Friday, September 21, 2012

The Leader's Leverage

Using a lever and properly placed fulcrum, you can lift an object that would be impossible to move by your own direct effort. This is an apt metaphor for leadership. As a principal, branch manager, department head, project manager, or team leader, you are expected to get everyone in your group working together toward a common goal. Yet they bring differing skills, attitudes, opinions, personalities, and experiences to the task.

How do you meld them into an effective team? Without some kind of leverage, this would be impossible. There's only one of you and several (perhaps many) of them. The natural inclination of most of them is to do whatever they want to do rather than what's in the best interests of the team. So somehow you need to harness their divergent contributions in a way that enables concerted effort.

Defining a Leader

Before describing how leaders apply leverage, let's clarify what a leader is. The essence of leadership is getting others to follow. You don't become a leader by appointment, regardless of your position or responsibilities. The role of leader must be earned. People follow leaders because they want to, not because they have to. Sure, a leader may exert his or her authority at times (see below), but generally you don't become a true leader by bossing people around.

With that context, I define a leader as follows:
  • A leader is one who engages the willing involvement of others in creating positive change.
The first key aspect of this definition is "willing involvement." An effective leader, as noted, doesn't resort to coercion or manipulation to get people to follow. They follow of their own volition. A leader earns their voluntary commitment.

Leadership also, by definition, involves "positive change." A leader isn't needed to maintain the status quo; a manager is sufficient (not to diminish the role of manager). Change is an imperative of leadership because growth, improvement, and innovation—which are undoubtedly desired by every company—all involve change.

Three Levels of Leverage

Leverage relates to the leader's ability to mobilize others to take specific actions, work in cooperation, and accomplish positive change together. In my view, there are three primary levels of a leader's leverage:

Authority. This is the ability to compel others. Much of the literature I've read on this topic suggests that true leaders don't resort to exerting authority. But my experience indicates otherwise. There are inevitably times when leaders need to rely on their (or someone else's) authority to tell people what they need to do. 

Think of it as similar to guard rails along a roadway. You certainly don't want drivers bouncing off guard rails to stay on the road, but there are occasionally times when guard rails prevent cars from going off the road. Likewise, there are times when people need to be told what to do to keep them from venturing off the course set for the whole team.

The secret is to use authority sparingly and selectively. If you routinely have to pull rank to get your team to follow, you may get compliance, but you'll never get the level of performance that comes from people following you because they want to. Besides using authority sparingly, you want to balance it with the other two levels of leverage.

Expertise. This is the ability to show others how. At this level, the leader is respected and followed because people are convinced that he or she has the know-how and skills necessary to lead the way. The expertise-based leader, of course, is common in our business. In a profession that places such high value on expertise, a leader's knowledge and experience can be a strong attraction to followers and build instant credibility with them.

But you shouldn't confuse expertise in the technical realm with competency in areas such as business, marketing, human resources, or organizational dynamics—where leadership is most often needed. Many of the most accomplished technical experts I've known over the years did not have the requisite skills or aptitude to be effective leaders. For more thoughts on the "expert leader," check out this earlier post.

Influence. This is the ability to motivate others, the highest form of leverage and where leadership is best demonstrated. Influence involves many things—communication, caring, personal example, etc. One's persuasive skills are also an important competency in influencing others. Relatively few technically-oriented managers, in my experience, are really effective in applying the leverage of influence. So this obviously needs to be our focal point in developing leadership ability.

Using positive reinforcement is probably the most powerful way to influence the behavior of others. I've written on this topic at some length in this space, so I encourage you to use the search bar for guidance on using positive reinforcement. This post offers a brief overview to get you started.

The Character of a Leader

Any discussion of the leader's leverage—and influence as the highest level of leverage—would be incomplete without touching on the power of one's personal example. As a leader, you are defined as much by who you are as by what you do. Your character can be a compelling source of influence. There are three character traits, in particular, that I've seen consistently in the best leaders I have known: 

Personal credibility. A leader must be worthy of others' trust and respect. This characteristic is largely defined by how much you care for others, specifically those you are trying to lead. Are you trustworthy? Are you a good listener? Do you encourage and praise others? People are more inclined to follow a leader with high personal credibility, even if he or she is deficient in some leadership skills. To assess your own personal credibility, use the questions in this previous post.

