The give and the get

As an experienced AEC marketing leader I’ve worked with scores of folks and interviewed at least 100. Lately I’m noticing a trend that is challenging for those in leadership. As recently as five years ago, when I hired a new marketing coordinator, I could reasonably count on having them in the job for at least two years, which includes the year it takes me to train them into the job and the year it takes them to get good at it. While I’d prefer to keep experienced staff longer, I can live with the two-year delta if I don’t have growth path for that person. Lately, however, I’m both experiencing and interviewing staff who have been at one or more firms for a year or less at a time.

I recognize that, as a young person fresh out in the workforce, one is hungry for new challenges and wants to maximize their earning potential. However I’m not sure some candidates understand the math associated with getting value for a hiring decision.

HR stats typically say it costs about 1.5 times a person’s salary to hire and replace them. What that suggests is, when I invest in a new hire, I need them to stay a minimum of two years to see even the most nominal return on my investment. If I hire someone who stays in the job a year or less, my company spends more than we get for that person’s time in the job. (Sure, you’re working hard during that first year, but you’re not as efficient or effective as you’ll be when you really know the job, and while you’re learning it takes a notable amount of your boss and your team’s time to keep you efficient and effective.)

I’m not suggesting that anyone should stay in a job where they are mistreated. We’ve all had terrible bosses or worked at dysfunctional firms and we’re right to leave them. A good and fair boss wants you to succeed and grow, and also wants the firm to succeed and grow when they choose to hire you. Seems fair, right?

Right now, while it’s an employee’s market, “job-hopping” is easy. In the long run, I’m not sure it will serve most people well. Someone recently sent me a resume for a person who has had six jobs in the first five years of their full time professional career. On paper this candidate seems like a poor risk for my hiring investment.

Going forward in response to this trend (to the extent that such things are in my control of course) I’m considering the following:

Want a signing bonus? Sure, as long as you’re willing to pay it back if you don’t stay at the firm at least three years. Want to work from home? As long as you’re willing to spend at least your first six months working in the office so you get a clear understanding of our culture and your colleagues and I see you can successfully do the job, meet your deadlines, and keep your clients happy, I’ll be on board with that. Want to get paid to go to a conference or join a professional society? No problem, as long as you show me the value it’s going to create for our organization, not just for you personally.

Remember, a hiring decision needs to be a two-way street, so both companies and candidates need to make sure we give as well as we get.

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Mind the Platform Gap

While we’ve all been managing through a host of challenges since the onset of the global pandemic, for those of us involved in business development, the challenges have been formidable. A key challenges is the way virtuality hinders conference and event networking. If your firm attends about a dozen conferences a year like mine does, you’ve likely become a connoisseur of the various conferencing and event platforms that have been in use over the past year. So far I’ve seen three such platforms I like:

Airmeet – This platform allows you to set up an event or conference in a virtual conference room with various “tables”, some of which can be sponsored, so you can spend time at appropriate intervals moving from table to table to meet with whatever virtual group of 8 or less is there. In addition, both before and during presentations, it gives you the ability to private message any attendee. When the presentation starts, tables disappear, but at least networking options exist here that allow one to meet new people and find existing contacts to chat up.

HopIn – The conference I attended using the HopIn platform featured a mainstage for all-audience presentations, as well as breakout sessions for small group, targeted presentations. It also had a feature for creating a virtual expo center with booths, opportunities to talk to those manning them and to see presentations posted there. Finally, there was a lovely feature called “Meet Someone New”. Once you sign into this section of the platform, it connects you, one on one, with the next person available, for 10 minutes, after which you can choose to extend your chat, swap contact info, or simply let the chat expire and move on to the next one.

Whova – Whova’s features seem to be a mash up of what’s available with Airmeet and HopIn. There are networking tables, expo booth features, abilities to review profiles of attendees, reach out for and schedule meetings, as well as tiered access to various features for attendees who pay for different levels of access. Haven’t seen the “Meet Someone New” feature there, but that’s only my experience.

Going forward, when networking is a primary goal of attendance for virtual conferences, we make our decision in part based on the platform the conference uses and whether and how it creates opportunities for networking. How about you?

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The Arc of Over-commitment

While a booming economy is, in most respects, a nice problem to have, the combination of an abundance of work to do and scarcity of qualified talent to do it often has us with more on our plates than can reasonably be achieved in the time allotted.  As a recovering knee jerk volunteer, I’ve learned the value of managing my time well, mostly through trial and painful error.  It’s led me to an understanding of what I call the arc of over-commitment, which usually traverses over the course of 3-6 months.

