Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Strangling the Golden Goose

Aesop was an uneducated slave who lived in ancient Greece. Yet he could teach a thing or two to some accomplished modern-day executives in the A/E industry. Particularly relevant in this prolonged recession is his popular fable The Goose and the Golden Egg.

No doubt you're familiar with the story: A countryman grew rich by selling the golden eggs that his goose laid, one each day. Thinking he could increase his fortune, he killed the goose only to find no golden eggs inside it.

Similarly, a few years ago most A/E firms were enjoying an unparalleled period of growth and profitability. Then the economy tanked. Now some executives are badgering their managers and staff trying to extract more production from a smaller pool of opportunities. In the process, they may be effectively strangling the golden goose that was delivering the goods just months ago.

I suspect the problem is especially acute in publicly-owned firms subject to satisfying shareholder expectations each quarter. Achieving the budget is now a stretch. It's not even a possibility for many. Yet that doesn't seem to abate the pressure to still meet the numbers in some firms. Of course, the management pressure isn't limited to public companies.

Okay, I understand the business drivers behind this. But as Aesop realized, you don't increase production by mistreating the producers. There's a point where the pressure to produce becomes counter-productive. Some firms have passed that point. Such heavy-handed tactics fly in the face of all we've learned about the dynamics of human performance.

There's a better way. Tough times don't call for managers to be tough on their employees. In fact, the opposite will probably yield better results. Here are a few suggestions for those of you in executive or management roles:

Define reasonable metrics for the times. This is where the problem starts for some firms. For example, you can't manufacture higher utilization out of thin air no matter how much you ratchet up the pressure. Instead, you need to rethink what is actually achievable. Who decides? The best approach is to let people have input in defining the metrics they are responsible for meeting.

Focus on actions rather than results. I know, success requires attaining certain results. But if what you're doing isn't getting the desired results (after recalibrating your expectations), you need to change what you're doing. What I'm seeing in some cases, however, is a myopic focus on results without giving appropriate attention to rethinking the approach. You've probably heard it said that this is the definition of insanity.

Celebrate success. The best way to motivate people is to give them positive reinforcement. Yet the prevailing motivational approach is negative in some firms these days. Achieving goals is taken for granted, but falling short of others becomes the main focus of management interest. It's not an effective way to turn things around. Instead, turn attention to what people are doing right and their achievements--even the mundane ones. That helps build momentum towards performance improvement.

Restore some fun to the workplace. A comment I've heard repeatedly in recent months is something akin to, "It hasn't been much fun lately." You can't do much about external forces that may be impinging on fun at work, but what about things you can control? Is a little fun too much to ask in a down economy? Not at all, and studies show it can have a demonstrable effect on performance. Take steps to lighten the mood and break the pressure--staff lunches, contests, silly hats, whatever. The smiles may well go straight to the bottom line.

What about your firm? Are you caring for the goose or trying to squeeze a few more eggs out of it? Aesop's ancient wisdom is still good advice for businesses today, especially in these tough times.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Networking for Success

Everyone should network, and I mean everyone. Unfortunately networking has been miscast as primarily a sales activity. So those with no direct sales responsibilities are likely to think that networking isn't for them.

But networking shouldn't be all about selling, rather about building relationships. And everyone should be into relationships. Ultimately that's what we take of enduring value from our careers (see my post on "The Intrinsic Value of Your Network"). There are multiple benefits we derive from the business-related relationships we develop, and one of them is potential new business.

That's why in my previous post "The Extreme Marketing Makeover," I advised that you encourage all employees to "nurture their network." But not with the primary motive of increasing sales. More sales will result from building more and better relationships. So what, then, does this kind of networking involve?

Serve those in your network. Helping others is a great way to build relationships and, of course, to build service businesses like yours. Networking often fails to yield satisfying results when it is approached from a self-serving perspective. When you interact with others for the primary purpose of uncovering sales leads, it's common to find your network become increasingly unproductive. But when you are motivated to help others, most people are inclined to reciprocate. Serving your network includes:
  • Providing timely information
  • Making introductions and referrals
  • Sharing ideas and advice
  • Helping others succeed!

Be consistent in your contact. Networks languish with inattention. This is the other great cause of ineffective networking. We get busy, we let too much time pass between conversations, we let the relationship weaken by neglect. What makes this a bigger problem is that it is usually shared by both parties. If you're not taking the initiative to keep the contact regular, chances are the other party isn't either. Someone needs to take responsibility; let that be you.

  • Set up Outlook or Act! or whatever scheduling software you are using to prompt you to call or visit on a regular basis

  • Whenever you uncover a lead or interesting information ask,"Who else do I know that might be interested in this?"; then pass it on

Always follow up on your promises. There is a surprising number of unfulfilled promises that are made in conversation. They often escape our notice. "I'll call you with that information." "I'll send you the article." "We need to have lunch together soon." Does the other party remember? Sometimes. But even when forgotten, the insidious problem of unkept promises takes its toll. It erodes trust, compromises your integrity, weakens the relationship, and can do so without conscious thought. Be dependable. Always follow up what you promised. And don't promise what you won't deliver.

