Friday, April 30, 2010

Generational Differences Are Overstated

As a frequent trainer, speaker, and blogger, I try to stay attuned to what issues and concerns are of greatest interest to my target audience--A/E firm managers. Business development, of course, is a hot topic lately. Technical matters have always been. Human resources not so much--with one exception being the differences between generations.

There seems to be a fascination with the subject. I suppose in large part it's because many baby boomer managers are perplexed, even frustrated, with the differences they encounter with the younger generations. So they hire trainers, attend conference sessions, and read articles about how to better understand Gen Xers and Millennials and learn to punch the right buttons to draw out their best efforts. Among the things these managers might learn are:
  • Boomers are more loyal to their companies
  • Work-life balance is more important to Gen Xers
  • Boomers are more optimistic
  • Millennials value change and innovation
  • Boomers are more risk averse
  • Gen Xers don't work as hard

The problem with such characterizations is that they are not very accurate. Just among the people you and I know, we could name many exceptions to these stereotypes. Plus there is a growing body of research that is finding that the differences between generations are not as significant as we've been told.

For example, one study of Gen Xers found that 85% of them really cared about their companies, and almost half would be happy to spend their entire careers there. But aren't they known for their frequent job hopping? Interestingly, 75% of Gen Xers reported that they left their jobs for advancement opportunities, 72% for increased compensation. Aren't those the same reasons the average boomer would change jobs?

True, Gen Xers do put more emphasis on their family and personal life. But the research does not support the notion that work is not important to them. Perhaps we boomers could learn something from the younger generation about priorities. (By the way, other studies indicate that better work-life balance increases productivity on the job.)

That's not to say that there aren't meaningful differences between generations. But what the studies are concluding is that those differences are more a factor of age and position than when one was born. In other words, as Gen Xers grow older and assume more responsible positions in their companies, the differences between them and boomers become much smaller. We don't need research to prove this point, do we? Haven't your attitudes and motivations changed over time?

One of the more interesting studies of the generations is one conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership. Among their findings:

  • All generations of working age essentially want the same things from their jobs: To trust their supervisors, to be paid well, to have interesting work, to get feedback, and to have the opportunity to learn.

  • The number of hours one puts in at work depends more on his or her position than age.

  • Older workers are not really more resistant to change than younger ones.

  • All generations are generally equally trusting, but those in upper management responded significantly differently (in either direction, depending on the specific measure).

There are, of course, tremendous benefits in recognizing (and appreciating) the differences among people. There are different personalities, different backgrounds, different skills, different generations. All these contribute to the wonderful diversity that constitutes one of the primary strengths of your firm. But it can be a challenge trying to match your interpersonal or leadership style with the multiple personas you work with.

That's why we're prone to look for shortcuts. If we could only fit people into ready-made categories, then learn how to deal with each category, wouldn't that make leadership simpler? Simpler perhaps. But not more effective.

That's the trouble with over-playing generational differences. Or personality typing schemes, for that matter. When we attempt to understand and lead others based more on their category than their individual attributes, we've reduced leadership to paint-by-the-numbers. It misses the personal nuance that real leadership requires.

So embrace those positive qualities that each generation brings to the firm. Understand the differences that might present some challenges. But don't neglect getting to know who your colleagues really are as individuals.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Displacing the Incumbent

One of my constant themes regarding business development is the need for discipline: Budget your time. Pick your best opportunities and give them appropriate attention. Don't waste your time on proposals you have little chance of winning.

Given this philosophy, you might expect me to discourage pursuing a client where there is a seemingly entrenched competitor. Not necessarily true. For one thing, the incumbent might not be as unbeatable as you imagined. For another, in this economy you're only going to grow your business by taking work from competitors. Are you up to the task?

Why the incumbent's advantages might not be insurmountable. Of course, the incumbent firm has many advantages--relationships with key decision makers, a track record of success, inside knowledge of the client. But there's cause for hope:
  • One survey found that over half of clients are open to switching their A/E service providers.

  • Another survey concluded that only 16% of clients give their A/E service providers an A grade for service.

  • Research by still another consulting firm indicates that less that one quarter of clients would recommend their top professional service providers.

It's clear that the prevailing 80% repeat business rate in our industry is not a wholesale endorsement by clients. The reasons for not switching may have more to do with convenience than glowing satisfaction. Therein lies your potential opportunity.