At first, when one ends up with more work on their plate than they can handle, it generates exhilarating, positive stress.  One moves from project to project and challenge to challenge with little overthinking and develops a sense of mastery in the process.  It feels good for about a month or so, until it doesn’t.

In the second part of the arc, the fact that we completed tasks quickly means that, inevitably, we made errors on some of them that have now come to light.  Thus, while the flow of responsibilities remains high, it is compounded by the need to go back and correct or revisit prior decisions and outcomes.  That sense of mastery we felt in the early phase is now being eroded, and the pressure is starting to mount.  Usually at this stage we begin looking for ways to become more efficient.  If one is in management, that often means making different choices about what one delegates to the team and how often one checks work.  When someone is in this phase of the arc the physical manifestations of stress become more apparent. They are often quieter or crankier than usual and have less time or energy for fun or small talk.

The third part of the arc, is when one begins to believe they are the only person who can do the work or solve the problem.  If you find yourself thinking, “It’s going to be faster  for me to just do this myself than to try to explain it to somebody else,” as a response to virtually every new task you’re given, chances are you’re in phase three.  This is when most people start to exhibit anger and frustration, often coupled with harsh judgement of colleagues, peers, subordinates that they believe don’t work as hard or care as much as they do.  This phase, left unchecked, is the precursor to a melt down.

So how does one manage staying on the productive side of commitment? I have a few strategies.

  1. No matter how busy I am, I start and end the week by assessing what’s on my plate and how much time it will take.  That way I don’t forget or miss deadlines.
  2. If I have too much on my plate, I engage my boss to help me figure out where to focus.  Those conversations go something like, “I have these five tasks on my plate an enough bandwidth for three of them.  Which two do you think I should push or delegate?”  When my boss helps me decide, they also help run interference when someone isn’t pleased with the adjustments we’ve had to make. (If I’m an owner, I check in with a trusted advisor or a peer owner to accomplish the same thing.)
  3. Always make some time, every day, just to breathe and/or meditate.  We all need to pull ourselves out of the fray and recharge.  Contrary to what you may think, it actually helps you to be more productive.

I’d love to hear from you if you have other strategies for retaining and/or restoring balance in your commitments.

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How to Deliver Bad News

Occasionally, throughout my career, I have had to deliver bad news and I’ve had a fair bit delivered to me.  Sometimes it has been about people (not getting a desired job, raise or promotion), sometimes about mistakes that were made on the job (proposal did not get delivered by deadline, project can’t be taken on).  As we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this can range anywhere from telling your kid you have to cancel their birthday party to telling a staff member or consultant that a project has gone on hold to letting friends or colleagues know that someone they have come in contact with has become ill.  Over a few recessions, a natural disaster or two and now a pandemic, I’ve learned a few things about how to deliver bad news.  As I watch elected and healthcare officials talk about “abundance of caution”, I learn more.  Here’s what I think helps:

  1. Recognize that doing this will be difficult for you and for the other person.  Most of us hate conflict so it’s legitimate to feel some remorse about being the “bad guy”.  Before delivering uncomfortable news, it’s important to take a moment to acknowledge our feelings about having to be the messenger so we can come to the interaction in a supportive and businesslike fashion.
  2. Focus on what you can do.  If the news you have to deliver is that you can’t do/ didn’t succeed at something, look at what you can do to solve the problem.  For example, “I can’t work on that today but let me see who else has some time to assist you.”  or “I can’t talk with you about this right now; could we meet tomorrow?”  If a messenger service doesn’t deliver an RFP by the deadline, you can ask the messenger service to call the client and admit the error.  If you make an error you can’t reverse, you can own up and talk about the steps you’ll take to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
  3. Don’t blame the recipient.  During the Great Recession, I was laid off by someone who seemed angry with me that they had to tell me about it.  Thus, while that the person was telling me it wasn’t my fault, their demeanor made it felt like they were blaming me.  Getting bad news is difficult enough, so the emotional complexities of the bearer should not complicate it.  In other words, check yourself before you wreck yourself and the other person.
  4. Don’t delay.  Our anxiety about conflict usually makes us want to postpone difficult conversations.  On the flipside, the stress of not knowing can sometimes be more uncomfortable than having the information that allows us to move onward.  My rule is, I delay long enough to process my feelings (absolutely less than half a day) then bite the bullet and get it done.  Bad news doesn’t get better with age, and it usually gets worse if someone finds out through back channels rather than directly from you.
  5. When appropriate, clearly and succinctly explain why.  It is usually good for someone to know why something bad happened/is happening, but not always appropriate.  When it is appropriate, it helps to be clear and succinct about the why and to use concrete examples of behavior or circumstances to illustrate the point.  When is it not appropriate?  For me, it’s either when there’s an HR issue involving another employee (which you can’t disclose) or when someone continues to ask for something you’ve already said no to and there’s not a work around. In the latter case, remember “No” is a complete sentence.

