Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Great Bosses Make for a Great Place to Work

"People join good companies and leave bad bosses." That was the conclusion of The Gallup Organization, which has done the most extensive workplace research in the world. They found that the number one reason people leave their jobs is a poor relationship with their immediate supervisor. By contrast, they found that good bosses are the most significant factor in creating a positive work environment, which leads to greater productivity, profit, and customer satisfaction.

Consultant David Maister corroborated these findings with his own study among professional service firms. He also found a direct correlation between employee attitudes and financial performance. Interestingly, he discovered greater variances in employee attitudes between offices within firms than between firms. Conclusion? The most important variable is the local manager or managers.

In uncertain times such as these, many firms are most concerned about layoffs. But the uncertainty also leads to voluntary staff departures. These are often some of a firm's best employees seeking better opportunities elsewhere (and there are A/E firms still actively recruiting). So now is a good time to assess your workplace environment, and there's no better place to start than to take a closer look at those in supervisory roles.

If the goal of creating a company of great bosses seems worthy of your firm's attention, let me suggest some key steps:

Clearly define supervisory responsibilities and expectations. In my experience, most firms have yet to take this important step. There are multiple supervisory roles within the average A/E firm. Project managers typically have the most prominent day-to-day supervisory responsibilities, although that role falls to disciplinary department managers in many firms. Given the predominant project team structure, direct-line supervisors often have limited interaction with those employees assigned to them. Additionally, we have operations/office managers who assume a broader, yet critically important, role as boss.

To develop great bosses, you need to first clarify what is expected in each of these roles. This should include guidance on how bosses at different levels coordinate with each other in the interest of the employee. For example, when an employee sets annual goals with his or her immediate supervisor, are those communicated to the project managers who oversee that employee's daily activities? Another example: In some firms there is confusion regarding supervisory authority between project managers and department heads, which can leave employees caught in the middle of an ongoing conflict.

I find it helpful to define the basic supervisory responsibilities in three fundamental roles:
  • Advocate. Taking a personal interest in the needs of the employee. Being accessible to listen to ideas and concerns. Offering ongoing praise and recognition. Providing the tools and resources the employee needs to succeed.

  • Advisor. Helping the employee define his or her career path and best job fit. Ensuring professional development opportunities. Providing ongoing coaching and mentoring.

  • Appraiser. Defining expectations and reviewing progress (including formal performance reviews). Linking the employee's work to company goals. Enforcing performance standards and compliance to the firm's values.
Provide training and coaching. With roles and expectations defined, you will probably need to help those in supervisory roles improve their relevant skills. If you're serious about it, this likely requires a significant investment in training and coaching. But a word of warning: Don't expect a training event, no matter how well done, to make a lasting difference by itself. People may gain new knowledge in attending a one- or two-day training seminar, but skills development requires time, repetition, and reinforcement.

That's where coaching comes in. Coaching involves real-time, on-the-job reinforcement of new skills--where learning is most effective. Ironically, great bosses are typically great coaches. They provide instruction, feedback, and encouragement as the work is being performed. To support supervisory training, you need to devise ways to provide subsequent reinforcement on the job. You might assign senior managers for this task (assuming they're qualified and committed), or you might seek outside help. I've found periodic "forums" for training participants useful. These are meetings where peers share experiences, challenges, and ideas related to their attempts to put the training into practice. Occasional refresher training sessions are also helpful.

Solicit feedback from those being supervised. When it comes to developing better bosses, the measure that matters most are the perceptions of employees. They will ultimately determine how well their bosses are doing in their supervisory capacity. Apparently, most firms don't have a formal mechanism for collecting this kind of feedback. A 360-degree review process is one way, at least on an annual basis. I also recommend regular internal project debriefings, which should include an assessment of the project manager's performance. You can collect this anonymously, but the best project managers I've seen have the kind of relationship with the team where they can ask directly, "How can I do better next time?" Annual employee surveys can provide feedback on corporate leaders and office managers.

Enforce minimum performance standards for bosses. You can do all of the above and you still are likely to have a few bosses who aren't meeting expectations. If you simply tolerate it, it can undermine the whole initiative. Not everyone can be a great boss, but everyone should be expected to meet a few minimum standards. Clearly communicate what those are and how they will be measured. For those who will not or cannot comply, it's best to move them out of a supervisory capacity, if possible. If you don't have enough bench strength to do that, you might consider dividing and sharing supervisory responsibilities. Find someone else to perform tasks that a particular boss does not do well (or at all). But most bosses don't lack the ability, they simply don't make it a priority. They might be helped by having someone like the HR director schedule certain supervisory tasks that ideally would occur more spontaneously.

