Founders’ Roots

Stu’s News
with Trina’s Tips



The culture of many of our finest firms seems to have shifted … away from the vision and the values that the founders of our profession’s greatest firms had in mind when they began their firms, and towards a focus on utilization rates and profitability.

And clients are feeling the shift, as well.  Paraphrasing some common feedback we’ve been getting from major government clients …

“I dread hiring those big firms – but the law says I have to stay open to them.  Anytime anything surfaces that isn’t spelled out in detail in our contract, they head for their in-house attorney to see what extras they might get. They seem to care far more about their profits than they do about serving their clients.

Plus, the quality of their work is not as consistently good.  And their enthusiasm for their work seems to have evaporated.”

In 1982, “In Search of Excellence” rattled the cages of a huge number of organizations … including many in our profession.  Do you recall the measurement that Peters and Waterman used to determine “Excellence”?

It was several years of consistent profitability.

They used a quantitative yardstick.

Then, once they identified several firms that had, in fact, performed at that high level of profitability over a period of time, they worked to discover what those organizations did to have realized their success.  And all the factors that surfaced were qualitative.

What they learned is, if an organization does things right – good people, good sense of marketplace, good innovation, good quality control, good management information systems, a passion for doing things well, etc. – then profits will follow.

The right qualitative actions lead to the best quantitative outcomes.

Other management books have surfaced over the past 30 years, also pointing to qualitative actions as a foundation for quantitative success.  I recall many firms latching onto Jim Collins’ book, “Good to Great” and declaring that as the goal of their firm … the “mantra of the year.”  And while firms varied in the degree to which they actually followed Collins’ guidelines, whatever they did was intended to be a qualitative improvement.

Strategic planning statements were also qualitative …

“To win awards of excellence from societies.”

“To be seen as the firm of choice in our region.”

“To develop a cadre of top-flight project managers”

“To pioneer new systems for watershed management.”

That’s changed.

Now, the prevalent mantras seem to be …

“Maximize utilization rate.”

“Reach our $6.5 million target.”

“Increase gross revenue 15% each year.”

“Get more production done with fewer people.”

Development of employee capabilities – whether in project management, in quality systems, in marketing, in team orchestration, use of new software … and whether done with brown bag lunches, with mentoring, or with scheduled training done by either senior firms members or outside consultants – seems to have virtually disappeared.  Some CEOs don’t even understand that a “system” is more than “we have good people.”

Comments from many clients cause me to wonder if the major firms that serve those clients have any quality control systems at all.  It seems that if they have a good person leading the project team, and if no special problems surface technically or with schedule, they’ll luck out and end up with a good project outcome.  But if problems arise, they dread the onslaught of the firms’ attorneys.

Today, many corporations seem solely bent on squeezing as much profit as they can.  BP, for example, took a risk and bi-passed clear warning signs that would have increased their costs and led to delays.  Many died in that disaster.  The Gulf of Mexico is trashed.  More are getting sick or dying from cyanosis from the dispersant and oil going airborne … even 50 miles inland from the Gulf.  But …

They just declared record profits.

As many of you know, “Mandeville” is more than a slick bunch of open-ended questions that will jump your ability to win a contract.  Yes, the process will have that outcome.  But – when you apply the process properly, you begin learning of the client’s non-physical needs … goals, aspirations, concerns.  And that understanding creates a bond that will get you hired.  But it also carries a responsibility that you truly care about helping that client resolve the concerns and reach the goals.  It’s qualitative.

And it’s the essence of a professional client relationship.

Finally, we’ve heard from founders of some major firms – people who are now retired, but stay in touch with how their legacy is faring.  Many think that the heart of the firm has simply given way to bottom line numbers.  Some see the most recent generation of leaders simply cashing in their stock by selling the firm … and taking their money while the taking is good.

Yes, we’re facing difficult times ahead.  But getting back to our roots – to the passion that caused us to get into our profession … in our strategic planning and in our operations … and to our professional excellence – may be the best way to help all of us come through the difficult times ahead.

A new world is coming.  No question.

And we have an opportunity to contribute to it.