Perceptional discipline. Strong leaders usually display a rare ability to see things accurately. This involves being able to make honest assessments of (1) the situation, (2) others, and, (3) most importantly, yourself. Bias and self-interest can cloud your ability to make objective judgments about your company, employees, clients, markets, and important trends affecting your business. 

Effective leaders have the ability to "view things from the balcony"—a description used by former NBA great Magic Johnson to describe his remarkable court sense. Getting on the balcony requires mentally removing oneself from the situation (especially emotionally) to see the big picture in a detached, objective manner.

This can be particularly challenging in assessing your own personal credibility and leadership abilities. Understanding your strengths and shortcomings enables you to craft an approach to leadership that fits who you are. Your assessment should include recognizing how others see you, for perception is reality when it comes to the impact you have on others. For this insight, of course, you need to solicit feedback from others.

Persevering focus. As a leader, you must be able to concentrate your attention and energy on important matters, over the long haul, until the job is done. Unfortunately, the norm in our business is managers who are constantly "fighting fires"—allowing a constant stream of unanticipated, urgent matters dictate how they spend their time and devote their attention.

Obviously, you have to be responsive. But you want to avoid just being reactive. Strong leaders by contrast are proactive, planning ahead and following through on those plans—and getting others involved in the implementation. In other words, effective leaders are not just visionary; they get things done.

Learning how to apply the leader's leverage to engage others enables you not only to overcome organizational inertia, but to multiply your impact on the firm, accomplishing far more than you could on your own. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Connecting with the Community: First Build Trust

Engineering, architectural, and environmental projects often require community acceptance to be ultimately successful. In most cases, this involves little more than the formalities of posting a public notice, perhaps holding a routine public meeting, soliciting and responding to comments, and talking with stakeholders who are directly affected.

But sometimes our projects live or die depending on our ability to gain community support—or at least diffuse outright opposition. This is a task for which many technical professionals are ill prepared. I've witnessed some of them crash and burn in contentious public meetings or in private conversations with unhappy citizens or interest groups. 

While these situations are often quite complex and unpredictable, there is usually a common thread. There is the failure to engage concerned citizens early, to give them a voice in the development of the project. There is an over-reliance on technical facts, methodology, and outcomes in trying to persuade nontechnical audiences. There is a tendency to dismiss some community concerns as unfounded, illogical, or uninformed. But the overriding factor when the relationship with the community turns sour, in my experience, is a basic lack of trust.

You cannot persuade someone who doesn't trust you. Several years ago, I provided some community relations consulting support for a major oil company. We were revising the  community relations plan associated with the cleanup of a former refinery site. The focus of our efforts was determining how to repair a fractured relationship with the community that was causing remediation costs to escalate—by the millions.

The suggestions from the group were predictable. Some advocated drilling more groundwater monitoring wells to collect more data to convince the public that the threat to surrounding properties had been overstated. Some felt we needed to step up the PR campaign to better get the message out about the progress of the cleanup. Someone even suggested that the oil company make another peace offering to the city, by transferring land for use as a natural area.

As I listened to the discussion, it occurred to me that we were missing the main point. The citizens didn't trust us (and there were justifiable reasons for this). So it didn't matter what we said or did; we weren't going to get anywhere with the community until we restored a measure of trust. I shared my conclusion with the group, but the notion of building trust apparently sounded more complicated than drilling wells or mailing out brochures. We failed to solve the underlying problem.

However, months later the tide began to turn when we hired a specialist in developing impaired properties. He led a series of meetings with the public to discuss potential uses for the 600-acre refinery site once it had been remediated. For the first time, the community was given a meaningful role in helping determine the direction of the project. It dramatically changed the relationship, because it began to restore trust between the two parties.