Assessing the opportunity. The time to decide whether you should try to unseat an incumbent is not before you even talk to the client. And it's not after the RFP is out on the street. Unfortunately that's when many firms make their decision. They either write off the client before ever making an initial contact. Or they decide to propose on a project they knew little or nothing about before the solicitation arrived.

In both cases, the mistake is not talking to the client at the right time. The right time is before the procurement process is underway, when clients often are simply interested in generating a good response to their solicitation. That's not the time to discern the client's interest in your firm. You want to contact the client when you're in position to help without appearing to be motivated purely by the RFP.

How to displace the incumbent. I find it interesting that market research over the years across many industries has found little correlation between customer satisfaction and loyalty. The vast majority of customers who switch products or service providers indicate they were satisfied before they made the change.

So why change? Because they found something they thought was better than what they were using. That's the simple secret to unseating an incumbent. Sure, changing A/E firms is not as easy as changing toothpastes. But demonstrating a difference in your favor may not be as difficult as you thought. Here are some suggestions:

  • Don't contact the client until you've uncovered a need. The basis for your initial contact should be to offer your help (information, insight, advice) on a specific problem or challenge. If you don't know how you might help, the client has little reason to talk to you. So use your network, the internet, or any other sources to learn all you can about the client before making the first call.

  • Offer your help unconditionally. If the client is reasonably satisfied with the incumbent, there may be little interest in talking with you. This is true even if the client agrees to meet. You should try to dispel the notion that your offer of help is simply a ruse to get in the door. Imagine the client says, "We're already working with (the incumbent)." You respond, "That's fine. If I can be helpful, that in itself makes it worth my time if it's worth your time. Helping people like you is why we're in business." Or something to that effect.

  • But look for signs of mutual interest. Besides delivering the help you promised, the goal of the first meeting is to determine if the client has interest in continuing the conversation. The best way to confirm this is to schedule a subsequent meeting (to provide further help). Of course, agreeing to keep talking doesn't necessarily mean that the client is open to making a change. With each contact, you should be seeking a little more commitment on the client's part to gage the strength of relationship. This may include things such as introductions to other decision makers, a visit to one of your client's sites, a visit to your office, a strategy workshop, etc.

  • Seek opportunities to fill a void. One of the first steps in displacing the incumbent is often helping the client in areas where your competitor isn't. In talking with the client, actively seek to uncover unmet needs. The support you provide in this area will initially be part of the sales process, but could eventually lead to contract work. Once under contract, you are then much better positioned to overcome some of the incumbent's advantages.

  • Above all, out-serve the incumbent. Many clients feel that their A/E service provider isn't as attentive or responsive as they'd like them to be. In my experience conducting client surveys, inadequate communication is the number one client concern. Do you see an opportunity? Once you have gained access to the client by consistently offering something of value, you can begin outworking the incumbent in serving the client. It's often not that difficult. But it does demand discipline and focus--which brings me back to my core philosophy of business development. Pay attention to the details of client service and watch your sales opportunities multiply.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Don't Have Time to Sell. Really?

Among the many excuses I hear for why technical professionals aren't out there selling more, "I don't have time" is perhaps the most pervasive. In one sense, it's true. You don't have enough time to do everything you might like to do--or even everything you probably should be doing. So you have to make choices. The question is: Is bringing in more business a priority for your firm?

Assuming you answered yes, then what really is the problem? Every day you choose to do certain things and leave other things undone. If selling is truly a priority, how is it that there's too little time to do it? What other activities are getting in the way? Are those things more important to your success than bringing in enough work to meet your needs?

As I outlined in a previous post entitled "Why That Dog Don't Hunt," the real problem is one of want-to, not can't-do. Most technical professionals are uncomfortable with the sales role (even subconsciously) because they're uncomfortable with salespeople. They don't want to be one. The solution to that problem, as I've described in several posts, is to serve clients rather than sell (for example, see "The Golden Rule of Sales").

But motivation aside, let's focus here on the time issue. One thing you need to avoid is doing sales with leftover time. Unfortunately, that's how most A/E firms approach business development when it is performed by seller-doers. Often the firm's culture reinforces the emphasis on doing versus selling. This emphasis is reflected in the attitude about nonbillable time.

