The Four Major “Shifts” Changing Everything About Leadership and Firm Success

Peter C. Atherton, P.E
Posted on: 02/16/23
Written by: Peter C. Atherton, P.E
Topics: Leadership

Like most large-scale systemic events, March 2020 gave ‘official birth’ to a new era of work and life – one with new rules, new ways of thinking, and lots of big change.

Amongst the change we’ve all seen and experienced for several years now, there have been a number of major “shifts”. 

These shifts have already altered the workplace, marketplace, and recruiting space. 

These shifts have also fundamentally changed the way we must lead and develop our teams and organizations if we want to sustainably grow and prosper in this new era – and do so making a real difference and not burning out. All of which is possible, should we choose to design for it. 

“These shifts have fundamentally changed the way we must lead and develop our teams and organizations if we want to sustainably grow and prosper in this new era.”— Peter C. Atherton, P.E.

The four major shifts are listed here, and each is described further below: 

1.    The redefinition of winning
2.    The shift of work from “place” to “space”
3.    The shift to what I call the “third way” 
4.    The shift of performance from manager to teams and team success

The first two are more societal shifts and the second two are strategic and tactical shifts that we must make in response as leaders and organizations. 

Shift #1: The Redefinition of Winning  

The reality is that most of our employees today, especially our top performers, want to “win” at both work and life and do so while making a difference and having a positive impact. 

This has been a long-term trend that was accelerated forward and made real at-scale by COVID, particularly during the early seasons. 

For many, this was the first time we had the time to think more clearly about work and life. We thought about where we were, where we wanted to be, and how we were tracking – and there was some ‘re-valuing’. As a result, decisions were made (and continue to be made) on what is valued in terms of both work and life, and the role we want work to play in our lives. 

For most professionals, work will still be a big part of our overall success and an important part of our identity, it just won’t be all of it moving forward. 

So, if we’re going to remain relevant and effective as leaders, we must realize that what’s motivating most of our talent today has shifted. The overwhelming desire for greater work-life balance and better work-life integration, and the decisions employees are making on whether to leave or to stay or to be more fully engaged at work, is deep-seated in this shift. 

Shift #2: The Shift of Work from “Place” to “Space” 

For most of us, our ‘means of production’ has never been a factory floor. But before email, file sharing, and video tools, we did need an office – a “place” to be co-located face-to-face – to meet, talk, and to share information.  That’s not the case anymore. 

Our true means of production is the cloud, our computers, and our smart phones – which we have access to in so many more physical places and virtual “spaces” whether at home or otherwise. 

Our offices certainly provide value but how we use them moving forward will determine whether we’re able to truly engage and get the most out of our talent. That’s because part of this shift from place to space is also about people and culture. 

Not too long ago, work was a place with others – colleagues, not necessarily friends or people we would associate with outside of work or the company picnic – but this has been changing. 

Now, most of us prefer work to be a space with a community of like-minded and like-valued people – individuals we feel aligned with, can respect, and where we feel seen, heard, valued. 

So, if as leaders we are not thinking in terms of culture and community building and not designing for success from anywhere within our teams and throughout our organizations, we may already be missing out. 

Shift #3: The “Third Way” 

With so much change – and with so many nuances as to how that change is affecting the workplace, marketplace, and recruiting space overall – the best path forward will not be “your way” or “my way”. 

The best path forward is going to be a “third way”. 

The “third way” is about intentionally creating more and better spaces for real dialogue, understanding, and buy-in about all the issues and opportunities before us. In some cases, this will be more about dialogue and understanding, and in other cases as much about advanced engagement and co-creating our most advantageous path forward. 

Shift #4: The Shift of Performance from “Manager” to Teams and Team Success

There’s a real issue at the manager and principal positions. There’s a bottleneck more pronounced than ever before – and it’s causing harm. 

We feel it anecdotally and we see it in the data. There’s more unhealthy stress and burnout towards the top of our organizations and less desired development and advancement towards the bottom. 

As an industry, we have a “shape” problem and, by extension, so do most firms. 

We are more in the shape of an hourglass than a pyramid; generally having a lot of talent with greater than 20 years of experience toward the top and a lot of talent with less than 10 years of experience towards the bottom. Our pinch point is the middle where we have comparatively fewer professionals with that coveted ‘10 to 15’ years of experience. 

Although this has been decades in the making, it’s hurting us more now for two main reasons.  

First is the fact that work stress flows “up” in our organizations, as this is where the client relationships and the ultimate responsibility for work lay. Second is the fact that, as currently designed, success at the project manager and principal positions requires consistent, if not constant, sacrifice and skillsets that are not often taught.

Success as a manager and principal today demands results in terms of profit and loss, client service, employee engagement, and risk mitigation – and, for many reasons, each is getting harder to do, especially at a time of increasing workloads! 

We can also layer on our dual and even triplicate roles associated with “doer-seller” or “doer-seller-manager”; not to mention, of course, the critical role each must now play in talent development. 

The more forward-thinking firms I know and work with have shifted away from the “superhero” model of project success that many high-achievers are ‘opting-out’ of and towards a model of teams and team success. 

This strategic shift is not only more winnable and sustainable, it’s also more attractive to both current and aspiring leaders and managers – especially in light of Shift #1 above. 

“The more forward-thinking firms I know and work with have shifted – they’ve shifted away from the ‘superhero’ model of project success that many high-achievers are ‘opting-out’ of and towards a model of teams and team success.”— Peter C. Atherton, P.E.

Once we better understand all of these shifts, we can begin to improve our overall ability to lead and create new capacity and opportunity within our teams and organizations. 

You can also check the AEC Leadership Today podcast episode where I dig deeper into these shifts and their implications and opportunities for us moving forward. 


About the Author:  Peter C. Atherton, P.E. is an AEC industry insider with over 30 years of experience, having spent more than 24 as a successful professional civil engineer, principal, major owner, and member of the board of directors for high-achieving firms.  Pete is now the President and Founder of ActionsProve, LLC (, author of “Reversing Burnout. How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow! A Blueprint for Professionals and Business Owners”, and the creator of the I.M.P.A.C.T. process.  

Pete is also the host of The AEC Leadership Today Podcast and leads The AEC Leadership Mastermind

Pete works with AEC firms to grow and advance their success through modern and new era focused strategic planning, executive coaching, leadership and management team development, performance-based employee engagement, and corporate impact design. Connect with him at

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