Lead from the top. It's hard to have a company of great bosses if you don't have effective leaders at the top of the organization. The CEO, in particular, sets the tone. He or she needs to (1) model the behaviors expected of other bosses, (2) make it a priority in corporate policy and practices, and (3) hold those in supervisory roles accountable. Firm leaders don't necessarily all have to be great bosses, but they have to be working hard at it. After all, what employees need their bosses to demonstrate most of all is that they care.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Extreme Marketing Makeover

People love transformations. Well, at least they like to watch them. Television shows like Extreme Makeover, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Flip This House, What Not to Wear, and The Biggest Loser are enormously popular. These shows tap into the universal human desire for betterment.

Unfortunately, the hard work of real change is much less popular. In the business world, we substitute talking about transformations for watching them on TV. Substantive change comes slowly, if at all, despite all our strategic planning, corporate initiatives, and skills training. But when crisis overtakes the status quo, we suddenly become more receptive to change. The flailing economy provides one such opportunity.

Is it time to rethink how you approach business development? Conventional wisdom yields only conventional results, which in a recession might not be good enough. So I offer some different ideas about marketing and sales in the A/E profession for your consideration. Ten steps towards an extreme makeover (for most firms, at least) of your business development process. These have all been tested and proven to work--if you're open to the hard work of change.

1. Stop selling and serve the client instead. There’s a reason why most technical professionals are uncomfortable with selling. They’ve been on the other side of the transaction! If we don’t like being sold, what about our clients? The best way to sell is to not sell. Serve the client instead. Focus on meeting needs. Become a trusted advisor, a valued resource. Never waste the client’s time, but always bring something of value to every encounter with a prospective or existing client.

2. Stop the self-promotion and provide valuable content instead. Our usual marketing activities suffer the same fundamental flaw as the traditional sales approach—they’re self-centered. Brochures, newsletters, direct mailings, websites, advertisements, trade show exhibits, all with the same central theme: Look at us! A better approach is to divert most of that investment (say 70-80%) to creating content that informs, advises, and equips clients to succeed in their business. This approach obviously complements the service-centered sales philosophy described above.

3. Create a topical resource library. If you want to position yourself as a thought leader and trusted advisor, you need ready access to good content. Creating your own is highly recommended, through articles, white papers, presentations, seminars, webinars, blog, etc. But the quickest way to build your resource library is to mine the internet. First, you want to identify the issues that matter most to your clients. Then search for the best online information and resources you can find on those topics. Assemble an “electronic library” of web links organized by subject. This becomes an extremely useful tool to support your service-centered business development efforts.

4. Build your brand around distinctive customer experiences. Brand is all about perceptions, and perceptions are shaped by the direct and indirect encounters one has with a company, product, or service. You can’t create brand in the marketing department. It’s rooted in substance, not image. That’s why most branding initiatives in our industry have negligible impact. If you’re serious about your firm’s brand (and you should be!), start by assessing the experiences clients have with your firm and devise ways to improve upon them. Then embody your brand in the way you market and sell, by serving the client.

5. Go beyond just meeting technical needs. Our tendency to focus predominantly on technical issues has had a profound effect on our industry. I think it’s a key reason why A/E firms cannot command as high a labor multiplier and profit as most professional service firms do. If you want to distinguish your firm and increase the value of your services, learn how to address needs beyond the technical issues that we specialize in. This will include meeting strategic needs—financial, competitive, political, and operational factors that impact the client’s overall success. And don’t neglect the personal needs of your clients, including the desire for responsive service and a positive experience with your firm.

6. Encourage all employees to nurture their network. Ultimately the things of enduring value that most of us take from our careers are the relationships we develop and the people we help along the way. That puts a different spin on networking. No longer should it be viewed as merely a business development activity designed to generate contacts and leads. Rather it is a commitment to build relationships—and that should be a goal for every member of your firm. Encourage them to establish the discipline of nurturing their network weekly. It takes time, and it’s easily neglected when we are busy. Yet relationships are the wellspring of both business and personal success. Multiply these benefits in your firm by fostering firmwide involvement in networking.

7. Manage business development like a project. In most firms, marketing and sales by technical staff is done with leftover time. You would never handle project work that way. So why relegate such a critical function to the scrap heap when it comes to resource allocation? Business development tasks should be defined and assigned just like project tasks, with individuals’ time specifically budgeted for that purpose. I advise tracking “sales utilization” just as you monitor project utilization. Since deadlines largely drive project commitments, you should also establish deadlines for business development tasks. These tasks and deadlines need to be given equal priority with project activities.

