Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Time to Fast-Track Development of Our Younger Professionals?

Staffing is the big issue these days in the A/E industry, of course. Firms are having a hard time finding enough qualified people to handle the burgeoning workload. Demographics suggest the problem won't be ending any time soon, barring a significant economic downturn. Recruiting has surpassed selling as the top competitive issue.

Obviously, staff retention is critically important as well. Turnover is highest among younger professionals. The usual complaint is that the millennial generation is less loyal, changing jobs an average of every two to three years. But lack of loyalty isn't the real problem, various studies have found, it's the perceived lack of opportunity. Our younger colleagues expect to advance more quickly in their careers than us baby boomers did, and will readily change jobs for a better opportunity.

And that's a problem for the A/E industry. I don't have any data to support this, but my observation is that our industry is generally slower to promote professionals than other industries. We probably overvalue seniority. Many industries promote people into project management in half the time of the typical A/E firm—and the projects are arguably just as complicated (or more so). I've met "senior" engineering managers in other industries, leading groups of 50-100 people, who are in their early 30s. That's a rarity in our industry.

My point isn't so much that we risk losing our younger professionals to other industries (although that's clearly a threat). I call out the difference to suggest that we may be underestimating the potential of our top millennial performers, and that could be a significant factor in the higher turnover. My own experience surveying and working with young professionals in A/E firms has revealed that they commonly feel they are being denied deserved opportunities to take on greater responsibilities and increased autonomy.

Of course, I frequently hear older managers complain about the younger generation's "unrealistic" expectations. These managers put in their time and "paid their dues" to achieve their current status. Why do the younger generations think it should be different for them?

Well, maybe because the times are different. There's a shortage of experienced technical professionals, and millennials will soon comprise half the workforce. Some analysts predict that in the next several years we'll witness an accelerated exodus of boomers, who have been hanging around beyond retirement age at a record rate. That could dramatically shift the generational makeup of the workforce in relatively short order.

So shouldn't we be considering how to fast-track the development of our younger professionals for the long-term welfare of our firms? I think we should. Here are some suggestions for doing that:

Clarify career paths. Young professionals want to know specifically what it takes to advance. Yet many firms don't make it easy to determine the steps for career growth. Position descriptions typically describe basic qualifications, but the means of obtaining those qualifications are often less clear. The best firms have established a professional development curriculum that specifies what training and experience are needed at each stage of one's career.

Rethink experience requirements for advancement. Experience matters, but employee development doesn't always follow the straight line progression that job requirements sometimes imply. Think it takes 6-8 years to qualify as a project manager? Some younger professionals are ready much earlier. Experience thresholds are better used as guidelines than as requirements. Give flexibility to your best performers.

Combine coaching with training. While many firms attempt to introduce mentoring opportunities for younger workers, most ignore coaching. There's an important distinction, the primary one being that coaching is real-time, as work is being performed (the table below highlights other differences):

Studies show that performance improvement following training skyrockets when it is combined with coaching. That only makes sense: People learn more by doing than listening. Plus coaching provides the immediate feedback and reinforcement needed to dramatically improve performance. Why then is it rare? Because it takes a significant investment of a leader's time. But it's an investment that can yield a worthwhile return.

Learn to let go and delegate. Many managers struggle to delegate work adequately, and the next generation of managers suffers for it. Delegation is challenging because it takes time to do it right, it means giving up some control, and the next person likely won't do the job the way you would (or as well at first). But delegating appropriately is critical for developing your young stars. Give them as much as they can handle, but not without proper oversight. 

Regularly seek their input. Senior firm leaders often make the mistake of not soliciting advice and feedback from their younger professionals. This neglects a valuable perspective, whether the issue is project-related or a matter of corporate strategy. Millennials see things differently, which is precisely why you want to talk with them. Their ideas may not yet be seasoned by experience, but they are often fresh and insightful—and perhaps just the right answer for the situation. When you get them involved in important matters, both you and they ultimately benefit.

Take them along. One of the simplest steps in helping your younger professionals develop is also one of the best: Invite them to join you in your work. I recognize there are limits to this practice given the importance of keeping people (and especially junior staff) billable. But consider this personalized training. Visiting a prospective client? Take a rising star along. Negotiating a big contract? Invite a young colleague. Holding an executive session to discuss your strategic plan? Well, you get the idea.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Focus Not on What You Say, But What Is Heard

Several years ago, I traveled from southwest Virginia to Dallas to do safety training. I was joined by my client's safety director. When we arrived at their office, the staff there didn't know we were coming. The safety director was quite flustered at this revelation. "I sent an email giving them all the information they needed to be ready for us!" he complained.

"Did you get confirmation back that they had read your email?" I asked.

"Well, no."


That is perhaps an extreme example of a common communication problem. We often think we did our job by delivering a message in one form or another. But communication is a partnership. The process isn't completed until the message is both sent and received. Sometimes the message is missed completely, as in my example. More often, it is misunderstood or only partially received.

I liken communication to a forward pass in football. The quarterback must do his part in delivering the pass on target. But whether the ball is right on the numbers or five feet over the receiver's head, if the ball is not caught, the result is the same.

