Second of a multi-part series exploring what it means to be a principal in today’s AEC firm.

Expectations of a principal should be higher, not lower. If you have the perception that getting to the top means you finally get a break and can put your feet up on the desk and start “managing,” you are incorrect.

Although some principals set the wrong example, being a principal means that you need to work harder to drive success in the firm. The benefits of that hard work should accrue more directly to you as value in the firm drives your stock value up. This is a key mechanism in ownership; the direct benefit of experience and hard work incentivizing greater performance.

Certainly, it doesn’t always work that way. This is why it is important for firm leaders to define the “brand of ownership,” being selective as to who represents this group and what it says to the rest of the firm. Here are some stats from Zweig Group’s recently published 2018 Principals, Partner, and Owners Survey of the AEC industry:

  • Typical principal workweeks are 50 hours long; average is 45 hours for all other staff.
  • 75 percent frequently or occasionally work on weekends and/or holidays.
  • The typical principal gets 24 paid vacation days off per year but uses only 18.
  • Only 43 percent of firms establish any specific minimum eligibility criteria for becoming a principal.

Of those that do, criteria focus on the following:

  • Business development/sales abilities: 49 percent
  • Professional registration/licensure: 46 percent
  • Staff management responsibilities: 38 percent
  • Project management experience: 33 percent
  • Years of experience: 31 percent
  • Education minimum: 8 percent

Of those firms that use experience:

  • 14.9 years of career experience is the average to become an owner and
  • 9.9 years with the firm is the average to become an owner.

The conclusion of this part of the series is that being a principal translates to performing at a higher level. Anyone can “act like an owner,” which means taking ownership of something bigger than just yourself. For those who can break out of the 8-to-5 mentality and work hard to create value in an organization, public or private, bigger and quicker career opportunities await. If you believe you are principal material, find out the qualifications in your firm and then demonstrate that you are an owner.

Part 1 of this series was published in the June 2018 issue of Civil + Structural Engineer


Chad Clinehens, P.E., is Zweig Group’s president and CEO. Contact him at