The prevailing notion is that billable time is good and nonbillable time is bad. Thus we need to increase billable time and minimize nonbillable time. The simple financial argument for this seems indisputable. But it's not that simple. The fact is every firm needs nonbillable time to devote to various corporate activities that are vital to the firm's survival and success. Business development is clearly one of those activities.

Okay, I'm stating the obvious. But it's interesting how often technical professionals seem to overlook the obvious. I frequently hear, for example, from those who say they can't fulfill their sales responsibilities because they "need to keep utilization up." Ironically the pressure to maximize utilization in a soft economy is often a convenient excuse for not doing more selling. But most who have sales duties don't have personal utilization goals any higher than 70% (and many much lower than that). So isn't there time to sell without negatively impacting their utilization?

So here's my advice for addressing this common concern:

Acknowledge that selling more is the solution to lower utilization. Again, stating the obvious. But the way some firms are approaching this problem seems to suggest that they think lower utilization rates are primarily a product of lax management and slothful work habits.

Convert lower utilization into more time for business development. There's no excuse for anyone in the firm spending time in an unproductive manner, no matter how low the workload gets. There's a potential business development role for everyone (see the list of possibilities in this post).

Allocate a portion of nonbillable time specifically for sales. Every seller-doer should have time budgeted expressly for sales, with that allocation given the same priority as project work. Don't rely on professionals selling with leftover time.

Drive sales activity through planned effort. You would never manage projects the way most firms manage (or fail to) the business development process. Hold regular sales meetings to make assignments and track follow-through, and develop action plans for targeted clients.

Do you have a higher priority in this economy than generating more business? Not likely. So make the time needed to get the job done.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Motivating Your Team to Give Their Best

Various workplace studies have found that employees, by their own admission, give only 60-70% of their maximum effort on the job. Gallup concluded that only 29% of workers are “engaged,” meaning in part that they are motivated to routinely go beyond what is required. This means that discretionary effort—giving more than is necessary—is rather uncommon. That leaves performance well short of what could be achieved with the same people.

How much better could your office, team, or department perform if they really wanted to? How many in your group are giving you their best effort? The potential you’re missing out on could be more than you ever imagined. Productivity across different industries has improved by as much as 300% when managers employed proven performance management techniques. Would you like to see even a fraction of that kind of improvement among the people you lead?

If you would like to coax more of the potential from your team, here are a few core concepts to keep in mind:
  • Performance improvement is all about managing behavior. While human behavior might seem a complex topic beyond the realm of your expertise, you in fact have abundant relevant experience: You’ve dealt with people all your life! With a little more insight from the field of behavioral science, you might be surprised how quickly you can grasp the basic principles of performance management. A good starting place is simply to be more observant of behavior (including your own) and the factors that influence it.
  • Behavior is a function of its consequences. To raise the performance of your team, it’s important to understand why people do what they do. Most managers focus on what happens before behavior occurs—planning, a new policy, task assignments, etc. But we know from research that the primary driver of behavior is what happens (or what is anticipated to happen) immediately afterwards. These consequences especially influence whether or not a behavior is repeated.

  • The most effective consequence is positive reinforcement. We often associate positive reinforcement with giving praise and recognition, but a broader definition is “any consequence that follows a behavior and increases its frequency in the future” (Daniels). This definition includes the natural cause-and-effect relationships that we often take for granted. For example, the light coming on when we flip the switch or the car coming to a stop when we push the brake pedal. But managers usually have to create positive consequences to reinforce desired behaviors among their employees.

  • The most common created consequence in your office is probably "nothing." When a member of your team gives effort beyond the norm and it goes unnoticed or unacknowledged, that’s what behavioral scientists call “extinction”—the no response consequence. Why extinction? Because it’s an effective way to discourage someone from repeating that behavior. Unfortunately, this is the prevailing consequence in most A/E firm offices. No wonder we don’t get more discretionary effort from employees; it usually gets overlooked.

So with those principles as a backdrop, let me offer a few suggestions for motivating your team to give you their best effort:

Set clear expectations. No doubt you are familiar with the importance of making clear what you as manager expect of the team. But if consequences motivate, what your team members expect is just as important. Outline the positive consequence(s) that will occur if certain outcomes are achieved (e.g., Friday afternoon off if the Friday noon deadline is met).

Observe work activities and provide immediate feedback. Failing to monitor work as it is being performed is a common mistake. Obviously doing so allows you to confirm that the task is being performed properly, and gives you early warning if changes are necessary. Equally valuable is the opportunity to provide positive feedback (or corrective feedback, if necessary) as the work is done. You may argue that you are too busy to take time to observe other people working. But helping the team be more productive must be among your highest priorities.