8. Involve staff at all levels of the organization. You can increase your business development effort without increasing your costs by redirecting more existing nonbillable hours to it. This is more easily accomplished when you recognize how the varied skills scattered across your organization could be applied to business development. For example, administrative staff could conduct client and market research on the internet. Junior technical staff could update resumes and project descriptions, and create tools and resources for clients (part of your service-centered approach to marketing). Spreading the effort not only enables you to get more done, it boosts morale since more people can take an active role in tackling what is probably your firm’s most pressing need.

9. Double your win rate by doing half as many proposals. Most firms submit too many proposals, pursuing opportunities they really have no chance of winning. They often spread their marketing resources so thin that even on pursuits they could reasonably win they don’t expend the effort necessary to produce a strong proposal. With limited resources, you need to keep in mind that every hour spent on a losing proposal is time diverted from a more productive task. Cutting the number of submittals in half may not be a reasonable goal for your firm, but passing on long-shot proposals will improve your win rate –dramatically in many cases. Plus you’ll be investing those extra hours on increasing your odds on the proposals you should pursue.

10. Make your proposals more client focused and skimmable. If you want to distinguish your proposals from nearly everyone else’s, here’s a good place to start. The vast majority of proposals lack true client focus and almost none of them are skimmable. What does client focus entail? It means the prevailing theme of your proposal is the client—the client’s needs, concerns, priorities, and interests. Most proposals—like most sales calls and marketing materials—flip the focus to the seller. Another simple way to orient your proposal toward the client is to use personal language. Did you know that the word “you” is the most persuasive word in the English language according to several studies? Yet it is absent in most proposals, as well as the personal connection that makes the word so persuasive. Making your proposals skimmable not only makes it easier for the client to review, it facilitates good communication. Few clients read our proposals front to back, word for word. But we write them like they do. What I’m suggesting here are not just stylistic changes, but potential game changers.

Radical ideas? No, mostly common sense. But still rare among A/E firms. So if the recession has you ready for a change, consider these suggestions for transforming the way you develop new business.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

LinkedIn For A/E Professionals?

Social networking has been around for generations. In the business realm, we have long valued gatherings such as conferences, association luncheons, and chamber mixers for their convenience in meeting people, building relationships, and sharing information. In recent years, the term social networking has been used almost exclusively of online communities created for the same purposes.

For businesspeople, the largest web networking site is, with over 30 million users. Many of you already have a profile posted there. But most are probably still wondering: Is this all that useful? The potential is certainly there. Besides an enormous community, LinkedIn offers a variety of helpful features. Unfortunately for A/E professionals, the potential is still largely unrealized.

I've read many articles on how to get the most out of LinkedIn (here's one of the better ones). But none were oriented towards our industry. So I offer my take, for what it's worth. Admittedly, I'm hardly a power user. I have a modest 72 connections at this time, although that's more than most in my network have. I am a member of 8 networking groups, 6 of which relate to the A/E business. I've used LinkedIn every week for months now. So, ready or not, I'm ready to render a verdict.

LinkedIn is great for reconnecting with people from your past. This is probably my favorite benefit of the site. LinkedIn is far more convenient than doing Google searches and easier to make contact with people you haven't been in touch with for years. Particularly helpful is the ability to search by company, like your former employers. I've located several people I had lost track of, and likewise several have found me. This feature alone makes LinkedIn worthwhile to me.

It's an easy way to increase your web presence. Whether you're on your own like me or working for someone, there are advantages to getting your name out there. These days "getting your name out" requires a presence on the internet. If someone searches for you on Google, having a LinkedIn profile increases your PageRank, meaning your name will occur higher in the listing. If your employees have profiles with links to your firm's website, that will help strengthen your firm's PageRank (albeit with greater visibility to recruiters who use LinkedIn extensively!).

There are some cool applications that can make your profile more valuable. I use Blog Link, which posts the titles and first few words of my recent blog entries on my profile. That, of course, helps draw more people to my blog. There's also Google Presentation for posting PowerPoint slides, for posting other kinds of files, and Huddle Workspaces for private, secure online workspaces for collaborating with others. Granted, most of us aren't ready for these or have other in-house options for doing the same things, but the possibilities are worth noting.

Most of us are probably reluctant to use two of LinkedIn's most touted features: Introductions and recommendations. These, of course, are common benefits of networking. But on LinkedIn, you generally have to ask for them and--let's be honest--most of us won't. I confess I've yet to ask for an introduction. Is asking someone to ask someone else to connect to you on LinkedIn really an introduction? And what do you do next, send an unsolicited email? I've asked for a couple recommendations and need to ask for others. How many technical professionals will ask clients for recommendations on LinkedIn? I doubt many, but you might avoid the need to ask simply by taking the lead in recommending your clients.

