Monday, April 25, 2011

Expertise vs. Leadership

A/E firms routinely promote their best technical practitioners into management roles. Unfortunately, the top-shelf experts in our field often turn out to be second-rate leaders and executives. Perhaps this is why the number of non-technical principals has more than doubled in the last decade. Still, business-trained leaders remain a small minority in our industry.

That's not to suggest that accomplished engineers, architects, and scientists can't be exceptional leaders. Many are. But many more struggle to distinguish themselves in leadership roles. Some have difficulty shifting their focus from project work. Some lack strong interpersonal and communication skills. Some are more tactically than strategically minded.

If you are a technical professional serving in or contemplating a leadership role, let me offer the following advice:

Properly allocate your time, with a focus on investing in people. This is usually your foremost challenge. The temptation for many "expert leaders" is to continue to spend much of their time doing project work. It's important to budget your time based on careful consideration of how you should be dividing it among competing priorities. Be sure to create adequate "strategic capacity" to devote to your most crucial responsibilities. Avoid being constantly sucked into the realm of the urgent, where your time is consumed fighting fires instead of leading others.

As a leader, you need to commit a substantial portion of your time to helping others be more effective. This is what I call the Time Investment Principle, which states that the best way for a leader to increase his or her productivity is to help others improve their productivity. In that way, you multiply your time through the efforts of others. A practical suggestion is to start each work day by spending time with others who depend on your guidance before you step into your office, where emails, voicemails, and other distractions await.

Recognize the limits of your expertise. Being a great engineer or architect doesn't make you a great leader. That should be obvious, but there is a persistent tendency among expert leaders to exert their authority in business areas where they might be better served in yielding to the real experts. I've written about this relative to the marketing function, but it applies as well to areas such as human resources, finance, and business strategy.

Effective leaders acknowledge their shortcomings and surround themselves with people who can offset those deficiencies. They understand that the "way we've always done things around here" (e.g., business development) may not be good enough anymore. So they look for expert help outside their own areas of expertise. Sometimes these "experts" are simply people who know how to do their own jobs well. For example, who better to define improved work processes than the people on your staff who actually do the work?

Go beyond expertise; develop insight. In their book Clients for Life, authors Sheth and Sobel argue that expertise is increasingly becoming a commodity. Those professionals who are best positioned to excel are those who offer both expertise and insight. This means developing your capabilities outside your technical field, cultivating your strategic thinking, being a great listener, asking the right questions, and working collaboratively with others.

Developing insight requires a passion for learning. Many experts focus their professional development only on their technical specialties. But expert leaders need to expand their understanding of diverse topics such as motivating others, developing strategy, running a business, delighting clients, and communicating effectively. If these kinds of subjects don't interest you, it's fair to question your suitability for leadership.

Strengthen your people skills; seek help if necessary.
The essence of leadership is getting others to follow. It's not assigned by position; it's earned through the influence you have on others. That means that your people skills are crucial. (I'd like assume that anyone in a leadership role has passable people skills, but I know from experience that this is assuming too much.)

There are many ways to approach this--doing a self assessment, asking for feedback from others, getting some training, reading books on the subject, hiring an executive coach. But I would suggest starting with people you work with. First, invite feedback. Ask how people thought you did in certain situations (e.g., an important staff meeting), and what general areas you could work on. Avoid being overly sensitive or defensive. Seek out a confidant or mentor you trust.

Consider also how others can support you in areas where you have shortcomings. If you struggle with organization or time management, an administrative assistant might help you keep things in order. If you're not a strong writer, a marketing professional might review and edit your correspondence (e.g., office- or company-wide emails) before it's sent. You can delegate certain tasks (e.g., financial matters) to those better equipped for those functions, as noted above.