Delivering bad news is never pleasant (at least it shouldn’t be), but we can at least make it a little easier by doing it thoughtfully.

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Thoughts on work space privacy…

At the risk of fomenting an “OK Boomer” moment, I need some feedback.  A group working in an open plan office has staff who regularly wear headphones and listen to music while working.  The challenge is, earbuds are small so it can be difficult to see if someone is wearing them and music is played loud enough that, when a boss wants an employee’s attention they are required to do one of the following:

  1. Tap the person on the shoulder to get their attention, which often creates a startle response when the person in concentrating.
  2. Call the person’s name loud enough that, once the person’s attention is gotten, they think the person calling them is angry because they had to yell to be heard.
  3. Throw something soft at the person to get them to look up long enough to see that someone wants to talk to them (which, while potentially comical, could seem a bit aggressive).
  4. Email or IM the person and wait for them to respond  to talk to them (which assumes they are checking email and/or their IM is open.)

It seems that there are several possible solutions to the problem.  Here are the options available at the workplace in question:

  1. Workstations are made available in a secluded area on another floor with the same dual monitor setup as is available at each employee’s desk, allowing them to be “out of sight/out of mind” but still accessible in an emergency.
  2. While seated at their assigned workstation, employees are asked to provide a visual cue that can be seen from a distance of 10 feet, such as a “do not disturb” sign on the back of one’s office chair or brightly colored, over the ear headphones that signal when one is to be left alone.
  3. When sitting at their assigned workstation, employees are asked to play music at a soft enough level that they can hear when someone calls their name.
  4. When sitting at their assigned workstation doing “do not disturb” work, employees are asked to email supervisors to indicate when they prefer not to be disturbed for a designated period of a time.

One of the teams in question is, frankly, a bit frustrated that the current practice of sitting at their assigned workstation with their music loud enough to block out a verbal request for their attention requires any kind of solution at all.  Your thoughts?  What feels like a fair and reasonable solution?


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Sometimes, people surprise you

Did an exercise to teach folks the value of an “elevator pitch” and how to construct one.  This guy knocked it out of the park.  GGLO Elevator Speech

Many thanks to Robert Wright of GGLO for the outstanding writing and performance., Sarah Dymond and Simba Mafundikwa for the video and Maxim Fields and Lauren Hague for their acting chops


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The 5 Pieces of Advice I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Entered the Workforce

As someone who has managed a number of young professionals over my career in the AEC industry, I’ve had a chance to think about the advice I wish I had been given when I entered the workforce.  It would have given me a jump start on ensuring I was the kind of professional they would value and promote.

  1. Dress ready. – As a boss I’ve had more conversations than I care to with someone who came to work dressed unprofessionally.  The best way I can describe appropriate workplace attire is to dress ready.  For example, when firm leaders are going to a client meeting and looking for a junior staff member to take along, they base their decision, in part, on who looks ready for such an opportunity.  Be ready.
  2. It is your own job to protect your interests.  – Your boss is not clairvoyant and you are not the center of his or her universe.  If someone gives you more work than you can handle, speak up.  If someone is not clear about their expectations, ask.  Pouting and flashing a stink eye are no substitute for direct communication.  For example, if you are already at capacity working on three proposals and your boss brings you a fourth, you might want to ask, “Since I’m already booked solid, which of the projects you’ve already given me should I stop doing so I can do this one?”  It shows both that you’re busy and that you care about your boss’s priorities.
  3. Don’t just bring problems, bring solutions. – If you want a bigger title or more responsibility, show that you can handle it.  For example, instead of saying, “The binding machine is broken,”, you might want to go with, “The binding machine is broken so I’ve called the repair place. I found a local print shop that can do this week’s binding for us, but we need to complete our drafts a day sooner than we thought to make this work.  Okay?”
  4. Gossip generates more heat than light. – Palace intrigue, while tempting as a lunchtime conversation topic with your workplace bestie, should not be the focus of your professional life.  Pay attention to your job, not the resident character assassins.  All that focusing on gossip will do is demonstrate that you can’t be trusted.
  5. Find a mentor. – Either your company or your local professional association can connect you with someone who knows your industry and can be your sounding board when things around you don’t make sense, when you want something you don’t know how to ask for, or when you need a new way to solve a problem.  Someone with an objective view of the problem and the players is often all you need to get on the right course.

