HR Consultant Barbara Irwin Launches a New Generation of Leaders at A/E Advisors CEO Roundtable

Should the primary attribute of a prospective A/E firm CEO be an aversion to the job? That was one participant’s half-joking observation when HR Consultant Barbara Irwin asked participants to list the qualities an A/E firm CEO should possess.

“The first thing I look for (in a future leader) is someone who doesn’t want the job,” said the CEO of a large, growing engineering firm in the Midwest. “If they want it too much, they’re probably not right for the job.”

That moment of levity occurred during Irwin’s session, “The Leadership Pipeline: Launching a New Generation of Leaders,” at the A/E Advisors CEO Roundtable in Scottsdale, Arizona, last week.

Irwin began the 90-minute open discussion by noting that firms needing money can borrow from a bank, but firms with a leadership void face a much more difficult challenge. This is why it is critical for the current upper management group to continually identify and groom the next generation of leaders.

The president of a West Coast firm said he expects his firm’s next generation of top managers to have the same traits he had when he was tapped as a future leader – “a moral compass, strong work ethic, and if something needs to be done, they do it. If I don’t feel these things are there, I won’t recommend them.”

Other qualities identified by the CEOs, all of whom were from firms with more than 150 employees, included:

· Vision
· Problem-solving ability
· Flexibility
· People skills, both internal and external
· Loyalty to the firm’s core principles
· Capacity to learn
· Drive

An East Coast CEO noted that creating a list of desired attributes for the next generation of leaders is a good way to thin the herd and move the transition process forward. “If you look at this list, you can consolidate the pool of candidates to a relatively small group. You can then spend time with the ones you’ve chosen and show them the business.”

The same CEO added that he sees value in letting the candidates know that they are in competition for the top job. “It’s a horse race and they’ve got to run.”

Irwin wrapped up the session with several action items proposed by the group. They included:

· Identify traits for different leaders at different levels within the firm.
· Develop a training program
· Assign individuals to sit on committees and boards.

Irwin led a similar session for CEOs from smaller firms (fewer than 150 employees) on the first day of the three-day conference at the Westin Kierland Resort in Scottsdale.

A long-time HR executive with A/E firms prior to forming her own company, Irwin is the president of HR Advisors Group, LLC. For more information about HR Advisors Group, A/E Advisors, or the CEO Roundtable, visit

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