If you believe everything you read and hear, the AEC industry could see an uptick in 2014. Some predictions have construction growing by nearly 10 percent, led by the housing and commercial sectors. Nevertheless, the road ahead still looks to be filled with potholes. While the U.S. economy grew 3.6 percent in the third quarter last year, nearly half the growth came from a buildup in business stockpiles. The growth trend could reverse as growth is held back once again. From a macro level, the future still looks ho-hum at best.
But really, so what? Principals of A/E and environmental consulting firms don't have an ounce of control over it. Go ahead: Stand on your head; curl up in the fetal position; get on your knees and pray. 2014 will run its course no matter what you do.
This economy isn't going to help you any time soon, so here's my advice: Understand the macro-trends that are relevant to your business, then focus on improving the aspects of your firm that are in your control – and there may be more of those than you think. Here's where to start:
Establish stretch goals for marketing and business development – Light a fire under your marketing and business development team heading into 2014. Get them engaged and accountable by directing them to outline 30-, 60-, and 90-day action plans with aggressive goals that are designed to generate short-term revenue and position the firm for longer-term opportunities. Have them develop and deliver a weekly opportunities report that summarizes their activities and results.
Collect – A/E and environmental consulting firms make poor bankers. Get a signed contract, deliver what you promised, and get paid. That's the formula. If you delivered but didn't get paid, get on the phone and collect. If you delivered and can't collect because you failed to secure a signed agreement but went ahead and did the work anyway (i.e., you walked the tight rope without a net), establish this policy immediately: no signed agreement, no work! The importance of cash flow will be magnified if this year turns out to be yet another wobbly stab at a meaningful recovery. If you want to take advantage of growth opportunities in this business environment, whether via acquisition, key hires, etc., you need cash, so make sure you are doing everything in your power to help it flow.
Eliminate waste – Costs are an obvious place to start (excessive car allowances, extravagant office furniture, boondoggles, etc.), but also look to eliminate waste in your firm's operations. Start by thinking about the deliverables your clients get versus what they could get. Is your organization structure optimal for producing quality or is it creating barriers to collaboration? Are roles and responsibilities clear? Does your firm have a unique "way" of doing work that balances constant improvement with well-designed standards, policies, and procedures that are regularly put into play?
Over-communicate with staff – Whether you are riding high going into 2014 or picking yourself up from the canvass after a rough couple of years, make sure you keep staff informed about what is going on and what's ahead. When employees don't know what is happening inside the company, they fill in the blanks themselves. If things are going well, employees tend to think they are going better than they really are. If things are not going well, employees tend to believe the sky is falling. So communicate firm-wide performance on a monthly basis and regularly pump up the troops. Your firm's morale and retention will improve.
Build trust with your business partners – Now is the time to strengthen the bonds with your business partners. Commit to getting beyond any nagging issues – the tougher they are to talk about, the more you'll get accomplished. Reassure your partners that you are on their side and you are committed to helping them succeed – by sharing your knowledge, your network, and even your compassion. In 2014, you'll need your leadership team and your leadership team will need you, so invest the time and energy it takes to build a stronger one.
We can have a positive impact on many more aspects of our business than we realize – or want to realize. So take control of what you can and make 2014 a record year for your firm.
Mark Goodale is principal with Morrissey Goodale LLC in Newton, Mass. Morrissey Goodale LLC is a management consulting and research firm that serves the AEC industry. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.