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5 Behaviors Every New Leader Should Adopt

As an AEC marketing and business development leader, part of my role is to groom marketing staff to grow in their careers and part is to help transform newly promoted practice staff into competent seller-doers.  Over the years I’ve seen many people stumble in making the transition from employee to manager and manager to leader.  I’ve done a fair bit of stumbling myself.  Looking back, however, there are a few simple rules I’ve learned about being a good leader that I tend to share with those I’m coaching.

1: Talk Less; Talk Later – One of a leader’s primary responsibilities is to best leverage the resources of their team.  As we move up the leadership ladder, we leave detailed knowledge of certain parts of business operations behind so we can focus on strategy.  Yet to create strategy effectively, we need occasional access to that detailed knowledge.  Because people often look to leaders for guidance and can be intimidated to talk unless invited, I think it’s important to adopt a habit of asking for input from my team before I speak up and certainly before I set direction.  People are more likely to adopt what they helped create.

2: Share Credit and Accept Blame – When someone who works for you does a good job, share praise in a public forum, e.g., an email copied to your leader colleagues or an announcement an all-staff meeting, so the credit that person deserves is widely distributed.  If someone makes an error, however, talk to them or email them privately to allow them to save face and publicly accept responsibility for the error and for fixing it.  I’ve seen leaders throw people under the bus, and most often it angers their subordinates and disappoints their superiors.

3: Complain Up or Across, Not Down – When you are a leader, people are sure you know things they don’t and can control things they can’t so you become their barometer of the health, happiness and success of the firm.  If you have concerns or frustrations with management, share them with leaders or your peers but NOT with subordinates or junior colleagues.  I once saw a newly-designated principal stand up in the middle of his suite of subordinates and complain that he has no idea what it means to be a principal because nobody has told him yet.  You can imagine the impact this had on his team’s morale.

4: Maintain a Modicum of Personal Distance – It’s counterproductive as a leader to wade into personal squabbles among members of your team or to try to maintain peer relationships with your subordinates.  A friend of mine who ran a small marketing firm told me that, whenever his team goes to a bar to celebrate something, he buys and stays for the first round of drinks, then leaves and let’s them party without him.  If two members of my team aren’t getting along, my job is not to pick sides, but to remind them that they have to figure out a way to work together.  If someone is having a personal crisis that is affecting their performance, I can be compassionate, but I also have to make sure the needs of the firm are getting met.

5: Be the Change – If you want your team’s behavior to change, model what good behavior looks like.  As you rise up the leadership ladder the lane of acceptable behavior in which you operate narrows with every step.  Don’t just demand, demonstrate.  Don’t just suggest, model.  Tell people whatever you want to tell them, it’s what you do that they’re watching.


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Coloring Outside the Lines

I was having a conversation over lunch today which reminded me that the more I refine my practice of AEC marketing, the more it requires me to venture into subject areas that were previously thought to be outside of my purview or pay grade.   Let me illustrate:

Let’s say I’m charged with charting a course that will get my firm to a determined revenue goal within a determined amount of time.  Among the considerations I look at under the circumstances is how profitable we are with certain types of clients or market verticals.  While gathering such information, I may learn that, for example, we tend to do civic work more profitably than healthcare.  I may also learn that, within the civic realm, we are more likely to be profitable when working with client A vs. client B.  I may also learn that profitability within this sector is much more dependent on which project manager/supervisor is leading the work than on type of project or the client.  Each of these outcomes requires a different response.