Too often we judge our effectiveness as communicators by how well we think we delivered the message, rather than by the results:
  • Many technical professionals judge their writing by the detailed information it contains, without realizing that that detail often overwhelms.
  • Firm principals often praise the quality of their firm's proposals—despite the low win rate—because they look attractive.
  • Polished speakers can deliver flawless presentations but fail to persuade their audience because they ignored the emotional context that drives persuasion.
  • Many managers blame the employee for not understanding their instructions, without acknowledging that this is a recurring problem they have with several employees.
  • People continue to rely too much on sending emails, without verifying they are read and understood.
Here's an overlooked aspect of effective communication: The message needs to be delivered so it's more catchable. And the catch should be confirmed. A few pointers:

Get their attention. In this overcommunicated world, getting your message across must start with getting your audience's attention. In the example above, the subject line of my colleague's ignored email read "Safety Training." What if the subject line had been "Please Confirm: We're Coming to Your Office June 12"? Wouldn't that have more likely been noticed? Poorly written subject lines are a common email problem.

Getting attention also applies to other forms of communication. When my wife has something important to tell me, she will often ask that I divert my eyes from the computer screen or whatever I'm reading and look at her. It works. If you're speaking to a group and notice people not looking at you, you might say, "If I could get your attention, I'd like to share something important." Simply pausing can also work. Eye contact is one indicator of attention; head nodding is another. Asking questions is a good way to affirm people are paying attention.

People also are more inclined to pay attention when what you have to say matters to them. Start your talk or your written message by giving your audience a reason to listen or read further: "There are some big changes coming. I need to tell you how they will affect your work." Or you might start by asking your audience about what issues within your topic are of particular interest to them.

Establish trust. People generally don't listen to someone they don't trust. And even if they do listen despite the lack of trust, they're more likely to misconstrue the message. So how do you build trust with your audience, especially if you don't really know them?

The first step is to identify with them. Connect to common interests, experiences, concerns. For example: "I have my own concerns about the the proposed changes. I'm going to have to adjust to doing things differently just like you. But I'm convinced these changes are the best option not only for the company, but for us as employees." Identification communicates that you understand where your audience is coming from, at least in part.

The quickest way to establish trust, however, is to demonstrate that you care. How can you show you care? By showing empathy, speaking to audience concerns, using personal language, being respectful. That last suggestion is just plain common sense, but it's less common these days, especially when people disagree. Disrespect breaks down trust, which interferes with the accurate, unbiased reception of your message.

Don't ignore the emotional context. I touched on this earlier, but let me make it explicit here: Emotions profoundly influence communication. Yet many communicators—including many technical professionals—seem oblivious to the emotional context of their messages.

This cuts both ways. Your emotions can substantially shape your message. Your audience's emotions affect how your message is interpreted and received. Pay attention to both dynamics. If you write or speak when angry, for example, expect an angry response. If you're critical, expect a defensive response. On the other hand, people tend to respond favorably to someone who is friendly, upbeat, humble, and respectful.

Not only can your emotions influence how people respond to your message, but your communications should be shaped by your audience's emotions. As an operations manager, I made the mistake of responding to my employees' concern about a downturn in the business by being openly honest about the situation. But that only raised their concerns. I was conveying information without being sensitive enough to how it made people feel, which made the information less helpful. Eventually, after I realized my mistake, I was able to be more encouraging by focusing on the steps we could all take to turn things around.

Use a common, personal language. The technical professions have developed distinct terminologies. These words can clarify and specify for those within that discipline, but they tend to exclude and confuse others. Sometimes I think that exclusion is intentional, perhaps to accentuate our expertise. Yet it often impedes our communication. The advice is to avoid the unnecessary and inappropriate use of jargon.

But speaking a common language is not simply about avoiding certain words. It also includes adopting words—and ways of putting words together—that connect with your audience. The best advice is to use a conversational tone. This means favoring common conventions of everyday language. Take note of how top business authors and speakers convey their message. And, yes, that's appropriate in the technical professions.

Confirm that your message was received as intended. That could be as simple as a return email or a corresponding action that fulfills your expectation. But often it's more involved than that. For example, an affirmative response to your question "You got that?" doesn't necessarily mean you were understood. Hence, my wife will not only ask that I give her my attention but will sometimes request that I explain what she told me to do (and with good reason, as I've been known to misinterpret her instructions!).

If you prefer a less direct approach to seeking confirmation, consider these tips: Rather than you summarizing what you said, ask your audience to take a stab at it. Assign someone the responsibility of providing a written summary of your meeting's outcomes. Request that your employee write a task list based on what you instructed him or her to do. Call the client to confirm that your email or memo was clear and properly understood.

Each of these steps is designed to determine that the most important part of your communication (message reception) was a success. You can't judge that by only evaluating how well you think it was sent (a common mistake). Your audience is the ultimate judge. So be sure you're crafting your messages specifically for them. Because you know what can happen when the ball is dropped, no matter who is at fault.