Your firm is missing revenue if junior staff isn’t billable

The best use of technical staff is to be billable, right?  One needs more technical and managerial experience to be effective at sales, right?  Yet, there are 3-4 times more junior staff then senior staff. If you could get that many more people driving sales just how fast can you go?

Lucky for me I had a senior manager who tested me on sales not long after I joined the engineering/architecture industry. Allow me to share with you my story of gratitude to the executive who trusted me. Because of him I had one experience that accelerated my career.

Selling was the Furthest Thing From My Mind

A principal in the A/E firm where I worked decided to break into the drinking water business. I was a 26 years old budding civil engineer and he knew I had “vast” experience in drinking water from my prior firm (3 years and a few projects).  And, there was no one else with experience in that area so he didn’t have any choice.

He started off by taking me to meet with a couple of clients. Next, an RFP landed on my desk. With a lot of coaching, I drafted my first proposal. With a lot of editing, the proposal was submitted.

Keep in mind, my goal was to be a technical engineer with a reputation for being the best designer. I had no interest in project management or sales. But, I did what I was told.

We got invited to an interview and I was nervous. I had taken a public speaking class in college. But, my most advanced talk was how to make a tie-dyed t-shirt.

Since the scope of the project included modeling a water system, I took a stack of printouts to the selection committee interview. I demonstrated how I could enter numbers, and get answers on how to improve their water system (I know I am dating myself. This was a new concept back then).

I can’t imagine the competition did anything different. However, one of the old timers on the board sat examining my resume in the proposal. He had one question for me.

“Did you really graduate from University of Vermont school of engineering?” Why, he did too!

So, we became buddies. And, we won the job. So much for extensive qualifications and experience.

This story repeated several times. We won a water treatment design, we won a water system master plan, and more.  All of a sudden I found myself as one of the people in the firm driving sales. It gave me satisfaction, respect and control over the kind of projects I had.

Everyone Can Race the NASCAR

The reality is that not all people want to drive sales. A broad approach to encourage and provide support, such as training, to every employee who interacts with clients, is a highly effective maneuver.  Every work environment where I experienced this attitude was an environment of enthusiasm and revenue growth. Every work environment where junior staff were constantly hit over the head about being fully billable, was a stagnant environment.

To identify the people to drive sales, first ask. Then, provide training and support. Monitor and make utilization adjustments, even of senior staff. Maintain the firm’s overall utilization balance while unleashing everyone who wants to “drive” revenue growth.

What are your experiences with motivating people to drive sales? Share  them with me by commenting on this blog or shooting me an email so we can collectively learn.

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Posted in Growth & Profit Strategies, Selling

Who Says Only Senior Managers Can Generate Sales?

Who brings in the business in your firm? Usually it is the senior managers. Think about how strong business would be if everyone– CEO, CFO, Project Manager, and junior Engineer/Architect/Scientist– also contributed.

What do each of you have in common? Each of your livelihoods are impacted by your contribution to generating revenue. You are either billable or you have a role in bringing the dollars in the door.

Particularly for the junior roles, I suggest you can have a larger impact than you might think.

Life Without Fearbungee

Allow me to share a story of my early engineering career.

I learned how to convert “knowing to doing” starting in my 20s as a project engineer with an A/E firm. One big reason I succeeded is at 25, like many of us, I had no fear! And I had no fear because there were no expectations that I generate revenue for the firm.

With a 98% billability goal, I knew I was not going to be able to woo new clients. I was on the client’s site often, being billable while working on projects.

So, I decided to have conversations with each of my clients while in or near their office. Getting a meeting was easy because they knew I was out and about working on their projects.

I found that I had an advantage by being young. Since my clients were often twice my age, they seemed to enjoy teaching me about their business.

I asked them about their goals, their infrastructure programs and their process for implementing them. They went out of their way to tell me. It felt like a father-son tour when they showed me their facilities to make their points.

I also discovered that my superiors encouraged me to have such conversations. They even sent me to some training about sales. It helped greatly to start off with some of the “knowing.”