If I know we are more profitable with civic than healthcare, my response may be to work on lowering opportunity costs for healthcare pursuits.  Many of the steps that can be taken toward this end are in marketing’s wheelhouse.  If I learn that we’re more profitable working for client A than client B, I can gather and share this information to help make informed decisions about who we want to pursue and how much we want to spend pursuing them.  Some of this is in marketing’s wheelhouse too.  If, however, I learn that the real difference is based on which employee manages the job, most of the solutions that need to be employed to address the problem are not traditionally in marketing’s “lane”.  However, in my opinion, they are still marketing’s business.

Marketing has historically been an amplifier, not a creator of the firm’s “brand” – which is the cumulative perception of all the various experiences those inside and outside the firm have in their interactions with you – something we now call “human experience”.    What marketing communicates becomes what potential clients/employees/project partners expect.  Unless our billable colleagues can consistently deliver on what marketing promises, we set ourselves up to fail.  Thus, in the age of instant, on-line ratings posted on, Glassdoor, Yelp and the like, the days of “staying in my lane” are, by necessity, over.

So, how do I broach the subject when I see a marketing problem that’s not really mine to fix?  I believe the correct course of action is to present the challenge to my firm leaders with enough data to demonstrate why it’s a marketing problem.  I ask them to fix it and to keep me in the loop as they do.  I then try to focus my marketing efforts on the areas when I know we can deliver on our promise.  I also trust my firm leaders to keep me posted as they fix any problems that compromise a complete and positive customer experience.


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Everybody’s Least Favorite RFP Question

I was having a discussion with some colleagues about those questions/requests we get in RFPs that we hate. It’s not that we dislike them because they challenge us in ways that are useful to the client, but because they are 1) difficult and/or impossible to respond to and 2) aren’t going to give the client an answer that is worthwhile anyway.   Let me take one of these recurring requests and unpack why it’s not a good question:

“Provide us with information on all the projects the team/your firm is currently working on, who on the team is working on those projects and the stage each project is in currently.”

So, why is this a poor question?  Here are my three reasons:

It asks for a large volume of information at an early stage of the pursuit process, some of which is proprietary.

Some of our clients don’t want people to know we’re working on their projects, much less provide details about them.  Most firms I have worked for have about 80-120 projects going at a time.  Do you really need info on all of them?  Can you imagine the work required to a) get permission to disclose this info and b) gather the data to provide it?   When the ones asking are brokers or PM firms see this more as a fishing expedition than a reliable way of determining if we have the bandwidth to do the project.  If you simply want intelligence, there are more appropriate ways to ask for it.

It doesn’t usually provide reliable data.

There was a time in the AEC industry when proposals were only good for 60 days from the date of issue, when clients made timely decisions, usually within 30 days, and when projects typically stuck to their schedules.  Nowadays, it’s not unheard of for clients to issue RFPs, put projects on hold, then come back several months later wanting the same team, and the same schedule, forcing the provider to “make up” the time lost in decision making.   In addition, most firms win about 25-30% of what they go after, requiring us to occasionally hedge our bets and put the same people on multiple pursuits simultaneously.

The landscape of project schedules is a constantly ebbing and flowing river of data, with projects often accelerating, going on hold, or changing scope.   An all firm/all projects schedule we give you today would likely be inaccurate by the time you’re ready to start the project.

It doesn’t really answer the question you’re asking.

Those who ask this question really want to know if the team we’ve assigned to them has the bandwidth/availability to do the job and will be with the project for the duration of the project.  Probably they’ve been victims of bait and switch in the past, which we agree is the best way to get a project off on the wrong foot.  Possibly a decision was made on another RFP before you decided so now the people you wanted are unavailable.  In either case, there are effective ways to ensure the team you’re offered is the team you get.  One way I’ve seen recently, which I think is genius, is to require the service provider to guarantee the submitted team for the duration of the project and requiring that all staffing changes be approved by the client in advance.  That way, if a service provider has to switch staff because someone leaves the firm, become incapacitated, or gets committed elsewhere, you can at least have a hand in selecting their replacement.

So how do I recommend AEC firms answer this question?

I recommend firms offer a schedule and team and promise that team will be available for the project according to the schedule submitted with the proposal – and stay true to their word on this issue.  Those providers who bait and switch intentionally make all of us look bad.  If you have a client who insists on detailed active project data, I recommend saying something like: “This question asks for a substantial amount of proprietary information.  If our firm is selected for this assignment, we will provide detailed data at that time.”   At least that way, the volume of work it takes to produce such data accurately will be worth the effort.

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