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AEC Leaders share lessons from past downturns

Positions of passivity and cost-cutting run counter to the key lessons from AEC leaders who successfully navigated their firms through past market downturns.

November 24, 2020 |
AEC Leaders share lessons from past downturns

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2020 has been a peach, hasn’t it? A global pandemic. Raging wild fires. Riots and looting. Facemask battles. Ongoing trade wars. Election-year shenanigans. Recession fears. Increasingly divisive politics. Everything canceled. (Lest we forget zombie deer and murder hornets.)

In a year of jobsite shutdowns, project delays, funding pitfalls, and project postponements—and with no guarantee of a more prosperous 2021—it is understandable for AEC firm leaders to take a guarded, hunker-down stance when planning for next year and beyond. It is natural for firms to focus first on “right sizing” the business by slashing investments, overhead, and operational costs. 

But these positions of passivity and cost-cutting run counter to the key lessons from AEC leaders who successfully navigated their firms through past market downturns and economic events, says Scott Winstead, President of FMI Management Consulting, who’s firm last year studied takeaways and strategic lessons from the Great Recession ( 

A common mistake AEC firms make during down cycles, says Winstead, is running the firm as a collection of projects, versus a business. “It’s a subtle but very distinctive difference that speaks to the long view versus the short view, and to the notion that you can’t save your way to prosperity,” says Winstead.

The firms that came out of the Great Recession in growth mode, according to the FMI research report, focused on investing in their clients, people, and business; they diversified their services and found unique ways to outperform the competition; they streamlined their operations and put their “A” players in a position to succeed and grow the business; and they created a company culture that is nimble, collaborative, and transparent. 

Winstead says 2020-21 should be no different. “If I think back to 2008 and the beginning innings of the Great Recession, I heard then what we heard early on in this scenario, which is mistaking backlog as a proxy for health,” he says. “Backlog is a reflection of work that has already been sold and booked, and is in the process of being burned off. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

The key finding of the FMI research, which gathered insights from more than 150 engineering and construction executives, was that AEC leaders who increased their financial investment in strategy reported higher effectiveness in operations, strategy, and overall company performance, compared to respondents who either didn’t do anything or decreased spending in that area. “Strategic thinking and planning are among the top leadership skills needed to be an effective leader during a recession,” wrote the authors of the report. 

Download the FMI report, “Leading Through Business Cycles: Lessons Learned From E&C Executives,” at:

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