When the conversation got going on a particular pursuit, I, of course, brought in a principal of the firm. Pretty soon, work was being booked that I had identified. Suddenly, I also got a lot more respect from the firm’s principals.

People Love Youth

youthAs a business consultant, my clients frequently ask if they should allow junior staff to meet with a new client. They are worried that the junior staff won’t get respect. They suggest that instead they accompany the junior engineer, architect or scientist.

My answer is always, “Yes.” Encourage them to have conversations.  Don’t worry too much about mistakes they may make because their youth will receive more forgiveness.

Make sure you prepare the staffer, provide training, and do a debrief. Junior staff are in the field where they encounter the client far more often than most project managers and principals. So, take advantage of the opportunity for largely billable out-of-office client visits.

If you are a junior staffer, change the way you look at your impact. Explore how you can engage your clients and give it a try. The results may surprise you and you just might like it too.

Doug Reed

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Posted in Growth & Profit Strategies, Selling

How to Improve Client Relationships Just by Listening

We are in a technical business employing a lot of technical people who deliver services. Usually, it is a very small number who contribute directly to bringing in new business. How much business would your firm have if every single employee had direct involvement in landing new and interesting projects?

You probably just thought, “Way too much– I would never get home!” Or, “That’s impossible because technical people don’t like selling.”

I hear these perspectives all the time and it reminds me of an event early in my engineering career.

Selling Services was the Farthest Thing From My Mind

I was with a 50 person A/E firm managed by a business educated CEO. He was not an engineer, so he knew he needed us engineers to sell. He knew clients did not want business people who knew nothing about infrastructure talking about projects with them. He was determined to pursue client relationships using technical staff.

The CEO’s approach was to bring in an outside instructor to lead a hands-on workshop. Just about everyone in the company participated in workshop including me. Lots of technical people attended who, like me, just wanted to work on cool projects without a focus on selling.

We learned about the power of conversation. We were shown how to recognize our fears about business conversations and learned to have confidence in our own abilities. We also learned about a process (engineers love process) to follow to win our clients’ respect and file0001376876131confidence.

This wasn’t selling. It was about how to be popular with clients with the goal to improve client relationships. Never ever having won a popularity contest, this seemed like a time for me to try.

I immediately took my new skill to one of my clients. At age 28 I also had the chance to meet with prospective clients about their RFPs. Improving client relationships wasn’t so bad.

At first, it was awkward. It wasn’t quite the same as it was in the workshop. But, I stuck to it.

I began to see that prospective clients would return my follow up calls after a first meeting. And, my active clients seemed to enjoy talking with me, even about their personal life. I enjoyed it.

A decade later I had the process down pat. And, having experienced it with many personalities, I had adapted the process out of necessity. As a manager I then taught my direct reports which lead to requests to teach other groups and offices.

After 35 years in the A/E/Environmental business, I learned that just about everyone can enjoy their job more. Cementing great client relationships is a key, even for a technical career.  If the result is that the client wants to keep giving us more interesting and enjoyable business, is that selling?

The secret is– it doesn’t feel like selling. Technical staff love it, marketing staff are giddy, and accountants can finally relax. Not to mention, shareholders are tickled to see their stock value rocket.

My oldest, tried and true workshop has been completely redesigned and renamed to Listening for Relationships. It was rolled out for a client to rave reviews. This one workshop has had more impact than any single sales or client management class I have ever seen.

Re-design means the 3-1/2 hour workshop applies the latest participative learning methods for a fast-paced program. The skill is retained, applied, and it benefits every employee of the firm. It is why I was made a shareholder-twice.

Share this with others in your organization and your friends with other organizations. She/he will thank you. Email me at dreed@fostergrowth.biz for more information.

P.S. If your firm has under 100 Massachusetts employees, the State will pay for half the program cost.

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Posted in Selling

The real truth about talent and your business growth strategy

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Talent that shares your firm’s values critical for growth

How often do you think about your company’s values and purpose and how they’re related to your business growth strategy? The answer should be, “all the time.” As the leader it’s easy to be distracted with day-to-day operations and lose sight of what’s really important to you and your business. Successful leaders communicate these beliefs and priorities to their staff regularly as well as consistently model the behaviors that represent them.