That story illustrates a dynamic that I've seen repeatedly in interactions with communities where controversial projects are located. These situations push technical professionals into the uncomfortable realm of the personal, subjective, and emotional dimensions of working with people—people who may not trust your intentions nor really understand what you do. Taking the position of "trust me, I'm an expert" can readily backfire, because there's more to building trust than demonstrating your competency.

Indeed, research reveals three primary components of trust:
  • Concern. Caring, audience focus, empathy, listening, service orientation
  • Competency. Expertise, problem solving ability—where we're naturally most comfortable
  • Candor. Honesty, openness, trustworthiness
The research further suggests that professionals struggle most with the first of these—showing concern. Why? I suspect it is largely a tendency to focus more on our work than the people for whom we work. In working with the public, as well as with other project stakeholders, we should give special attention to demonstrating we care about them (of course, it helps if we truly do care!). Showing concern makes us more trustworthy, and then those two trust elements enable us to build our credibility further through our expertise. Competency alone will never win over a skeptical audience.

With that backdrop, let me offer a few suggestions for gaining public support for your projects, especially when that support comes only grudgingly:

Solicit feedback early. The typical public meeting presents the proposed solution and asks for feedback. That doesn't give citizens much sense of control over the direction of the project. If you foresee potential for controversy at the start of a project, seek public input before you do the design or develop the solution. Focus first on gaining understanding of their perceptions and concerns, before attempting to change their opinions.

Meet privately with known or expected opponents. Community dissatisfaction is often stirred up by a vocal minority. Before these individuals frame the discussion in the media or at a public meeting, you want to attempt a preemptive strike—meeting with them to learn about their specific concerns, discuss potential options, and try to negotiate a satisfactory resolution. At the very least, you want to try to diffuse some of the passionate opposition that could sway public opinion.

Form a citizens advisory group. In the story above, our client avoided taking this requested step for fear of "losing control" of the project. That further inflamed the community, leading to a sympathetic State DEQ expanding the scope to try to allay public concerns, at an additional cost of tens of millions of dollars. Giving citizens input does not necessitate giving up control. On the contrary, it often enables you to reclaim it. There are variations of this general strategy, such as conducting a design charrette.

Don't forget that perceptions are reality. Technical professionals sometimes downplay public sentiments that lack factual or technical credibility. Their efforts to "educate" citizens about the "truth" can come across as demeaning and dismissive, further eroding trust. Don't overlook the fact that part of the solution you should be delivering is helping people feel better about the situation. Their perceptions—as misguided as they may be—are part of the problem you're trying to solve (which often involves gently changing those perceptions).

Identify and empathize with your audience. Undoubtedly you have much in common with the citizens who might oppose your project. You live in a community, have a family and want to protect their interests, dislike disruptions to your way of life, etc. You can go a long way to building trust by acknowledging a common frame of reference: "I can understand why you feel that way...I'm a parent too (or whatever)." But it must be genuine; few of us can fake empathy.

Communicate in terms the public can comprehend. This goes much deeper than simply avoiding unfamiliar technical jargon. It involves addressing the issues from their point of view. It's not just an engineering or architectural project; it's community asset, or threat, that affects the lives of the people who live or work there. Don't divorce the technical scope from its human benefits or impacts.

Build an alliance with local media. Get the local newspaper or radio talk show working against you, and your challenge to build trust with the community grows exponentially harder. As soon as you're ready to go public with news of the project, I'd recommend proactively engaging local media outlets. This may best be done with the help of public relations professionals.

Enlist credible third-party opinion leaders. When possible, seek support from influential, trusted members of the community. This is particularly helpful in smaller communities. Ask for their help in building bridges with concerned citizens and helping negotiate a resolution. Of course, you must first convince these individuals of the benefits of your project.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Are Your Proposals User Friendly?

I recently reviewed an important proposal for one of my engineering firm clients. Considering the $350,000 fee, you might argue that the firm exercised admirable restraint in limiting their submittal to 34 pages (well, if you don't count the 38 pages of resumes!). I've certainly seen many proposals of similar scope that were far less efficient.

