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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Making the Important Urgent

Most AEC marketers spend a lot of time sprinting from deadline to deadline in a sort of one person relay race.  It can be empowering to give yourself over to a proposal or interview presentation wholeheartedly and satisfying to cross that task off your list when it’s done.  The problem with focusing only on the urgent is that tasks that are important but don’t necessarily have hard deadlines tend to slide further and further out on our calendars until they drop off entirely.  For example, one year our resume updates, which should be completed in February, didn’t get done until Thanksgiving week.

The strategy I use to ensure that important tasks don’t get lost among the urgent ones is to keep all my tasks on a spreadsheet on which I also log the day the task was assigned.  I keep track of the status of each task, indicating when I’m waiting for input from somebody else to advance the ball.  If a non-deadline-driven task is not completed within 30 days of arriving on my spreadsheet, I give it a firm deadline that is sometime within the following two weeks.  This gives my deadline-driven brain a reason to fold the task into my current workflow and, usually, results in being able to check it off the list.

I also have a strategy for the tasks that require input/feedback from someone else.  My strategy is to gently nudge that person weekly for four weeks.  After that, assuming the person I’m nudging is also the one who assigned the task to me, I explain to them that, if they can’t make time to give me the input I need within 48 hours, I’m crossing the task off my list.  I find this approach either spurs them to action or helps them realize that the task isn’t really as important as they thought it was.  Either way, it brings closure to the task and gives me a credible response when and if, a few months down the line, they suddenly wonder why the task wasn’t completed.

We all have tools like this to help us manage our own time.  What’s one of yours?

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Soft Speed Bumps

Occasionally one of my marketing staff or one of my professional practice partners will take an action or go down a path when both I, and often they, know better.  For years this frustrated me.  How can someone I’ve trained to do something one way or who has agreed to do something one way and has for a while, suddenly get off track?  What I’ve learned is to watch out for what I call “soft speed bumps”.

Soft speed bumps are those deviations from the “norm” that happen not because the person doesn’t know what they should do, but because they’ve become emotionally or intellectually distracted in some way so they revert to a comfort zone that moves them off the path.  For example, I am not naturally detail oriented.  When I need to go over, for example, a proposal or a spreadsheet with a fine tooth comb, it requires all my resources of anal retentiveness (which are admittedly small to begin with) to accomplish the task successfully.  If I’m tired or stressed or overwhelmed, my detail orientation is the first thing to go.

The example I run into most often with professional practice staff comes up when they need to focus on strategy for a business development pursuit or proposal, and instead get fixated on redesigning the graphics in the document.  I understand that, as architects, design is in their comfort zone much more so than reaching out to a potential client to make a cold call or doing the research to find out what kind of strategy will give us the edge over a competitor.

When we run into soft speed bumps with our staff or our colleagues, our goal is to gently guide them toward the tasks we need them to do.   I find this requires three steps:

  1. Check in with yourself using your emotional intelligence.  When I start to get annoyed with someone, I first ask myself why I’m annoyed.  If I’m just cranky today, I let things go.  Then I check to make sure I have accurately communicated what I need to make sure I didn’t set them up to fail.  If neither of these is the case, I pull on my big girl pants and figure out how to respond like the professional I am.
  2. Check in with them using your emotional intelligence:  A simple, “How are you today?” or a “You seem distracted.  Everything OK?”, gives the person you’re talking to both a heads up and an opportunity to talk about it.  Sometimes, you learn what’s bugging someone and can help them let off a little steam so they can focus on the right task.  Even if they don’t share anything, it gently let’s them know they need to refocus.
  3. Figure out how to make the task manageable.   Seasoned marketers are usually  immune to the anxiety of the cold call and can do strategy in their sleep.  This is not true for professional practice staff or new employees.  I will see if I can help break a task down for them and ask questions to guide them in the right direction to make the task more manageable for now, which should also provide a sense of mastery that will lessen their anxiety for next time.

When we take the time to figure out why someone got off track, it is much easier to figure out how to effectively get them back to centered and back on track.

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