Have you identified those individuals who will step into greater leadership roles in the next few years, and are you specifically developing them for that transition? If not, what traits should you be looking for in selecting future leaders?
Marks of a leader. Based on my years of experience developing and working with effective leaders in our industry, here are criteria that I’d suggest in vetting new leaders:
• Welcomes the leadership challenge. There are too many reluctant leaders in our business. We need leaders who will embrace the challenges and commitment required, including the prospect of giving up some (or most) of the technical aspects of their work.
• Strong people skills. Taking initiative and making good decisions are obviously important leadership
traits. But keep in mind that leaders cannot succeed without the willing involvement of others. Leaders must
have the ability to effectively engage people in getting things done.
• Change agent. The ability to implement positive change is an imperative for leaders. We don’t need
leaders to maintain the status quo, which unfortunately is what many of our supposed leaders do. Change is
mandatory for growth, improvement, and innovation—and aren’t these the ingredients of real success?
• Thinks like an owner. A leader who thinks like an owner has an entrepreneurial spirit and is willing
to take on the tough challenges. He is able to to lay aside personal agendas for the good of the whole
organization. Unfortunately, this trait is not as common among principals and other managers as you might
• Focused and disciplined. Effective management of time and attention is among the most critical leadership
skills. We have limited reserves of both. Strong leaders exhibit a tremendous ability to focus their efforts on what matters most and to maintain that focus over the long term.
• Continuous learner. Some senior members in our ranks are too smart for their own good. They no longer
have the drive to learn new things, or to open their minds to different ideas and approaches. They make poor
leaders. Good leaders are constantly seeking better ways of doing things, hence they never stop learning.
• Makes others better. An effective leader is best judged by the impact he or she has on others. Leaders inspire, mentor, and hold accountable. They recognize that helping others improve requires a substantial investment of their time. The best leaders are passionate about helping others grow and perform at their best.
Some things to avoid. In seeking to identify leadership potential within your firm, you should try to avoid the following common mistakes that other firms make:
• Don’t place too much weight on seniority or technical skills. Pick the best people regardless of age, seniority, or technical credentials, unless these credentials are specifically relevant to the leadership role. Increasingly, A/E firms are choosing leaders from the ranks of non-technical firm members.
• Don’t fail to seek input from those who work closest with leader candidates. Sometimes corporate executives have an incomplete picture of how well a candidate interacts with his or her closest colleagues. Remember, a strong leader attracts enthusiastic followers. Be sure to talk with individuals who work directly for and with the candidate.
• Don’t limit choices to people who are like the firm’s current leaders. There is value in broadening your leadership bandwidth with different perspectives and abilities.
• Don’t overlook lackluster results because the candidate is likable. There are many who can “talk the talk” but don’t “walk the walk.” The authenticity and sincerity of a leader is essential in drawing willing followers.
• Don’t forget that everyone is watching. Be sure to communicate to staff what is expected of leaders in the firm, and act consistently with those expectations.
• Don’t put too much stock in personality typing schemes. While there’s value in recognizing different personalities and how they relate to one another, don’t make the common mistake of assuming certain personalities make for stronger leaders. The research indicates that leaders of all types of personalities can
succeed. The trick is fitting the leadership style with the individual’s personal strengths.
Of course, the quest for developing new leaders doesn’t stop with identifying them. Your firm should have a deliberate process for developing leaders that includes training, coaching, and testing by the fire of real-life leadership challenges. If you’re not intentionally developing leaders, perhaps this article will inspire you to move in that direction.
About the Author: Mel Lester of The Business Edge (www.bizedge.biz) helps engineering, architectural, and environmental firms improve business performance by implementing effective strategies in organizational leadership, business development, client service, and project delivery. He can be reached at 540-268-2300 or
What really makes a great leader? More than managing people or projects or finances, great leaders can truly inspire and motivate others to perform at their peak. Whether you believe that great leaders are born or built, every current and future firm leader can benefit from opportunities to refine their skills and test drive their leadership chops on real-world case studies and hands-on exercises alongside coaches who’ve been there. PSMJ's A/E/C Leadership Bootcamp is for professionals in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry who want to improve their leadership skills.
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