News & Press Release

    Doug Parker

    Knowing What You Want

    You all probably know by now that I hate quoting “the other guy,” whoever that may be. You aren’t paying what you pay for The Zweig Letter to read what you can get somewhere else.

    That said, there’s a good article in the May issue of Inc. magazine by long-time columnist (and past Zweig Letter Hot Firm Conference speaker) Norm Brodsky. It’s all about knowing what you are trying to accomplish with your business.

    I won’t go into the article— you can read that for yourself— but it did get me thinking about how this topic applies to A/E/P and environmental firms.

    Most of us will agree that clarity of focus in what you are trying to accomplish with your business is one of the keys to success. This clarity of “knowing what you want” is often there in first-generation firms still run by their founder(s). But that’s not always the case with companies that are in their second-generation (or beyond) of ownership. Those firms tend to have more owners AND owners who started out as employees. These companies may suffer from a lack of focus or from having different people who don’t have a common focus.

    If this sounds like your firm, and you are frustrated because of what it is doing to your growth, profitability, and morale, what can you do about it? I have five suggestions, a few of which may seem radical, and many of which can be employed concurrently to improve your chances of finding a real focus for your business so you “know what you want.”

    Develop a new business plan. While I wish I could say that a new mission and vision will cure all your woes, chances are it won’t. It is so difficult to get real agreement, good advisors are far and few between, and there’s so much bad planning being done, it’s not likely that this step will cure all woes related to lack of focus. But it could. I would say this really works maybe 15-20% of the time.

    Get a new leader. Sometimes, the lack of focus is there because the person at the top lacks focus. It may be necessary for a change. You simply cannot drive focus from the bottom up. That said, it’s nearly impossible to hire a leader from the outside, and you may not have who you need or who has the requisite political support in-house. I would say the odds of this step working to solve the lack of focus problem are about 25%.

    Restructure the entire organization. One step that may work is to stop asking every owner what they want to do and stop allowing any shareholder to have veto rights on anything they want to veto. Changing the organization structure such that those who are like-minded are in control of firm direction is one of the ways to foster agreement in what you are trying to do with any business. Who is on the board? What is the charge of the board? Realigning roles can be a step to regaining focus. It, too, works maybe 25% of the time.

    Exorcise those who are too disruptive or disagreeable from your firm. Sometimes, owners need to go and not because they are bad people but because their desires don’t mesh with those of the majority of owners in the company. You have to be careful you don’t run off your best people just because they are different. I have seen this approach work to regain focus maybe 30-50% of the time.

    Leave the company and start your own firm. This seems risky and might be. It can also be a very slow process. The good news is, you hopefully do know what you want, and would be able to direct your business accordingly with little outside interference. The problem with this approach is the time and money it takes. The advantage is it works as much as 50-75% of the time.

    Getting back on track by first knowing what you want is crucial to any firm’s success. Due to the nature of our business, many A/E and environmental firms suffer in this department. If this sounds like you, push for clarity by following one or more of the steps outlined above. Good luck!

    Originally published 5/29/2006