There are certain times when reflecting on these company values is especially critical for future success– specifically during the hiring process. Sure, resumes with a long list of accomplishments and credentials are impressive. We can all agree on that.

But, how do you ensure a potential employee fits your company culture? Do you know how to figure that out? And, what makes knowing this and hiring based on this essential to your business growth strategy?

It goes both ways too. Potential employees need to feel that they are aligned with your values as much as you are with them in order to make a successful partnership.

I advise clients on an approach I used many times as an executive in an engineering consulting firm. Identify an interview team and give them a specific role. Make sure that at least one, if not two, are responsible for getting a sense of the candidate’s values and characteristics relative to the company’s culture.

Other evaluation topics to assign to interviewers include aspirations, technical skills, technical leadership history, non-technical ways they have contributed either professionally or socially as well as how they manage conflict. Dig deep– don’t let the interview process be a repetitive experience for the candidate.

Amanda Shore, writer for TalentCulture, shares tips to help you understand your culture better in the article titled, Cooking Up A Better Company Culture. Here, she describes steps for figuring out why people chose and stay at your company. Hire based on them to ensure you’re aligning with people with the right qualities. She identifies the following:

  • Start by identifying high-performing employees.
  • Define what behaviors and characteristics make these employees high-performers.
  • Interview these employees and ask them why they work here and what makes them stay.
  • Using their answers, determine what makes your company unique and defines the culture.

Focus on the values of the individuals on your team.   Try not to get too caught up in their particular area of expertise.  Most often, you need someone who fits into your organization and will engender loyalty with your clients.  Only with these two attributes can their technical skills secure the business results desired.

What approaches have worked well over your career?  When you try my suggested approach, send me an email and share what worked and what was challenging. dreed@fostergrowth.biz.  Thank you.

Doug Reed

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Posted in Hiring and Retention, Leadership/Management

Why you should discuss business innovation before best practices

I think we can all agree that AEC leaders and their firms like to do their best. It’s the nature of those in the industry, right? So, the question is, “what is best?” Is it best in services, or best in business? Which comes first?

No two firms are alike and they are guided by unique principles– core values, if you will. Throw in business innovation and you, for sure, have a one-of-a-kind approach to projects that stand above your competition. Or, at least that’s what your clients hope. This doesn’t mean you don’t use guidelines– it’s just that they’re particular to your organization.file0001608140472

In a post I wrote a few months ago titled Strategic Execution– What 4 things must you do to “make it so,” I explained how one engineering firm where I worked encouraged employees to submit proposals as a means to expand the business.

This firm used business innovation to execute its strategic plan. They empowered staff to put forth their own ideas without restrictions. For selected proposal proponents, professionally delivered education and coaching programs were provided to build business skills. Energy and enthusiasm exploded and every proponent and initiative became an important and successful investment. This is a very different approach than a group of senior managers who lock themselves in a room for a day and generate their own strategic plan for the rest of the company. The first approach is empowering and the latter is controlling. See the difference?

As technically minded professionals, we tend to get lost in Best Practices. There is a place for Best Practices, such as quality control, proposal standards, go/no-goes, a contract risk review program, or design document development. We like these kinds of programs as they are easy to grasp and the outcome of their development has clarity. For our business to be successful, it is even more important to create a culture of business innovation. It takes practice, but by exposing technical staff to business ideals and methods, and to show them how Best Practices are an outcome of these business innovations and strategies, a culture that supports long term goals can be achieved. Thus, “do your best” can be understood as “do your best at achieving long term business goals.”

In “The Myth of ‘Best Practice,’” Bernie Siben shares his thoughts on why firms must figure out their own set of rules and processes. He says that firms need to have a “workable go/no-go thought process in place”— which levels the playing field among staff and results in better decisions in what projects to choose.

My advice– be unique, stick to your values and create your own best practices that deliver the best in business innovation.