Promptly return calls and emails. We get this, don't we? Then why do so many of our "friends" in business take so long to get back to us? What message does that send? The common answer is "I was really busy." But we all know that no one is too busy to promptly respond to that important client, regulatory agency, or golf partner. Tardy responses communicate that the other party isn't that important to you, even if that's not the message you intended to send. If you really don't have time to talk, respond with a message like, "I'd really love to talk with you, but I'm covered up with work right now. If it's not urgent, could I call you back next Tuesday?"

Respect confidentialities. I'm assuming we all agree on the importance of respecting formal confidentialities. But what about the informal ones? This includes information shared with you where the expectation (often unstated) is that it wouldn't be shared with others. It also includes things you have witnessed, read, or overheard that are best kept to yourself. Sharing such privileged information or experiences not only harms the party not present; it can harm your relationship with the person you're talking to. He or she might be reluctant to share information with you for fear it will be passed on to others. And you might lose some respect in that person's eyes.

Networking isn't about sales. It's about tending to relationships. It takes time; it takes attention. But it pays back big time and for the long term, both personally and professionally. Don't neglect this critical source of sustainable success.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Raise Performance With Real-Time Coaching

A fundamental problem in our business is managers who are too busy and distracted to manage. Managers, by definition, are appointed to accomplish company and team goals through the efforts of others. They multiply their personal efforts through those they lead (see the principle of "The Time Investment"). When they instead focus on individual tasks rather than their management responsibilities, it stifles organizational performance.

To really impact performance, managers need to get involved at a level beyond the norm. They need to embrace the role of coach. Consider some of the top performers in their respective fields, people like Lance Armstrong, Julia Roberts, Robert De Niro, Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, Luciano Pavarotti, Tiger Woods. What do they have in common? They all worked with world-class coaches.

Could your firm benefit from more coaching? Absolutely. You may not have world-class coaches in your midst, but you do have people who could make a real difference if they functioned more like coaches--your managers. First, though, they have to get up from their desks, out of their offices, and interacting with the people they're supposed to be leading.

I call this role "real-time coaching," which is a redundant term, but emphasizes an important distinction. It needs to be hands-on, in-the-moment, as the work's being done. That's where learning is most effective, where encouragement and constructive criticism is most beneficial, where inspiration is most powerful. Real-time coaching also facilitates collaboration and teamwork.

If you want an example, consider a sports coach. Can you imagine your favorite team's coach giving the team instructions, disappearing into his office, then returning later to check on results? Chances are, you'd be among the majority of fans clamoring for that coach's job. Yet this is the model most common in our companies, is it not?

Successful sports coaches are noted, among other things, for their ability to develop their players. That comes through hours of focused instruction and feedback while the player is actually performing in practice the skills that will be required in the game. In our business, we don't have the benefit of practice. Everything is for real. Yet we still largely develop our staff by osmosis. We put them in the mix and trust that they'll eventually absorb the distinctive flavors of "how things get done around here."

Does it work? To a point. It brings us in line with what most in our industry are doing. But how much potential are we failing to tap?

So what do coaches do? Here's a short list of key responsibilities:

Provide real-time, on-the-job reinforcement of new skills. Classroom training has its place, but people don't learn skills passively. They have to practice them repetitiously. That process is greatly enabled when the coach is providing ongoing instruction, demonstration, feedback, and encouragement.

Help maintain focus on goals and planned actions. Multitasking is sometimes viewed as an asset, but it is more accurately defined as a dysfunction (see my post on "The Myth of Multitasking"). Coaches help staff to stay on task, to concentrate effort until the job is done, and ultimately to help them develop the skill of focus.

Help develop new habits. Habits are the cornerstone of efficiency, and a major obstacle to growth and improvement. The best way to overcome limiting habits is to develop new, desired ones to replace them. That requires sustained effort and attention, which is where an effective coach comes in.

Provide personal attention, advice, and encouragement. These are the essence of coaching. Yes, you're guiding the team, but coaches of team sports still spend a lot of time engaging people one on one. That's necessary for individuals to reach their full potential.

Offer constructive evaluations and critiques of performance and progress. This is much easier and more effective than doing it after the fact. Plus it helps you avoid the painful consequences of mistakes by catching them in the act.

Sound too time-intensive? Probably is given the way most managers allocate their time. But is there a more important management responsibility than helping others improve their productivity? Let me urge you to rethink the role, and how that time is invested. If you can take an hour helping five others double their net output, for example, is there a better way to spend your time?

Finally, some of your coaches could probably use coaches themselves. Despite the dramatic increase of executive coaching in other industries, there are very few examples of it in ours (at least that I'm familiar with). When you consider the multiplying impact of coaching, it's an option worth considering.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Selling the Relationship All the Way to the End

Ideally, you've been building a relationship with the client well before the Request for Proposal is released. Even so, now you face a test. The client's procurement process isn't all that relationship friendly. Indeed, quite the contrary. It strives to be objective, impersonal, and impartial. It seeks to level the playing field. And you won't find strength of relationship among the selection criteria.