Bottom line: Leverage your assets and seek help where you have liabilities. Being a technical expert brings certain strengths to a leadership role in a technically-oriented company, of course. But it also presents some challenges. The best expert leaders are not too smart to learn how to overcome them.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

You Are What You Measure

Over the years, I've been fascinated with how the personality of firms is shaped by the metrics they choose (or don't choose) to apply to their business. Some firms stress growth. Others profitability. Still others seem to care little about financial performance as long as they can pay the bills. There are distinct corporate cultures associated with each. Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that firms become what they measure.

Why is this so? In large part because the metrics a firm prioritizes drive which employee behaviors are reinforced. Recognition and advancement are typically tied to those measures that matter most. Those who excel in achieving the favored metrics are promoted into key management roles, which further entrenches those metrics as defining characteristics of the firm. Core metrics, not core values, are what managers seem to stress most.

This means that choosing the right metrics is crucial, not only to your firm's identity, but to its success. So is your firm measuring the right things? Misguided or overemphasized metrics can draw limited corporate resources and attention away from your firm's real priorities. Here are a few suggestions for selecting and applying the optimum metrics:

Align your metrics with your values and priorities. Most firms claim to place great stress on satisfying their clients, for example. But how many of them actually measure client satisfaction? Perhaps one in four. These same firms will probably say they place high value on satisfied employees. But most don't survey their employees to gauge their satisfaction either.

You should also consider how over-emphasizing certain metrics can conflict with your firm's values and priorities. Take utilization, for example. Firms that constantly beat the drum about utilization may unwittingly encourage employees to stretch out tasks or charge hours they didn't actually work--actions that obviously run counter to a commitment to serve clients well. This can also impede productivity, lowering your net multiplier and perhaps nullifying the benefit of a little higher utilization on profitability.

Don't confuse the metrics you monitor with those you manage by. Everybody tracks measures like revenue growth, profitability, overhead rate, sales, etc. But how much these metrics influence corporate behavior varies widely. Your managers and other employees readily recognize which metrics really matter. They're the metrics that are repeatedly talked about, that drive decision making, that managers are held accountable to meet. All other measures may be interesting, but they don't really impact performance. Are you reinforcing the metrics that are most important to your firm, or simply giving them lip service?

If it matters, then don't be afraid to hold people accountable. The reluctance of managers to demand certain levels of performance is widespread in our profession. Many managers are afraid that holding people accountable for meeting performance goals leads to an impersonal, numbers-driven culture that drives employees away. While that can certainly happen, my experience indicates that more employees leave due to a lack of accountability than because of it.

Studies have found that one of the most negative workplace influences is managers failing to deal with underperformers. Most employees want to work for firms committed to success. They want to set high standards, to compete with the best, to strive for ambitious goals. When a firm establishes metrics that it isn't serious about meeting, that actually works against the goal of creating an attractive workplace.

There are obviously right ways and wrong ways to manage by the numbers and hold people accountable. Don't assume that taking difficult management actions to meet established metrics, such as cutting staff or closing an office, will automatically discourage your staff. On the contrary, employee morale often improves after such actions. In general, the strongest company cultures that I've seen are in firms that have the will to manage to their metrics, even though this involves taking tough actions at times.

Benchmark against the best. Most firms define metrics in part based on what other firms in their business are doing. This is highly recommended, but too often goals are based on industry averages rather than on what the top performers are achieving. The common reason for doing this is that the firm hasn't yet met even the median for the industry. So it seems appropriate to select the median as the goal, rather than striving for the top 10 to 25 percent. But I'd recommend that you choose at least a few important metrics where you want to be among the better performers. The median may suffice as a temporary goal, but reach higher where you can. It's hard to expect your employees' best performance if the company's targets are only average!

Use both leading and trailing indicators to measure performance. Companies typically use trailing indicators like profit margin, incurred costs, and turnover rate. These certainly have value in managing the business, but they amount to looking in the rearview mirror to see where you've been. I encourage you to also establish some leading indicators, which usually involves tracking actions (i.e., behaviors) that the firm has targeted to improve performance. Examples are completing project management plans, benchmarking service expectations, conducting third-party project reviews, implementing key account plan actions.