Do you see struggles between Best Practices in terms of service delivery and Best Practices in support of business health? Share one observation or experience with me.  I will respond.  dreed@fostergrowth.biz

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Posted in Growth & Profit Strategies

Learn what successful bosses do to build the most effective team

Skimping on personnel may help your budget in the short-term but will hurt your bottom line in the long-term, not to mention your quality of life. Look around at your valued employees. What makes them great? Do you use this criteria to find exceptional candidates or settle on sub-par candidates due to failure to offer an attractive package?

There’s an important distinction between a cheap hire and a good hire. Hiring the best is a critical part of your business development strategy.

file000884219889 (1)I recall an experience from my past that brings me angst to this day. I was aggressively growing multi-state services as a senior project manager. The plan was working well and frequent hiring was needed. I needed to hire managers who could take on the new clients because I could not do it all myself. I worked hard to identify quality candidates, the ones who were presenting, the ones on committees and the ones clients respected.

The problem was my operations manager was cheap. Four times I found a star and four times the salary and package needed to land them was not approved. Thus, I continued to be over worked and not able to spend time growing the business, which was my calling.

In desperation, I hired a project manager who was not my top pursuit but who fit our salary range. I gave him two of my easiest clients who were very loyal to me. He was a poor communicator, and the projects continuously went over budget. At one public meeting he could not handle a tough crowd and my client was very angry. It took all of my skills to calm my client and secure fee increases. Eventually, after many sleepless nights, the PM was fired.  Agony.

Later, I was doing a debrief with a client on a proposal I lost. I asked why they hired the firm they did and learned the firm’s senior engineer was a star, both with clients and with regulators. I had a recruiter call him. Then, I bypassed my stingy operations manager and went directly to the president and explained my needs as an important part of our business development strategy. He could bring in millions in business and be billable. We offered the engineer $20K over our normal pay, proposed a generous signing bonus and offered to pay his relocation fees. He accepted, and soon, the project we lost ended up our project. It’s been years and the hire remains a terrific investment.

George Hedley recently wrote a piece, Put the Right Players in the Right Positions for Construction Business Owner Magazine, in which he explains how making those difficult decisions now will secure higher profits later.

Make hiring a top priority in your business development strategy and make the right decision for your business from the start. Share your challenges on this blog or with me directly. I will read them all and answer each in detail.

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Posted in Growth & Profit Strategies

Why top performing project managers produce top level profits

New projects are exciting and new business is necessary for survival. If you don’t take the time to scope the project and price it right, you’ll lose more than profit. Can your firm afford to lose its good reputation, be known for providing poor service and, thus, create low staff morale?

A lesson I learned early on in my engineering career was the consequences of accepting a project from a partner who knew it was a money loser. “Getting a foot in the door” was the excuse. A year later, with a way over budget project, I had my performance review. “Too bad your project lost so much money.” “What the F!?” Not too much later I changed jobs. I realized I could not obtain a high reputation in a firm like that.

Preparation key to profitable projects

Preparation key to profitable projects

This experience was one of many that supported my extreme discipline of making sure my budgets were adequate and projects were completed with top level profits. Over the course of my career, this performance contributed to me being elected shareholder at two firms and I regularly was the most profitable project manager. I learned that making money led to good things.

Howard Birnberg, Executive Director of the Association for Project Managers, touches on several of the skills I mastered that made me successful. In his piece on CSNews, failure to adequately assess your firm’s capabilities, to have good contract language and secure an adequate budget, could result in big problems. Learn, apply, and stay disciplined.

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Posted in Growth & Profit Strategies

How to turn on a dime, seize market opportunities and maximize profits

California’s historic drought is all over the news. You can’t escape it. And, for those people and businesses affected, it’s a tragedy. Like any natural disaster, there are industries, such as engineering and energy in this case, that can benefit from them. How can your firm make a much-needed difference and grow profits? file0001379338996

When working with clients, I look for or I ask “What are the new and growing needs of your clients that can leverage some of your core skills?” Then, “How might you modify or augment those skills to be seen by clients as high value?” The question isn’t whether or not you want to take advantage of such opportunities but more likely, are you prepared to react when opportunity strikes– many times, at a moment’s notice. This requires pro-active strategic planning that includes a service/product life cycle analysis and an in-depth understanding of clients’ business drivers.