But was this one efficient enough? Consider that it would take a client reviewer 56 minutes to read the entire submittal if we assume an average adult reading speed of 250 words per minute (excluding the resumes, of course). Do you think a client would spend that much time reviewing a proposal? 

Over the years, I've asked hundreds of engineers and architects in workshops and seminars I've done if they believe that clients read their proposals word for word. I don't recall anyone suggesting that they do. My conversations with clients confirm this suspicion. So if clients don't read our proposals, if they skim them instead, why do we not prepare them accordingly?

Among the numerous proposals I've reviewed in my time, I've seen only a handful that I would consider relatively easy to skim. In fact, most proposals are quite the opposite—practically demanding substantial reading to try to extract even the most basic information. Now imagine being a client who has to review a stack of proposals like this. Do you think you would appreciate finding one that was designed to be user friendly?

That's why making proposals skimmable is one of the two tactics I advocate for setting your proposals apart from the rest (the other is making your proposals prominently client focused). Of course, there are many factors involved in creating a winning proposal. But skimmability is so rare, and so appreciated by clients, that you don't want to overlook its power to deliver a competitive advantage.

The most remarkable win in my career as a corporate proposal manager came with an existing client who thought so little of our capabilities to perform the requested scope of services that they didn't even send us the RFP. After we leveraged some relationships to receive a copy, we knew we had to work outside the box to have any chance at all. 

Among the tactics we employed, I took creating a user-friendly submittal to a whole new level for our firm. It worked. The client told us that they were immediately intrigued when they opened the box containing copies of our proposal and found half-inch binders. Since it was a $30 million contract, I suppose the other firms determined it warranted more pages, with most of those firms using two-inch binders.

The client told us that our proposal was refreshingly easy to read and navigate, which was particularly important since our message diverged from the others. We presented a bold alternative strategy for addressing the client's needs, so it was critical that we made our point convincingly and concisely. We won an unlikely victory because we changed the game, and don't think that how we presented that message didn't matter as much as its content.

That win—and the positive feedback we got from the client—forever changed how I did proposals. No, not in taking the risky approach of changing the client's scope, but in making my proposals incomparably user friendly. Content matters, of course. But good content can be overlooked if you make it too burdensome for the client to find it. And most proposals err in this direction.

So how can you make your proposal more user friendly? A few pointers:

Understand how the client handles your proposal. This is particularly important for clients who have a more structured review and evaluation process. A Navy contracting officer once told me that they spent an average of about 30 seconds making their initial review of submittals. Think about that: 30 seconds to make the first cut! Obviously, you want to know what sections they look at in that time period and what screening criteria they apply at that point.

But even less formal clients don't typically read your proposal from front to back. They may go through it based on the order of written selection criteria. They may have one factor they're particularly interested in and look for that information first. Whatever the case, you want to understand how the client handles your submittal and design it accordingly. This may involve custom tabbed dividers, graphic presentation of critical information, or an executive summary that specifically addresses what matters most to the client.

Clarify what you really need to communicate. I've stressed in this space before the importance of developing a proposal theme. You also want to identify a few core messages—perhaps critical success factors—that you believe will distinguish your proposal from the others. If you've been talking to the client, these core messages should be evident. In any case, it's immensely valuable to distill the essence of your proposal down to a few points that are prominently displayed in your submittal. One suggestion for clarifying your core messages is to employ what I call the "two-minute drill." This exercise involves imagining you only had two minutes to orally present your proposal to the client. What would you need to say in that span to win?

Use an economy of words. Did you know that you can typically communicate more information if you use fewer words? In this age of information overload, people naturally filter what they hear and read to fit their available time and interest level. When you use more words than needed to make your point, you increase the likelihood that your message will be filtered—or perhaps ignored altogether. Ever tuned someone out because they used more words than you had the patience to hear or read? Of course you have, and so do clients.