Don’t discount the value of positive talk. Many managers think employees are best motivated by financial rewards or other tangible expressions of gratitude. But the research doesn’t support this conclusion. Simply giving the team your time and attention and expressing your appreciation for their work can be a powerful influence in raising performance. Unfortunately, based on the feedback I’ve gotten over the years through employee surveys and interviews, failure to simply acknowledge good performance is common in our industry.

Try different approaches to discover what best motivates at the individual level. Different people respond differently to specific consequences, so there is no cookbook approach to providing positive reinforcement. You could ask team members what motivates them. But a better approach is to figure this out yourself. Listen for and observe what team members value most, what they get enthusiastic about, what tasks they prefer doing when they have a choice.

Be on your guard for inappropriate or unintentional negative consequences. When team members are faced with the choice of essentially “do this or else,” that’s negative reinforcement. You can get results that way—at least in terms of meeting requirements—but you’ll not get discretionary effort nor draw out their best abilities. Negative reinforcement is pervasive in many firms, even though it’s often not intentional. Ask this question: Is your team doing the work because they want to or because they have to? If the latter, look for opportunities to use more positive reinforcement to make the work more rewarding.

Don’t rely on delayed rewards to motivate top performance. Immediate consequences wield much stronger influence on behavior than delayed rewards, even when the latter are much desired. Consider how many people forgo the obvious benefits of better health because that immediate snack, smoke, or missed workout has the greater pull. That’s why annual bonuses, for example, are inadequate in inspiring better performance on a day-to-day basis (although I'm not advising against them per se). A simple “I couldn't do this without your help” today is more powerful than a $5,000 check in December when it comes to motivating your team to deliver their best.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Cutting Through the Communication Clutter

Effective communication is absolutely critical to your business success. It must happen at multiple levels--with clients, employees, subcontractors, project stakeholders, etc. Not surprisingly, when I'm asked to help firms address business performance problems, poor communication is almost always a key factor.

To say that we typically fail to communicate enough would be a true statement. But ironically that problem is complicated by the fact that we have too much communication. A Gallup study found that the average worker sends and receives a total of 178 messages a day (that figure will sound too low for many!). Seventy-five percent of those surveyed said they felt overwhelmed by the flow of information. Just consider how much time you spend each day with the telephone, email, meetings, and conversations.

In his book Leading Change, John Kotter illustrated the difficulty of cutting through the communication clutter. Imagine you're leading an important change initiative and over a three-month period you communicated the new vision to staff via a 30-minute speech, an hour-long meeting, a 2,000-word memo, and a 600-word email. That would represent only about 0.6% of the total office communication received by the average employee (not to mention messages coming from outside the firm). Obviously that makes it difficult to get your point across.

So what can you do? First, let me suggest that you consider the "three keys to effective communication" every time you're preparing your message. Those keys are easy to remember (if not so easy to apply): Attention, Comprehension, Retention. Test your message against those three objectives. For more on this approach, click on the link above.

Then let me suggest a few other valuable strategies for communicating your message to people who are overloaded with information:

Keep it simple and consistent. Use a minimum of words to make your point. Avoid technical jargon or concepts that might exclude some in your audience. Make sure that everyone who shares in this communication task is telling the same story, and stick to the same core message over time.

Use multiple channels. Balance considerations of relative impact, frequency, and costs to maximize your opportunities to make your message prominent. Your options continue to multiply with evolving technology, but remember that the basics of effective communication don't fundamentally change from medium to medium.

Keep repeating it. Take a hint from advertisers: repetition works. The more often your audience hears the message, the more likely they'll remember it--to a point. Overload them with your message and they'll start tuning you out. That's why variety (see point above) helps.

Invite dialogue. People are more likely to buy into your ideas if they have an opportunity for feedback. Staff meetings and individual conversations, for example, are good forums for learning how your message is being received. As sales guru Tony Robbins observed, "If you say it, they can doubt it, but if they say it, it's true."

Act consistent with your message. Especially when you're trying to persuade your audience, nothing will undermine the credibility of your message quicker than not walking the talk. Remember, people receive communication both with their ears and their eyes. Plus don't overlook the importance of trust in creating effective communication.