As Erik Sherman who writes for Forbes highlights in his article, 9 industries most likely to profit from California’s drought, “There will be businesses, new and old, who find that water shortages will produce profits.” Wouldn’t it be a shame to be one of the nine and not be able to meet the needs of the marketplace as quickly as your competitors? The profits are yours to lose. Not all Strategic Planning is the same. Contact Doug to discuss how you can stay positioned in high-margin, high-demand services.

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Posted in Growth & Profit Strategies, Strategic Planning

It takes a village– how to develop your own personal community of advisors

Don’t go it alone

It can be lonely at the top but it doesn’t have to be. Just as your employees rely on each other for collaboration, brainstorming, feedback, etc., you too, as the leader, need this support. But it doesn’t always come naturally when you’re the CEO. For example, since employees won’t necessarily feel comfortable providing you honest feedback, it’s difficult to gauge how you’re doing and how they feel. By forming a reliable network of resources based on your needs, you create an environment to bounce ideas, get expert guidance, feedback and more.

There is research that measured the impact advisors have on a senior leader. Assembling Your Personal Board of Advisors by Yan Shen, Richard D. Cotton and Kathy E. Kram highlights, demonstrates that CEOs can’t go it alone AND succeed in today’s business environment. The researchers provide an in-depth look at how to identify needs, pull together a personal board of advisors and what to do when all your needs aren’t met.


In today’s complex business environment, one mentor is no longer sufficient. Executives and managers need an array of advisors, mentors and role models to provide critical information and support at defining moments.


We all get advice from many sources, friends, family, books, webinars, and the media. Rarely is this sufficiently focused and tailored to you. A formal arrangement achieves this dedicated focus, exclusivity and confidentiality. Start with one and grow from there. As a business advisor who understands technical minds, functioned in many engineering technical and executive roles, Doug Reed, P.E. of FosterGrowth.biz could be a powerful tool in your toolbox.  Contact him now to explore this experience.

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Posted in Growth & Profit Strategies, Leadership/Management

Secrets of 7 successful companies that do some things badly

Is being bad part of your strategy? It seems counter-productive, doesn’t it? But it’s not. Successful companies know this secret and practice it so that they can be the best at their priorities.

The concept of focusing on a single business model is not new. In 1995, Treacy and Wiersema wrote “The Discipline of Market Leaders.” They described three core business models and made the case that to excel in business one needed to pick one model and use it to frame all decisions. One needed to have the best product or experts, or one needed to be the most efficient operation, or one needed to wrap their business around the client’s business and deliver it “their way.”

Since 1995, there has been substantial debate on whether one can ignore two of the three models. I was employed with one firm for 15 years that refused to acknowledge that it should focus on one model. Over two decades the company did none of them well and profit and growth was erratic at best. Later, I was involved with setting the direction of the firm and we did choose one. That firm grew by a factor of 3 in two decades. What I tell my clients today, is to pick one and 80% of their focus is on that one, then spend 15% on the second, and less than 5% on the other. The point is to know one cannot be good at all things.

DSCN8820In Michael Maddock’s recent piece in Forbes, “How Being Really Bad Is Really Great For Business,” he is more extreme. I don’t interpret this literally but since there is so much natural resistance and fear with choosing one model, to avoid falling back into trying to be all things, I do think it is often necessary to be extreme. To make the point, Maddock provides inspiring examples of seven well-known brands that achieve greatness using this strategy.


“I advise my clients to pick one model and put 80% of their focus on it. The point is to know one cannot be good at all things.”


Reacting to negative feedback on your low priorities by making changes takes energy away from the important ones and will not help your organization grow stronger. To explore the 3 business model ideas, make a list of common business decisions and then identify the focus of each for each of the models. You will see that actions and decisions that support one model, conflict with the others.  Stick to your guns and stay focused on the prize.

Doug Reed

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Posted in Growth & Profit Strategies, Strategic Planning

Proven A/E/Env owner. Best practices, partnered implementation, certainty of success

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