The AEC Industry is at a Precipice. What Lies Beyond?

We were recently asked by a global professional services firm to provide decision support to help them select their next CEO. Six people were under consideration, all well qualified.  

Background research as well as a proprietary leadership assessment guide from the Greenway Group revealed impressive backgrounds and accomplishments. Next, we developed a five point list of key attributes for this search and selection task:

  1. A leadership style that favors entrepreneurship and innovation
  2. Understanding of new technologies and savvy implementation decisions on a large scale
  3. A working knowledge of the drivers of change with corresponding leadership record to manage change
  4. Human skills of empathy, harmony, and likeability
  5. Proven financial responsibility

This list of focus areas was supplemental to a one-page position description. We had plenty of background data, stories, and reference letters. This was an impressive lot.

Deciding what makes one leader “better” than another is not an easy task. It’s most certainly not a black and white decision. This firm understood that the wisdom of their decision would ultimately shape the future success of the enterprise for years to come. The choice would be critical to their evolution.

Several times during our interviews it was mentioned by the committee that the new CEO should become the “virtual quarterback” of the firm and its management team. He or she would set the tone for the whole organization. The demeanor and character of the firm itself, including its attitudes and energy deployed by staff, would be dependent on the rapport of the leader with the staff in the firm. In short, the decision would be crucial to the firm’s future success.

In one of the interviews, we met with a high profile alpha male who had a vision that was bold but cold. It seemed to us that his appointment would not spark the enthusiastic interest of the staff and partners to a degree that would drive change and growth at the same time.

Five of the six finalists didn’t have overt shortcomings but each lacked to one degree or another an over-the-top compelling reason to place confidence in them above the others. For instance, one of the internal finalists scored above average but not compellingly so on handling confrontations constructively or on diplomacy skills. The committee knew that there would be large project negotiations that would need a tactful leader who would always display trust leading to mutual understandings, both internally and externally. Another West Coast finalist was solid but not the most skillful presenter. Since the firm holds itself up as a media company in addition to being a design driven organization they knew that they needed a leader who would make effective use of questions and who could be skillful when interviewed by the press. Clearly, each of the six finalists had their long list of strong points. All were credible. However, one stood apart from he rest.

Just One. The reason for this margin of selection was a differentiating trait that the others lacked: A boldness of vision combined with a perspective that communicated a very unique message, which I’ll paraphrase as: “We are most likely at the dawn of a new Golden Age in the AEC Industry — it’s time to seize the unique opportunities of this time.” Not only was this vision curiously compelling, it also worked as a narrative framing device that could be combined with futuristic examples, future pictures that could be readily called upon in conversations. It provided the search and selection committee a compelling believability and logic, along with an optimistic intelligence. Not only was the vision clear, strong and memorable, it meshed well with the evolving culture of the firm. This leader clearly met the expectations of the governing board. Moreover, he left them with a feeling of inspiration.

About that vision: How probable is it that we really are entering into a new Golden Age of our AEC industry? After all, don’t we live in a time when technology is increasingly disrupting business models? And how about new micro trends that pose threats to traditional models? They don’t look so positive. Macro trends too are a concern. After all, you can’t see across the street in Beijing due to polluted air. Infrastructure is failing in India. Population and violence is on the dangerous intersection in Africa. Russian contracts in architecture and engineering are being put on hold. Severe weather patterns are wreaking havoc in Oklahoma. And give us a break; aren’t we just now coming out of the Great Recession?

How can an intelligent leader say that we are headed for a new golden age? Where is this optimism coming from? How smart could it be? Aren’t professional practices struggling under a cloud of uncertainty? Can respectable business conditions be just around the corner?  

Well, yes. How? To get to the how, let’s first ask why. This vision, while fanciful, represents a potential new reality espoused by a leader who captured the minds and hearts of the firm’s committee members and governing board. And it is possible — even probable — that it will give the firm a favorable advantage.

While most visions are flawed, they do in fact help prepare an organization for a different future; to be resilient, and to capture opportunities while others remain in denial about emerging trends and new realties. This is the role the leader needs to assume, that of a captain, or pilot, charting the best trajectory to a successful outcome. A vision doesn’t mean that a leader needs to be a fortune teller. However, it falls upon the leader to be the provocateur, to present smart questions along with vision statements and always to ask not just why but why not? While no one really knows what the future holds, it is of vital importance that leaders ask probing questions and to develop scenarios and to be ready for whatever circumstances that might arise. It’s an anticipation strategy.

The language used to describe a vision — the possible future destination of an organization — is what defines the leader. Words inform. They cause us to imagine. A new Golden Age? Yes, just maybe.

While some in our industry believe that they are participating in an epoch of decline or an age of uncertainty, for a handful the vision is focused on a new Golden Age to create and practice in the vision of a new reality. Which will it be for you and your firm?

James P. Cramer is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Greenway Group, a management consultancy that works with design driven organizations. Along with Dr. Jonas Salk, he co-founded the Design Futures Council where he is Senior Fellow and Co-Chairman.