reinforce the strategic objectives of the organization.
4) Serving the clients—Overall as an industry, engineering is pretty good in serving clients, and most companies are rewarded with 80 percent of their business coming from existing relationships. But best firms are hungrier than this, demanding that more of their work come from new, and even "better" clients, and they push client satisfaction levels well past the benchmarks toward truly outstanding service, and a "wow" experience for their customers.
5) Leadership development—It’s perhaps the ultimate question for the long term: "Who is going to run this thing after me?" It preoccupies leadership at the best of the best firms. These organizations instinctively understand that a core objective and purpose of leadership is to perpetuate the firm and the future opportunities of others. Instead of focusing first on clients, they focus first on employees, assuming (and proving) the connection between a charged-up staff and truly satisfied clients. They’re working constantly to make sure that all potential leaders in the firm have the best training, mentoring, and job experiences that will lead to the best outcomes down the road.
6) Marketing, marketing—Best-in-class companies are pushing hard in two important areas of marketing. First, they are investing in developing and enhancing their brands (not just their logos) in ways that ensure more visibility, demand, and pull of opportunities toward their companies. Second, they are increasingly asking about, and then defining, the role of all staff in growing their base business. They’re doing more in explicit discussion, communication, and training of the team to better understand how the "show" plays out each day at the firm. These companies understand the difference between marketing and sales, and they’re investing today in efforts that will bring sustainable rewards and success both now and well into the future.
7) Execution—The best of the best firms are not just creative, idea-oriented people. They’re doers, achievers, and executers. They have a distinct bias for action; you can sense and feel the focus and urgency in "getting it done" in these businesses. Talking and planning without doing is simply not acceptable here.
So, I’m not exactly sure what we’ll see in the marketplace in 2008. Could be up a bit, down a bit, or about the same (which has certainly been good). As we look further out beyond this year, it’s hard not to see the basic demographics of the economy and our industry, and the supply-demand balance in engineering, as anything but potentially positive. Best-in-industry companies are now increasingly focusing their technical, leadership, and project management skills on better design and execution within their own companies, so that they too can withstand the sustained future forces of the economy, competition, and time. It’s 2008, and time to get started on this important journey forward.
John Doehring is a principal and managing director of ZweigWhite’s strategic advisory services group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.