Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why Leaders Are Way Better Than Bosses

Those appointed boss usually feel empowered. I felt intimidated—and that ultimately made me a better leader. When I was asked to step into the branch manager role for a 35-person office, I was leaping over several people on the organization chart that I considered my senior. One was a principal in the firm (and the former branch manager).

I couldn't envision myself telling these people what to do. Instead, I would need to persuade and inspire them. In other words, I would need to be more leader than boss. It worked. The office performed very well and was an incubator for several operational innovations (thanks to my dual role as leader of our corporate quality and service improvement initiative).

That experience reinforced my convictions about leadership, that the real power is held by those you lead. Sure, you can force them into compliance. You're the boss! But you cannot make them give you their best efforts. That comes only voluntarily. Your role as leader is to evoke their want-to rather than enforce their have-to.

Much has been written in recent years about employee engagement. Studies show that an engaged workforce produces greater profit, growth, shareholder value, quality, innovation, customer service, and loyalty to the company. These results flow in large part from discretionary effort, employees willingly going beyond what is required to deliver more of what is possible.

Leaders induce discretionary effort; bosses extract compliant effort. Leaders motivate; bosses mandate. All else being equal, employees who want to follow you will always outperform those who have to. That's why converting bosses into leaders is so important for any firm. Here are some steps you can take to further make that transition:

Prefer asking over telling. We teach our young children the value of asking nicely then sometimes forget the lesson when stepping into a position of authority. The principle still applies in the workplace. But there's another reason to master asking good questions...

Seek advice as much as you give it. The most successful leaders never stop learning, so they don't hesitate to ask others for insight. That includes their employees. The strength of working in an organization is the variety of perspectives, experiences, and talents available. But these assets need to be effectively tapped, which strong leaders do by empowering others and seeking their input.

Exert your authority judiciously. Pulling rank over employees is necessary sometimes, but doing so routinely dilutes the contributions they could make if able to exercise some discretion. This a step of faith that many bosses are hesitant to take. They think they strengthen their impact by asserting their authority more. But the opposite is actually true. Willing followers are far more productive than those compelled to follow.

But set standards and firmly uphold them. This is where many collaborative leaders get in trouble, by letting employee discretion spiral into dysfunction. When values and standards are on the line, it's time to assume your role as boss. You cannot tolerate willful violation of these core principles or they will lose their power to guide organizational behavior.

Teach others to follow your example. Bosses exert tremendous influence on the workplace environment. Gallup research found that the number one reason employees leave is dissatisfaction with their boss. One of your foremost duties as a leader is to help other bosses grow into effective leaders. And the best way to do that is by your example.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Branding Isn't Just Marketing

So when was the last time your firm rebranded itself? Most of my clients have at least tweaked their brand in the last decade—or so they thought. More accurately, they redesigned their logo, modified their color scheme, rewrote their positioning statement, overhauled their website, etc. In other words, they changed how they marketed themselves.

But that's not branding. Not really. It's disappointing that most marketers don't understand this, but who can blame them? There's a lot of confusion about this subject in the literature. Marketing people naturally view branding as something within their domain. But the consensus of brand experts points to something much more complex than a marketing function.

In simple terms, brand is how your firm is perceived in the marketplace. It is primarily shaped through the direct and indirect interactions customers and others have with your firm. Marketing can influence those perceptions (through its indirect interactions), but eventually direct interactions form the bedrock of your brand. Your real brand is substance, not image.

So what does this mean? True rebranding is about changing the substance of the interactions you have with clients and others. It's about creating better experiences, which lead to positive expectations about future experiences with your firm. (I like Sean Adam's definition of brand: "It's a promise of an experience.") 

It's about backing up your marketing claims through action. Focused on clients? Show it! Design excellence? Let's see what you got! Superior quality? Prove it! Great at collaboration and team building? Demonstrate the benefits! This is why marketing can't create your brand, because ultimately you have to deliver it. Clients have to experience it.

This is not to diminish the contributions of marketing. On the contrary, I'm a strong advocate for effective marketing. I think as an industry that we generally underappreciate the value of marketing. Marketers are too often marginalized as tactical specialists rather than strategic partners. The best marketing comes when there's real substance to sell. Invite marketers into the discussion about how to create a genuine, deliverable brand.

For a step-by-step approach to building your brand, check out this previous post.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

This Is One Way You Become a Commodity

A few years ago I was helping an engineering firm prepare a proposal to what would have been a new client. A coastal city wanted to combine two smaller wastewater treatment plants into one new or expanded one. I was working with two seasoned engineers, both with over 35 years of experience. They were abundantly qualified to do the work.

Early in our discussions, I asked the question I typically ask when planning a proposal, "Why is the client doing this project now?" Despite having had a couple conversations with the client, neither of my collaborators could confidently answer the question. "Well, let's make sure we clarify what's driving this project next time you talk to them," I urged.

Another meeting with the client followed. We had prepared a list of questions we wanted answered, but somehow my question was never posed. When I later pressed the point that it was important to know the answer, one of the engineers responded in frustration, "What difference does it make? We can do the work!"

