As an accomplished speaker, consultant, trainer, and business coach, Wilburn helps professionals become better leaders, better communicators, and better people.
By Sara Parkman
Wilburn first worked for ZweigWhite in the firm’s executive search team in the 1990s/2000s. He left the firm when it was sold in 2004 to join a private equity group. When Zweig Group returned to the hands of the original founding partner Mark Zweig, Wilburn rejoined the firm to help rebuild a key part of the business. Today, Wilburn hosts The Zweig Letter podcast and is a training services consultant with Zweig Group. Wilburn is also founder and chief encourager at Encourage Build Grow, and host of the Encourage Build Grow podcast and I Am Northwest Arkansas podcast.
“Everyone is a leader whether they realize it or not,” Wilburn says. “Some will be leaders of one or two while others may lead hundreds or even thousands. Having strong self-awareness, empathy, and the ability to communicate and connect with others beyond a superficial level are all traits of a great leader. These are all things that everyone can work on and improve through education, observation, training, and sheer determination.”
A conversation with Randy Wilburn.
The Zweig Letter: You host two other podcasts in addition to The Zweig Letter podcast. What’s your favorite thing about podcasting?
Randy Wilburn: I like the long form ability to share content in an unfiltered way. Obviously you can edit to your heart’s content but there is nothing like the spoken word – and if you can add a little storytelling and audio engineering to the mix that makes it even better. I also personally like interviewing people. It helps my curiosity and desire to ABL (Always Be Learning).
TZL: What advice do you have for anyone, particularly AEC firms, thinking of starting a podcast?
RW: Voice is the next big thing in technology. By 2025 most search will be done by voice. Right now you can ask Alexa to play most of my podcasts and many others that exist out there today. I also think it is important to use podcasting to extend your brand in the marketplace and tell your story. Nobody can tell your story better than you can. I also like podcasting in terms of how it impacts the internal aspects of a company. A CEO of a growing design firm can use podcasting to tell his or her story to the team, what the vision looks like, how we should serve the client, and if you mix in some professional development lessons, you make your message portable and consumable for everyone on the team to hear whenever they want.
TZL: You earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Howard University, one of the country’s most prestigious historically black universities. What drew you to Howard?
RW: I came to Howard because of its reputation. I also got a swimming scholarship to Howard. They had one of the few swim teams at an HBCU. I also had a great uncle who started the first black pharmacy in Western Pennsylvania. He was a graduate there so it was kind of in the blood.
TZL: What’s the most valuable lesson you learned at Howard?
RW: I learned how to critically think for myself. I learned that being black in America was a blessing and not a curse. I learned that there were a ton of young, smart, and gifted people who looked like me and who wanted to conquer the world and make it a better place. I also got to sit under some amazing professors who were experts in their respective fields and always pushing me to work harder and to never take “no” for an answer.
TZL: As an accomplished speaker, trainer, and business coach you’ve educated many of our industry’s leaders on the skills they need to succeed. What traits do you think are most important in a leader?
RW: That’s easy. A good leader has to be humble, with an ego to match, and be aware of their shortcomings so they can surround themselves with people who can help them do their job at the highest level possible. I also think another important trait of a good leader is to be able to communicate in good and bad times. Active listening is a part of that as well and helps to build trust. Finally, I think the ability to develop and build relationships is crucial. We cannot do it alone. That goes for everyone in a growing organization from the C-suite on down.
TZL: Why are those traits the most important?
RW: Everyone is a leader whether they realize it or not. Some will be leaders of one or two while others may lead hundreds or even thousands. Having strong self-awareness, empathy, and the ability to communicate and connect with others beyond a superficial level are all traits of a great leader. These are all things that everyone can work on and improve through education, observation, training, and sheer determination. We are all WIPS (works in progress), so we might as well keep learning.
TZL: In recent years, recruiting and retaining key talent has been one of the top issues firms in our industry face. Through your experience at Zweig Group, you became an expert on the subject as an advisor and trainer. What did you see firms doing wrong when it comes to recruiting, and how can they make it right?
RW: I think firms struggle with identifying exactly what they want in a potential candidate. Even now in the midst of a pandemic a lot of firms are looking for the perfect candidate. The idea of an individual who is perfect for every role is crazy talk. I’ve always told firms and hiring managers who will listen that you hire for character and train for skill. I learned that from Mark Zweig more than two decades ago while recruiting for a firm called Carter & Burgess, now Jacobs. If your initial reaction to a candidate is good and maybe they check off most but not all of the boxes, you should consider them. The idea that the perfect candidate is going to come around isn’t worth losing time over when you could be training someone who fits most of what you need. As a hiring manager and leader you can help bring that person across the finish line of being complete and perfect for whatever need you have.
TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
RW: I think you earn trust with a client by understanding their “why.” Taking time to talk with them and finding out what makes them tick on a personal and professional level. I’m always amazed when I hear from firms that lost a good client, and when I dig deeper I learn that they never really knew their client. Couldn’t relate to them on a social level, didn’t know about their family or anything. Every new client is a chance to develop a new relationship that can eventually stand the test of time. As I always tell people I train, friends don’t fire friends!
TZL: What role does your family play in your career?
RW: My family is my “why.” They are the reason I do what I do. I’ve been able to marry that with the “why” behind my actual work which is to educate and encourage others to be the best version of themselves. I think if you love what you do you can find a way to incorporate that into your family life. You obviously have to be able to make time for yourself and family outside of work but if you really enjoy what you do you shouldn’t be afraid to share that with the people you love. On top of that if you have children this is a great way to help them understand and develop healthy work habits. They should see you working hard and playing hard. The idea that you work hard now so that you can play hard later is a myth and delayed gratification doesn’t always work out the way we see it in our minds. Tomorrow is not promised to us. All we have is today.