What’s Good for the Country is Good for Our Firms
Too many people are unhappy— unhappy with the way we’re running our country and unhappy with the way we’re running our firms. The presidential elections to be held on November 3rd and the issues facing each of us as voters have many parallels with the micro-world of our own little A/E and environmental consulting businesses. First, we’ve got too much debt. Second, there’s a consistent cry for leadership. Third, special interest groups have more influence than do the majority. Fourth, we’re in an economic war and can no longer isolate ourselves to our own domestic market. The consensus is building that we need to reform the way we run our country. Likewise, many of us need to do the same thing with our firms.
We need to reduce our dependence on borrowing. My partner’s father, Edward White— a successful Florida real estate investor in his own right— recently repeated to me a quote from Dickens that makes a great deal of sense. Translated into present-day terms, the gist of it is this: “Make $10 a week and spend $9, and you’ll live a long and happy life. Make $10 a week and spend $11, and you’ll be miserable all your life.” That formula applies equally well to our country and our firms. We have observed an important characteristic in firms that are consistently successful over the long haul— they stay out of debt. Even if you think you can “afford” the debt, it is demoralizing to have to pay for the past with money you should be able to put in your pocket or reinvest in your business.
We need decisive (and honest) leadership in our firms. No one really thinks committees are more effective than a strong and fair leader who builds consensus through constant communication, who makes good decisions, and who deals honestly with everyone. People need to hear the truth even if the news isn’t good.
We must stop allowing the special interest groups in our firms (usually on or two vocal partners or principal stockholders) to dictate how we run our businesses. They force us to keep unprofitable offices open long after they should be closed. They fight progressive changes in the organization structure that require them to give up any of their powers. They fight off new investments in computer equipment because it may require some short-term sacrifices in their bonuses. They demand equal treatment in company cars, secretarial support, and car phones, even if the company can’t afford it. They protect their pet, “sacred cow” employees who should have been let go years ago.
Finally, we can no longer operate in our own little market area, ignoring the outside world. Even firms that want to “stay local” (as we have often recommended) had better beware of sophisticated outside competitors coming into the area. The environment is far from static! Long-range thinkers have to consider what they are doing to get into the emerging markets (Canada, Mexico, Southeast Asia) in order to become less dependent on their traditional geographical sphere of influence.
The important thing to remember is that regardless of what happens in the presidential election, we, as individuals do control what happens in our own A/E and environmental firms. Maybe now is the time to be more critical of ourselves and how we are dealing with issues like debt, leadership, special interest groups, and the changing marketplace that we all operate in.
Originally published 11/1/1992