Of course, we know the process is hardly so dispassionate. As long as people are making the decision, personal factors will always come into play. That's why relationship usually trumps the formal criteria, although the client will rarely admit it. Nonetheless, the procurement process can erode some of your relationship advantage, if you have developed one.

Think about it: Proposals and presentations typically don't show us at our best. Most technical professionals are only passable writers and presenters. The comfort level, the informal human connection we forged with the client earlier is now temporarily subjugated to a rather artificial posturing. Real communication is compromised in favor of a formal exchange of pre-rehearsed facts and claims often devoid of the humanness that fosters relationship building.

Several years ago, I had something of a revelation about this. I was sitting around the table with my colleagues brainstorming our strategy for an upcoming proposal. Wow, I thought, these guys really understand this project. I can't imagine that anyone else is better qualified. If the client were in the room right now, we'd win this job hands down. But when they tried to translate their insights and enthusiasm into writing, something was missing. Happened every time. Same thing in shortlist presentations. Have you noticed that trend in your firm?

So I set about trying to figure out how to preserve the relationship advantage in the procurement process. How could I capture the essence of what I witnessed in those brainstorming sessions? Or in the meetings with the client before the RFP came out? Following are some strategies that have served me well over the years:


Keep the focus on the client. One of the greatest dangers in the procurement process is the temptation to shift the focus from the client to your firm. After all, doesn't the RFP ask for it? Don't fall into that trap. Of course, you need to be fully responsive to the client's request for qualifications information. But direct most of the attention in your proposal to the client's needs, goals, and priorities.

Address the working relationship. The client's perception of comfort and how well they'll be served by your firm is a huge selection factor, whether it's mentioned in the RFP or not. So capitalize on that fact by doing something most of your competitors won't: Talk about how you're going to ensure a good working relationship and serve the client well. Hopefully, you uncovered the client's service expectations during the sales process. But even if you haven't, don't ignore this important point of differentiation.

Use personal language written in a conversational tone. Most technical professionals write in a different language than they speak. It's stuffy, wordy, often unclear. It's absent personal pronouns such as "you" and "we." To avoid defaulting to what I call "technicalese," I advise visualizing your audience when writing. Imagine you're communicating directly to that person (or persons, hopefully) with whom you've been building a relationship because, well--you are!

Refer to earlier discussions with the client. For some reason, many proposals make no reference to previous conversations with the client. That's a mistake. These conversations give you distinct insight into what the client is thinking. They provide a solid foundation for a compelling proposal. Build on them. Plus mentioning your previous discussions with the client reinforces the relationship that you have been nurturing.

Share your thought process. Another strange omission that I've seen in many proposals is a reluctance to share ideas. I've even seen my colleagues withhold suggestions that they've previously made to clients in conversation. Why? The usual answer I get is something like, "Well, I need more information before I put it in writing." Sharing insights, ideas, and possible alternatives in your proposal doesn't commit you to anything. And I've learned from clients that they value your thinking as they're trying to identify the best solution (which includes picking the right firm).

Shortlist Interview

Incorporate dialogue into your presentation. Most technical professionals struggle to come across as authentic when asked to make a formal presentation. It's even more a problem, in my experience, in a smaller room with few people in the audience. It's unnatural. So why not talk with them instead of at them? I started merging conversation into shortlist presentations almost 20 years ago, and the strategy has been quite successful. Here's how: First, ask for permission to take this approach (the teams I've coached have only been denied once in all those years). Then preface key transitions in your presentation with a question or two of the client.

This invites more interaction, puts everyone more at ease, and helps keep your presentation on target. Of course, the downside is that you need to be willing to adjust your presentation to respond to audience input. But that's the nature of conversation, which is far more relationship friendly than one-way presentations.

Put your interview team in roles to succeed. Don't feel a compulsion to have everyone on your team make a presentation. Multiple speakers in a short presentation is awkward anyway, and some people are just plain awkward doing it. So ask them questions instead. Try to recreate some of the creative energy you witnessed in that earlier brainstorming session: "Jim, when we were talking about this earlier, you thought we could substantially improve air flow with an innovative design. Could you share those ideas with the group?"

Again, talk about the working relationship. This is even more effective when you can discuss this topic in person. I have been involved in major procurements where the client noted that our firm was the only one to talk about how we were going to serve them better. We outlined it in a specific service delivery process. One client, a major airline, said, "This is precisely the reason those other firms aren't working for us anymore. Why isn't anyone else talking about this?" How about your firm?

Tell the client how much you want to work with them. A study funded by SMPS a few years ago found that clients tended to favor the firm that seemed most interested in working with them in the interview. They noted how most firms tended to focus on the technical aspects of the project or their qualifications and failed to connect at a personal level. Very few, they said, simply asked for the job. Don't be afraid to express how much the project would mean to your firm, or to state how much you value the opportunity to work with the client. It can make a difference.

There are other strategies, of course, for continuing to build the relationship during the procurement process. I encourage you to share some that have worked for you. The main point is: Don't let the formal process throw you off the relationship focus. Regardless what the RFP or interview instructions may say, it's still the primary point of differentiation in most situations.