By Jamie Claire Kiser

With this month’s issue focused on sustainability, an alternative view on what it truly means to be a sustainable organization seems to be a relevant topic. “Sustainability” is the avoidance of depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. A common theme in our data, year after year, report after report, is a legacy of AEC firms stretching too thin as they grow, confusing the right blend from leadership of their time, energy, and money. The growing pains compound down the organizational structure as well as during times of perceived market uncertainty, like we saw in 2020. 

This isn’t confined to AEC industry CEOs, to be sure. A 2018 McKinsey study of CEO optimization found that a whopping 47 percent of CEOs say their company expects them to be “on” too long and too responsive to emails and calls. Imagine that study in today’s world of Zoom demanding undivided attention, camera on, while emails pile up, and calls that you cannot answer keep coming in. It’s been an energy drain of a year for many. 

Our 2020 Principals, Partners, and Owners Survey showed a mean number of direct reports to principals of AEC firms topping out when firms are at the 100-249 employee size, with the average principal having 11 direct reports. Principals at firms with 25 to 99 employees have a mean of six direct reports; principals at firms with 250-499 employees have a mean of seven. The spike to eleven direct reports might not seem that dramatic, but it doubles the one-on-one interaction needed to have a meaningful relationship with staff as a mentor and to help coach employees to their own next step in their careers. We see this spill over in employee experience survey results, when staff get to weigh in on the impact that having leaders who are “too busy” has on their own engagement and satisfaction. 

Comparing the time management data at AEC firms with CEOs of companies with revenue of over $1 billion is interesting, with about half of the time spent on the analytical side of the spectrum, such as growing business units or working on company strategy, and about half spent on people, through organizational cultural initiatives or tending to relationships, in a recent study by Raconteur. 

Without making time to develop team members or to delegate in pursuit of higher-order tasks, leaders spend too much of their time on things that others can do, which strains the ability of any team or organization to grow. Lack of growth creates other management dynamic issues, including myopic focus on performance of a team to squeeze more out of an eight hour day, versus thinking longer term about a growth-minded organization. When leaders become stressed about performance, the default is often to hyper-focus on productivity metrics – like utilization – without pulling back enough to notice the serious productivity issues that can arise when we emphasize working more billable hours over communicating effectively and working as efficiently as we can – as we would see if the default was revenue factor. 

Within our industry, principals of engineering firms report spending 35 percent of their time on firm management compared to an ideal time commitment of 29 percent of their time on firm management. Interestingly, principals of engineering firms actually would like to spend more of their time on marketing and business development activities, reporting an ideal time commitment of about 21 percent of their days, compared to actually spending 14 percent of their time on marketing and BD. The culprits for too much of their real time compared to their ideal days? Design and technical work and project management. That feeling of being stretched too thin working in the business versus on the business is a vicious cycle that we haven’t done a great job of training leaders to navigate as they rise in their careers. 

Throughout this issue of civil + structural, as you read about the contributions firms in our industry have made to the environment and to sustainable design, consider some of the factors that were at play that allowed these project teams to think creatively, to have some room to pull back from the day-to-day and to come up with fascinating solutions, and consider how your team could flourish by allowing some space for innovation and some time to be thoughtful instead of being too busy and rushing from task to task and calling it productivity. 


Jamie Claire Kiser is managing principal and director of advisory services at Zweig Group. Contact her at jkiser@zweiggroup.com.

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