One tactic I've used to encourage brevity is to set page limits for each section of the proposal. Be stingy. The less space you make available, the more the proposal team has to refine their message, both in terms of content and presentation. If you later feel you need to add more detail, fine. But it's better to work in that direction than to try to condense excess, unfocused verbiage down to a concise, coherent message.

Make the most important messages easy to skim. I imagine you read the newspaper much as I do; you skim the headlines to get the gist of the news. Occasionally you read a bit further to get more information, which is aided by the typical "inverted pyramid" structure that involves putting the most important information first in the write-up. You may scan photos and captions, or glance at a chart for more detail. And then you'll find a few articles that merit your reading them all the way through.

Most newspapers and magazines (and some books) are specifically designed to be skim friendly. The editors acknowledge up front that their audience isn't going to read everything, so they design their publication to maximize quick, efficient communication. Shouldn't you be doing the same with your proposals (and other written documents)?

Draw your design ideas from mainstream publications that excel in user friendliness. USA Today revolutionized how newspapers were designed and still deserves your attention. Check out the magazine rack at your local bookstore and find those that are the easiest to scan. Buy a few of them and take them back to the office for further study. This is how I learned to master skimmable proposals and other written communications.

Now make sure the key information in your proposal—the points that need to be clearly conveyed to enhance your chances of winning—is presented at both the skim and read levels. The skim level helps ensure that it's not overlooked and makes key points more memorable. The read level provides the additional detail that the client may want to better understand your point or be persuaded by it.

Get feedback from clients. Yeah, it's harder these days to get open and honest proposal debriefings than when I first started writing proposals in the 80s. But I find that most clients still share valuable information if you ask the right questions. Naturally, you want to know why you won or lost, but clients are often the least comfortable telling you what they found deficient in your proposal (if you lost).

They may be more receptive to sharing general advice on how to improve future proposals. I used to tell clients that our goal was to prepare proposals that clients enjoyed reviewing (not a goal that A/E firms typically express to clients). Among the questions I'd ask in that regard: "How can we make our proposals easier for you to review? What's the most important thing you're typically looking for? What would you like to see in a proposal that you don't normally see?"

I didn't settle for the usual generic answers. For example, if the client said, "I'm looking for the most qualified firm," I might ask, "Do qualifications really set one firm apart in most cases? If so, how? Is it their experience, project team, understanding of your project?" The point is, I'm not convinced that qualifications are typically the main point of differentiation. And my pointed questions to clients over the years have confirmed this.

As long as you don't put clients on the defensive, you'll typically find them accommodating. And if you ask questions that probe a little deeper than the usual, "How can we make our proposals better?" you're more likely to uncover some valuable insights. The subtle difference here, compared to most proposal debriefings, is that you're focusing on how to make the proposal process easier for the client. Do that and the wins will follow.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Providing Value in Sales When You're Not the Expert

A couple weeks ago, I advocated offering your "entree" whenever making a sales call. This involves bringing something of value—usually relevant information or advice—in exchange for the client's precious time. It avoids the common practice of wasting that time merely talking about your firm or peppering the prospect with questions. Plus it allows you to demonstrate, rather than just talk about, your abilities to help the client.

But that begs the question: What if you lack the expertise to deliver the entree? This is the primary concern I have about A/E firms that hire salespeople who lack the technical credentials to offer such help and advice. How do they avoid wasting the client's time with the usual drivel that consumes traditional sales calls?

I had to confront this issue head on years ago, because I was one of those salespeople. I had been calling on prospective clients for several years before I was convicted of the need to bring real value to those meetings. But lacking expertise to talk in much depth about the environmental services I was selling, I struggled to determine how I could stop taking the prospect's time with little to offer in return.

Like most such sellers, I had relied on a time-tested formula consisting primarily of: (1) cultivating affinity and (2) being persistent. I worked hard at building rapport with prospective clients, hoping to win their business because they liked and trusted me. I also understood the long sales cycle that is inherent in our profession, meaning that I needed to maintain regular contact with prospects—even if there was no good reason for doing so other than not being forgotten. Of course, I brought my technical colleagues along when needed to talk turkey, but still spent many hours on my own with prospects.

