Phil Keil, Zweig Group’s director of strategic services, knows how to put the pieces together to craft unique strategies and implementation plans for AEC firms.
By Richard Massey
If you call him kind of nerdy, he might just agree with you. Phil Keil has chemical engineering and physics degrees, and actually enjoys the field of neuroscience. If that sounds esoteric and granular, it’s because it is. The US Air Force veteran also has a keen mind for the big picture. He can engage with a firm, identify its problems, and then offer a step-by-step solution that can yield opportunities for years into the future.
SEVEN QUESTIONS WITH PHIL KEIL.
The Zweig Letter: In your role at Zweig Group, how do you Elevate the Industry?
Phil Keil: I put puzzle pieces together. My role is unique in that I have the opportunity to be deeply involved in crafting the purpose, vision, and mission for the firms we work with. We design unique strategies and implementation plans for each firm we partner with. The wonderful part of it is that we gather insight into the entire firm’s direction, rather than divisions or segments. We aggregate the data. Our expertise is in crafting a customized plan that allows firms to grow and add value to their businesses, their people, their clients, and the community. It allows us to challenge the way things have always been done and take the industry to the next level, one firm at a time.
TZL: In an ideal world, what’s the lifecycle of a great strategic plan?
PK: The main thing is that it is a living and breathing entity. You start by gathering the research and observing the firm in a completely unbiased way. You determine how each component comprises strengths, challenges, opportunities, or threats by examining industry benchmarks and the positioning of the firm, then you ensure that everyone who helps in crafting the strategy has the insight, capability, and influence to be effective. Finally, you design the path forward. The most important filters, if done the right way, will be your purpose, mission, and vision. They will cascade into your firm’s overall financial goal and inform your strategies, sub-goals, and action items. Once the plan is determined, the name of the game is how to communicate it effectively to staff so that they are motivated and empowered to take the new leadership roles that the plan creates. This drives the importance of a solid implementation plan and schedule. Then comes the hard part. You start implementing and executing. Throughout the implementation phase, constant vigilance in changing market, political, competitive, and other environmental conditions will be required to make adjustments along the way. At a certain frequency, we measure where we are and start the process all over again. The industry is constantly evolving, and we should be doing so as well.
TZL: You were in the US Air Force for five years. How did your service to our country shape your life and your career?
PK: The Air Force provided great perspective and a great work ethic for me. It instilled principles of integrity, service to others, and attention to detail. I had the opportunity to travel the world and learn from great leaders. The amount of training and experience I received was invaluable. One of the things I speak frequently to this industry about is the importance of both firm and individual values, principles, and morals, and how they guide your success or failure. My time in the Air Force was where I began the development process of what that looks like for myself. I don’t think I’ll ever know enough or be finished working on those things.
TZL: When it comes to strategy, what are firms getting wrong and how can they make it right?
PK: The first thing that comes to mind is implementation. Depending on the source, 70 to 90 percent of firms across the U.S. perceive their long-term planning process as a failure. The reason is due to lack of implementation. Coming up with ideas is easy. It is the hard work of putting them into action where people fall short. Specific, measurable, and time-bound goals are essential. Once those are determined, a list of action items and accountability measures must be put in place. A couple of other items that come to mind are firm owners’ specific biases and, in some cases, limited vision.
TZL: You are educated in entrepreneurship and have been an entrepreneur. How does that background inform your role as a strategy consultant?
PK: An entrepreneurial/intrapreneurial mindset, and never being satisfied with the status quo, is valuable as an advisor and for staff at the firms we work with. It helps me provide strategies and think from various angles on how to tackle the many challenges our clients face all over the country. Additionally, after starting a few companies myself, I truly have a valuable perspective that I can offer. I’ve been there, not only on the engineering side, but also on the startup side.
TZL: How do you earn the trust of your clients?
PK: The simple answer is this: Being there for them. It’s important to be responsive, knowledgeable, and to have high integrity. As I tell clients, you hire someone for their character and cultural fit with the organization. You have to be willing to tell them the hard things, not just what they want to hear. You must be willing to admit when you’ve made mistakes, or when you don’t have the expertise and need to bring in someone else from the team to help.
TZL: When you are out in the field working with firms, what are some of the same systemic deficiencies you see again and again?
PK: The big ones are failures in communication, recruiting/retention, and how they utilize/understand marketing and business development. Another one is the lack of effective training and mentoring. Many firms, regardless of size, face similar challenges. The fun part is in how we address those specific challenges with each firm. The approach and the ability can be different. It is important to respect the culture and history of each one.