Leading indicators provide a proactive measure of performance by confirming that you're doing the things that you believe will lead to improvement. Used in combination with the more common trailing metrics, you can both (1) have a more accurate sense of progress and (2) reinforce the behaviors that lead to better performance.

Every firm uses metrics, but many fail to use them in an effective manner. Let me urge you to revisit your metrics. Ask these questions:
  • What are the things that matter most to our firm?
  • Are we measuring our performance in these areas?
  • Do we give appropriate emphasis to the metrics that we value most?
  • Do we overemphasize other metrics?
  • Do we hold people accountable in the areas that we say are priorities?
  • How can we make better use of leading indicators?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Weak Writing Is a Thinking Problem

If technical professionals are so smart, why are so many of them mediocre writers? Now I'm not suggesting they aren't smart--they are!--but I am convinced that weak writing is largely a thinking problem.

To understand why, let's consider the basic communication process. In essence, communication involves transmitting a thought from one person's head to another. We tend to focus on message transmittal, but before that can happen you first have to conceive what it is you want to communicate. That's where communication usually begins to falter.

The subject of the past several posts has been proposals. That's my focus again today. Notice the sequence of topics I've presented in this series: Determining what problems you're really trying to solve, positioning your firm in advance of the RFP as the preferred provider, defining the content of your proposal by answering the right questions, distilling that into a central theme, and facilitating your message through good design. All of those activities involve thinking deeply about your proposal strategy before the writing begins.

Do those things and you're off to a great start. But you still have to be able to translate those insights into words on a page. And that's were some of the smartest people I've worked with come off looking kind of dumb.

Is it simply that they lack command of language and grammar? Or does the thinking break down somewhere between expertise and expression? I think it's more of the latter. To combat this problem, let me suggest a simple process to improve your writing:

Don't jump right into the writing. You first need to organize your thinking. Many technical professionals are more naturally doers than planners--they're task oriented. That tendency carries over into their writing. With direction from the RFP, and hopefully conversation with the client, many technical professionals dive into the writing without much forethought. What often results is a stream-of-consciousness information dump that hardly begins to meet the standard of persuasive communication.

Develop your core theme and key messages. I wrote about the importance of having a proposal theme in an earlier post. Key messages are the 3-5 most distinguishing features of your proposal, the few points that you think will best persuade the client to choose your firm. The theme and key messages are the primary "structural members" of your proposal that will enable it to stand out in the eyes of the selection committee.

Prepare a detailed outline. I rarely see this done, but it makes a world of difference when it is. A detailed outline is not simply an expanded table of contents. It combines structure and key content. If you think this is a 15-minute exercise, you're not doing it right. Ideally, this is a team effort, where you're determining how best to merge your theme, key messages, and RFP requirements into a cohesive, compelling document. Erect the overall structure first, then begin building it out with the placement of the key content within that structure. It can be well worth spending a few hours on this critical task.

Now you can begin writing, developing the points highlighted in your outline. To illustrate this, consider the development of this post. After determining my subject matter and main points I wanted to make (theme and key messages), I then turned my attention to the action steps I wanted to recommend--which are the focus of most of my posts. I listed the five steps (which are shown in bold), then added the narrative to support each step.

Write this way. I use this same basic structure in virtually everything I write: proposals, reports, white papers, articles, blog posts, even letters and emails. Why? Because besides being a great way to organize my thinking and writing, it makes for easier reading. You can simply skim what I call the "boldface inline headers," or read whatever supporting narrative you'd like. In either case, you'll at least get the gist of what I'm trying to communicate.

When you can convince technical professionals to write this way, most will see a marked improvement in their ability to get their message across. Not just because of the way it's presented on the page, but because of how they organize their thinking before the writing begins.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Don't Let Personal Preferences Dictate Proposal Standards

As an erstwhile proposal specialist, I prefer sewer lines running down the middle of the street instead of along the side in the grass. I like brick facades on bridges. And I really love a tall, sunny atrium with trees planted in it.

