Thoughts on Being a Chief Executive Officer

by Geoffrey Butler, AIA

I never really thought much about it as this firm got bigger. The firm evolved from a sole proprietorship back in 1978 (where I was the owner, receptionist, bookkeeper, chief architect, project manager, draftsman and errand boy) to a fairly large organization with a full cadre of administrative support staff, a marketing department, IT department, architects, engineers, landscape architects and interior designers. Let me tell you that running “your” business is much different from running an organization with many owners and employees whose livelihood relies on the success of the business.

In 1995 I got a call from Bob Grabill of the Chief Executive Network (CEN). This organization was just forming and, as he explained it, the primary purpose of the group was to get CEOs of A/E (architecture and engineering) firms from across the country together twice a year where we could discuss issues and compare notes with each other and hopefully assist each other in growing our business. Each of the CEOs would be from organizations across the country that were not competing with the others so there would be no reason to not share information and to be open. This two day meeting was designed to allow us to work on our business rather than working in the business. It was an interesting thought and I signed up to go see what it was about.

As you might suspect, when you are young you think you know a whole lot more than you really do. Looking back, I initially thought I’d go and share my worldly knowledge with others. After all, at that time I had successfully built a business from the ground up and ran it for 17 years. Hah! Over the years, working with this ever-changing group of professionals, I have found that you really do not know what you do not know. Every meeting offers new insights into running a professional service organization. We have speakers with special focuses and many presentations are addressing current challenges in the industry and our practices.

We always break down into groups with not more than 10, but usually about eight CEOs around the table and discuss issues that we want to discuss. In fact, we vote on the topics to discuss since there are always too many to cover in one meeting. The meetings also include the most important component called the “Ex-Officio Board.” This is where each of us are able to pose a problem we are having in the form of a question and the rest of the group gets to ask questions to understand the scope of the issue and then offer suggestions and compare insights into how to deal with the problem. Can you imagine having eight or nine other CEOs advising you on how to solve a problem? Fabulous!

Think about this – where can you go to learn how to be a CEO? Where do they teach you how to balance all the business components of a professional design organization with the practical and technical aspects of your profession? When we went through college, we generally were discouraged from taking business courses since we had so little time there to learn our profession. When you get out you learn everything you need to know to become a licensed design professional. You have mentors all along the way from your college professor to your managers in the firm all the way up until you become the CEO. Then, there is no one above you to guide you. YOu are the top of the heap. As Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here.” That is a huge burden. How you deal with that burden can affect the firm, everyone in the firm and all of their families. Sometimes is makes it hard to sleep at night.

I just got back from the Spring CEN meeting in Dallas. It was another excellent meeting. One of the things we did was to dig into what a CEO should be doing in the firm. The following is an abbreviated summary of what CEOs do:

  • We make sure there is a clearly communicated Vision of where the organization is headed;
  • We develop (with the help of others in the firm) a written Strategy that tells us where to direct our efforts and allocate our resources;
  • We develop (with the help of others in the firm) our Goals for the year that drive the Vision and Strategy;
  • We identify the proper Metrics which we follow to tell us how we are doing. If you cannot measure it, how do you know if you are doing it?
  • We establish the proper Structure for the organization so that we can work efficiently and effectively and accomplish our Vision, Strategy and Goals;
  • We make sure we have enough of the right People on the bus and they are all in the right seats;
  • We Evaluate and Compensate our people for doing the right things at the right time;
  • We develop the Processes and Procedures (with the help of our management team) which institutionalizes the right behaviors;
  • We make sure that we have the Cash necessary to accomplish our plan. Cash is king. Without the cash to run your business, you have no business.
  • We are Consistent.

Interesting to note that “practice architecture or engineering” is not on the list. When you take on the role of CEO, you are stepping into a whole new world which is different from what you were educated and trained in. Sure you will be practicing in your field, but you have assumed added responsibilities with this new role.

This is where I really appreciate being a part of CEN. It provides me the support and resources I need to be better. I can assure you that in our meetings last week when we discussed these elements, I scored myself on each one then totaled the scores and ended up with a 66%. On a straight grading scale where 90%+ is an “A,” 66% falls in the “D” range. Pretty sobering. Hopefully, business is graded on a curve and others (if they were honest) were not too far off my abysmal score.

All of this makes me want to work harder to be a better CEO and with the the support and resources of the Chief Executive Network, I can do that.

Geoffrey Butler, AIA, CEO (in perpetual training)