It seemed to be working, at least to the satisfaction of my employer. But I knew I could do better, both in terms of building stronger relationships with clients and bringing in more work. The secret, I concluded, was to shift my focus to serving clients instead of selling to them. The problem was, what did I have to offer that would enable me to better serve prospective clients? How could I bring an entree to every sales call?

Let me share what I learned for those of you who face a similar challenge. If you're in a sales role but lack the technical credentials to deal in depth with the services your firm provides, let me offer the following suggestions:

Learn all you can about the services you sell. This seems so obvious that I hesitate to mention it. But I still encounter salespeople in our industry who don't seem all that dedicated to expanding their "product knowledge." I suppose that's because they rely on a similar approach to sales that I once did—affinity and persistence. When I changed that approach, I committed to becoming more knowledgeable about what I was selling.

One of the best ways that I learned more about technical matters was participating in proposal and project strategy sessions. Listening to my colleagues brainstorm and critique various technical approaches and solutions was far better than reading about it or attending conference presentations. I also learned that my outsider's perspective could add value to those discussions. This enabled me to hone my skills in confidently engaging in technical conversations despite my limited expertise.

Unfortunately, many sales professionals in our industry don't even have meaningful involvement in proposals, much less participate in project discussions. I don't understand how those who supposedly know the client best can be excluded from the proposal process. Plus I was never inclined to simply turn over clients I had helped develop to the project team after the sale. I think the best salespeople stay involved with clients before and after the sale, all the while learning more about how their firms meet client needs.

Assume the role of solution delivery facilitator. Although prospective clients would quickly recognize that I wasn't a technical expert, they learned to trust me as the conduit to the right technical resources within our firm—or even with other noncompeting firms. The platform for doing this effectively was both developing a general understanding of the technical issues (as mentioned above) and knowing who to go to within our firm (or outside if necessary) for any relevant client problem or need that was identified.

I rarely simply handed off a prospective client to a technical colleague. I remained involved in the dialogue and served as primary liaison in addressing client needs. I couldn't provide the expertise in most cases, but I knew precisely where to get it. That's a perspective that's very difficult to gain if you spend nearly all your time calling on clients. So if you don't have enough time to facilitate delivering service (through others) to prospective clients, you might need to consider focusing your efforts on fewer of them.

Being a solutions delivery facilitator involves more than simply bringing technical experts with you on sales calls. It includes searching for helpful information; providing that via email, web links, or in person; talking with colleagues and friends in your network who have helpful insights relevant to particular client needs; scheduling site and office visits; and helping prepare client-specific presentations or workshops.

Develop your own expertise. Over time I began to see that my strength in serving prospective clients was in addressing the nontechnical concerns that my colleagues often overlooked. Eventually I developed skills in some aspects of this that clients—prospective and existing—found useful and would pay for. These included leadership and organizational consulting, community and stakeholder relations, and behavior-based safety.

Do you see similar opportunities for yourself? Do you have marketable skills that clients may value? Or could you develop such skills? Many business development professionals have competencies that can be developed into client services. These often relate to communication or interpersonal strengths that can be applied to helping clients meet business objectives. For example, I developed my abilities as a meeting facilitator within our firm. I was then able to offer that service to clients.

Having marketable expertise—even if it's outside the mainstream of your company's services—can give you more credibility with clients. I didn't do much billable work when I was in business development, but I found clients more responsive to me when I could approach them as something more than a just a salesperson. 

Actually, anyone selling professional services should try to avoid being characterized as a mere seller. You're an expert solution provider, even if the solutions come primarily through others' expertise. As I learned, the best way to change perceptions about your role is to serve clients rather than sell to them. And when you commit to serving instead of selling, you're more likely to uncover opportunities to use your own skills and knowledge to help clients.

Problem solving and delivering business value, after all, is hardly limited to the domain of the technical experts.