There is tremendous potential for collaboration, but little of it is going on relative to our business. LinkedIn has a great feature called Answers which allows you to post questions or answer others' questions on a variety of topics. Unfortunately, there's very little activity to be found here relevant to the A/E profession. I found a few questions specific to our business, but they had been posted months ago and had few responses. And most of the responses were from people outside our industry. That doesn't mean they aren't useful, but I'm sure most would rather hear from their peers.

To mingle with people in our industry, joining some related groups would seem to be the way to go. There are indeed several relevant groups available including ACEC (national and state chapters), AIA (national and local chapters), ASCE (same), SMPS (same), and others such as AEC Industry Networking Group and Civil Engineering Central Group. At first glance, these sound like promising opportunities to connect and share with peers. But my experience so far has been somewhat disappointing.

For example, the SMPS national group has almost 700 members. Sounds like a great place to ask questions and share information, right? Yet activity is relatively light and responses are few. If anyone in our industry would be drawn to online collaboration, I would expect marketers to be. In the other industry-related groups I've joined, activity is even slower. The most common posts for some are open requests for others to connect and people looking for jobs. That's not to say there isn't value in being part of these groups. People do get questions answered and some useful information is exchanged. Just not as much as I had hoped.

So should you join the LinkedIn community if you haven't already? Absolutely! And if you have a profile, most of you could probably benefit from adding some more content and connections. LinkedIn delivers benefits with relatively little effort. With more effort, we might eventually fulfill the promise the site has to offer. I will continue to post questions, provide answers, and broaden my web of connections. Hopefully, more of you will join in.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Avoiding Cost Cutting Mistakes

There is much written and taught about how to build your business. But what are you to do when you need to cut back? I've witnessed many a firm laying off staff and cutting expenses over the years. I've had to let people go in an economic downturn, and I've been one of the ones shown the door.

One thing I've concluded about the many cutbacks I've observed: It's not something we're particularly good at. I suppose that's understandable. We don't get much practice at it, fortunately. There are few, if any, books or courses or seminars on the subject. And who aspires to make developing their competency in cutbacks a personal goal?

Nonetheless, some of you are dealing with this issue right now. Each situation is different, but here's some general advice on how to avoid common cost cutting mistakes:

Don't focus on the short-term. If you must make tough choices, make them for the long haul. It's easy to get caught up in the current crisis and to look for short-term fixes. That's because the natural tendency is to try to minimize the damage. But this is a prime opportunity to make some much-needed changes to strengthen your firm for the future. Think strategically. What actions can you take now to both address the current budget and better position the firm to meet long-term goals? Avoid slipping into the "survival mode" where the focus is only on today's problems. Try to stay in the "success mode" where today's actions are designed to deliver long-term benefits.

Don't cut too little. This is a common mistake, especially with regard to staff reductions. When you hedge your decision hoping for the best case scenario, you risk unnecessarily prolonging the pain. One substantial layoff is better than several small ones. Cutting big-ticket items from the budget now is better than gradually reigning in expenditures over several months as the situation worsens. If you have to cut back, make sure it's significant enough to truly remedy the problem rather than mostly a symbolic gesture (like cutting coffee service instead of capital expenditures).

Don't start with the marketing department. We seem to be getting better about this, but marketing professionals are still among the first targets when layoffs come. It doesn't make sense on a couple of counts. First, why are you cutting business development assets when you need more business? Second, marketing staff cuts often don't really solve the problem financially. One of my clients recently concluded they needed to reduce their unusually high BD costs. I didn't disagree. But their first inclination was to cut marketing coordinators who represented less than 12% of their BD labor costs. What about the 88% expended by their technical staff? Was all of that productive? Of course not. That's where they first needed to look for cost reductions, perhaps by taking some people out of a sales role.

Don't reduce hours until you've cut underperforming staff. It sounds like a principled approach--save everyone's job and share the pain. But it's not, nor is it sound operational strategy. Your top contributors should not be punished equally with marginal contributors. They are the ones keeping the company afloat! While the intent is to be fair, it isn't viewed that way by staff. This leads to diminishing morale, which dampens performance at a time when you need better results. Most companies have a few underperformers who could have/should have been let go long before. Now is the time to do it, or else they may be an impediment to rallying staff to tackle the current challenges.