But in all my years in this business, I don't recall my engineering and architectural colleagues ever allowing my preferences to influence even a single design decision. Why should they? I lack expertise in those areas. Yet I routinely find technical professionals dictating to their marketing colleagues what proposal standards should be because it's what they like or what they've always done.

Marketers unite; it's time to take control of your realm. There are established design principles in publishing just as there are in engineering and architecture. There's an abundance of research into how design affects reading speed, comprehension, retention, and persuasion. In a profession that so values expertise, shouldn't we be applying more of it to how we do proposals?

Now let's be clear, as I noted in previous posts in this series, success with proposals depends in large part on building client relationships, gaining critical insights before the RFP is released, and creating compelling content. But don't overlook the important role of design--how you present your insights, expertise, and qualifications in a proposal.

This is an underappreciated discipline in our business. Technical professionals tend to think it's simply a matter of aesthetics. I don't know how many times I was asked to "pretty up" a proposal or other document. Frankly, many so-called proposal specialists in our business lack strong expertise in this area. They settle for making the proposal look good without giving enough attention to how it functions.

Here are some things to consider relative to your firm's proposal standards:

Good design facilitates communication. This is particularly true for audiences who don't read the whole document or publication. That includes most client selection committees. Design helps navigate the reader to the content of most interest, it highlights the most important messages, it makes key points more memorable, it makes the proposal more user friendly and efficient. The vast majority of proposals I've seen, by contrast, require too much effort to review and fail to distinguish key points.

Your proposal should look like a professionally published document. If marketers designed buildings, the results would inevitably look amateurish, especially to a design professional. That's undoubtedly how most of our proposals would look to a publishing professional. But, you protest, that's not who are reviewing our proposals! True, but clients are exposed to professionally produced publications every day. Think they don't notice the difference? Given the emphasis we place on an image of "professionalism" in our business, why not apply the same standard to our proposals (not to mention the work products, like reports, that clients pay good money for)?

Proposal specialists should be masters of their craft. So who's going to lead the advance of professional-looking, function-driven, user-friendly proposals in our business? That role naturally falls on those whose job it is to produce them. Unfortunately, too many of our proposal specialists wield too little influence to bring about meaningful changes. I understand the organizational dynamics that contribute to this problem, but let's acknowledge that a big reason for this is that many proposal specialists haven't demonstrated that they're the real experts in this area.

I spent years building my skills as a proposal writer. I talked with clients, reviewed hundreds of competitors' proposals, read related books and articles, dug into the details of effective document design. I used research and published design standards to convince my bosses to allow some changes. Then as my win rate increased, my credibility grew to enable me to encourage further changes. Eventually, I was winning 75% of the major proposal efforts I led as the corporate proposal manager and had pretty much complete creative control. That comes with demonstrated expertise.

Borrow from the best. There are plenty of examples of good design out there. You can adapt those design principles to your proposals without ever having to read a study about font styles or characters per column width (although I would urge all proposal specialists to do the research). In particular, look for the design ideas that you see repeatedly in professional publications. That usually means it works. Look how USA Today transformed the design of other newspapers, in part because it was based on and confirmed by extensive reader research.

Imitation is a good way to be different. If your proposal looks like a professionally produced document, it will stand out. Sounds like a winning idea, so why the push back when such changes are proposed? Seems many technical professionals are more comfortable doing what they've always done, even if the results aren't all that impressive. Some assume that clients expect to see proposals in a predictable, time-tested format. And some simply have their preferences. Perhaps that helps explain why there's so little differentiation in our business.

Of course, good design without good content still equals a weak proposal. But good content presented in an ineffective manner can fail to gain the client's notice. An important strategy in winning more proposals is putting the two together--great content and great design. Is your firm ready to raise the bar? Let expertise, not personal preferences, lead the way.