Unfortunately, his response is hardly unique. I've asked some variation of that question hundreds of times over the years without getting a satisfactory answer from the proposal team. It's symptomatic of a larger problem: The failure of many in the A/E industry to see the value of connecting their work to the client's higher-value strategic needs or business goals.

Need further evidence? Read your firm's project descriptions. Most I've seen do a poor job describing why the project was necessary or important. Instead they focus on the scope of work performed. How do you think the client would describe their project? Much differently, don't you think?

I once was responsible for marketing for a new national environmental company formed through the merger of six firms. I wanted to produce more meaningful project descriptions, so I divided the template for collecting project information into three parts: (1) What was the problem we solved? (2) What did we do? (3) How did we add value?

The company had some great projects on its resume—pioneering industry milestones, technology innovations, millions of dollars in savings for our Fortune 100 clients. Yet I was shocked to see how much my colleagues struggled to supply the project information I had requested. No problem with the scope of work, of course. But they found it difficult to associate the problems solved with our clients' business objectives. And many completely whiffed on the question about added value.

So, we're supposed to make the case that we're the best firm for the job, but we can't describe why our past clients benefited from hiring us versus any other environmental firm? That, my friends, is the fundamental definition of a commodity:

  • A commodity is a product or service that is widely available and interchangeable with what competitors offer.
The fast track to commoditization is to be just another competent service provider. If you can't describe how you meet strategic needs, help solve business problems, or deliver added value—well, you're in good company. That's where most A/E firms reside. But, of course, the goal is to stand out in the crowd, not fit in.

That distinction could start by simply knowing the answer to the why question above. In other words: "How do we help our clients be successful?" No, really. Not the marketing slogan kind of commitment to enabling success. But real business solutions delivered through your technical expertise. If you're not routinely making that connection now, let me urge you to make it a priority. Want to brainstorm some ideas, no obligation? Give me a holler.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Why You Should Be Writing Fewer Proposals

The verdict is in: Writing fewer proposals typically increases both your win rate and your sales. That, at least, is the consensus of the many sales and proposal experts I "surveyed" via a Google search. That has also been my experience over the last 25 years working with a variety of engineering, environmental, and architectural firms.

But many firm principals aren't buying it. Not in practice, at least. They find it hard to "miss opportunities" by being more selective in the proposals they submit. Several have explained to me that while that maxim may work for most, it doesn't apply to their firm, office, or market sector. They fear dire consequences if they reduced the number of proposals.

Inevitably, these "volume sellers" have a low win rate. Their business development costs are often inordinately high, and their profits are usually lower. It's not uncommon for volume sellers to pursue a higher percentage of price-driven selections, which would seem to substantiate their conviction that more proposals equals more sales.

They may be right, but I doubt it. For one thing, that approach to developing new business inherently erodes the perceived value of their services. My take after watching business development trends for decades is that indiscriminate selling reinforces indiscriminate buying (e.g., selecting on the basis of low price). When you shortchange the sales process by simply responding to RFPs, you shortchange the opportunity to establish your value proposition.

Still not convinced? I offer the following additional reasons why you should be writing fewer proposals:

Proposals are costly, but the greatest cost is opportunity cost. Proposals constitute roughly half of the typical A/E firm's BD budget. But for many firms, the budget share is still higher. And as proposal costs increase, there is usually a corresponding drop in ROI (i.e., win rate). That's because the larger expenditure is rarely an investment in better proposals, but in more proposals.

It's fairly typical for volume sellers to spend about 70% of their proposal budget on writing losing proposals. But that's not the worst of it. The greater cost is that those hours could have been diverted to higher-value BD activities, such as positioning their firm for success in advance of the RFP. I remain convinced that the vast majority of awards go to the firms that invest substantially in the pre-RFP sales process. 

You need to invest more in your best proposal opportunities. What about the argument that most of the cost is borne by overhead staff who you have to pay for anyway? You still suffer opportunity costs because they could have spent more time on more promising proposal efforts (not to mention marketing, which is frequently neglected in A/E firms). Plus, if most of your proposal labor cost comes from marketing staff, I would question your commitment to producing winning proposals.

Having reviewed hundreds of proposals, I've observed that most fail in the area of technical content. Rarely do they reflect the firm's true expertise and insights. Why? Because the technical experts invested too little of their time in the proposal effort. Yes, I understand the demands on their time. Which is all the more reason why they shouldn't be wasting time on proposals that have little chance of success.

You shouldn't be using proposals to introduce (or reintroduce) your firm to the client. I advocate a "no know, no go" policy. In other words, if you weren't talking to the client before the RFP was released, you shouldn't be submitting a proposal. There are exceptions, of course, but I consider them rare. I addressed this issue in a previous post, but I'll recount two reasons that stand out: (1) if you don't know the client, you're usually going to lose to someone who does and (2) if you haven't been gathering insight into the client's issues, you're not going to be able to write a strong proposal. That means a mediocre first impression—another opportunity cost.

Bottom line, the volume strategy usually ends up diluting your value and wasting a substantial portion of your BD budget. Yes, it can be a step of faith to say no more often and trust that less is more. But you can take courage from the fact that the best firms have already taken that step.