Don't fail to treat laid off employees with dignity. In recent years, there's been a growing chorus of warnings about disgruntled ex-employees sabotaging computer networks, stealing files, and doing other harm. So laid off workers are often quickly shown the door. Here's something you don't usually hear from your legal counsel: The best way to limit your risk is to treat people right. How did someone you trusted as an employee suddenly become untrustworthy? Allow laid off workers reasonable access to their computers and their files, casually monitoring their activities if you feel you must. Offer whatever support you can in their job search, and general help in making the transition out of your firm. I still keep in touch with a couple former colleagues I laid off years ago. I've heard of some who ultimately became a client to the firm that let them go. The Golden Rule applies here, and there may well be residual benefits.

Don't keep employees in the dark. Tough times often cause managers to retreat into seclusion. That's the worst thing you can do. The increase in closed-door meetings and conference calls signals impending doom to staff. Counter this perception by actively engaging them as part of the solution. Solicit their suggestions and their help. Keep them abreast of the situation, including sharing financial information. But remember to balance the bad news with positive news. Build hope; that's what will fuel a turnaround.

When the office I managed was facing tough times, we organized a series of lunchtime meetings for all employees where we discussed the situation and brainstormed ideas on how to respond. We jointly made decisions about cutting expenditures. We identified several cost-saving options. We talked about opportunities for new business. The only thing we didn't talk about was impending layoffs, although no one was surprised when they happened. It wasn't happy times, but the office soon rebounded stronger than ever. I'm convinced those conversations helped speed our recovery.

That gets back to my first point. If you're forced to cut back, make sure that it doesn't include the fundamentals that will keep your company strong for the long term. Think strategically, act boldly, keep positive, and treat people right.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Lessons From Bob

This morning I received word that my former boss, mentor, and friend Bob Dunlap has died. He was the founder and former CEO of RETEC, one of the best environmental consulting firms in the business during his tenure. Under his leadership, RETEC enjoyed unparalleled success. Plus it was a truly special place to work. I spent 10 great years there. (The firm has since been absorbed by AECOM.)

No one played a more influential role in my career than Bob. I am forever indebted to him. He taught me much about leadership and business. I thought one of the best ways to honor him in this space is to share some of the lessons I learned from him:

Be true to your values. There was nothing more important to Bob than the firm's core values. RETEC had an impressive resume. The firm was a pioneer in bioremediation and risk-based cleanup. It was a global leader in the management of legacy manufactured gas plant sites. It posted financial numbers that the best-known environmental firms could only dream about. But ask Bob what distinguished RETEC from all the rest, he was quick to say, "Our values." Not just the values posted on the wall. But the values that were lived out in the way we conducted our business. That was at the heart of what it meant to be a RETECer.

Community comes first. Bob continually reminded us that we were a community and that everything we did must be in the interest of "one company." That was one of our stated values. The firm was organized as a single profit center, cooperation among offices was required and rewarded. We had more than our share of mavericks and big egos. But somehow Bob was able to mold us into a tight-knit community. We genuinely cared about each other, no doubt influenced by how Bob showed his concern for us.

Embrace differences. Bob was keen in discerning differences in people and leveraging those for the benefit of the organization. He fashioned an entrepreneurial culture, where risk taking and creativity were encouraged. No doubt this helped RETEC become a center of innovation. Bob described himself as a "contrarian," a trait many of us shared with him. He joked that he would attend industry conferences to learn what our competitors were doing, then he would do the opposite because it always seemed the better strategy. Bob realized the value of a different perspective and sought that out in others.

Beware of complacency. Given RETEC's sustained success, Bob recognized the potential for our becoming comfortable with the status quo. While he routinely praised us for our collective accomplishments, he would always point out areas of concern. At one point, he began warning of declining quality across the firm, although there was scant evidence to back his claim. Many dismissed the problem as overstated. But within a year, major quality and service problems arose, costing us a top five client. Bob was one of those rare leaders who gave more than lip service to the pursuit of excellence. He wouldn't settle for anything less.

Passion is power. Bob's passion was contagious; it infected much of the company. His talks to staff were often akin to listening to a tent revival preacher. He engaged people not only intellectually (he was certainly a deep thinker), but also emotionally. He touched our hearts, not just our minds. Of course, it was easy to make the connection between Bob's passion and the importance of the values he espoused.

Never stop learning. I've never met another executive in this business who was as well read as Bob was. The man was a storehouse of wisdom he had gleaned from books and articles on leadership, business strategy, global trends, technology, philosophy. But he didn't just store up information; his thinking evolved with it. He was constantly refining his approach and strategy, and sharing that with the rest of us so that our thinking evolved as well. That continuous learning became part of the RETEC culture, a trait I've rarely seen elsewhere to the same degree.

There is much more I could share from my association with Bob. And there are many others who were similarly impacted by him and could add to the above list. Bob is gone, but the lessons we learned from him will live on.