Avoiding Obsolescence

Jun 05, 1995

If I could give only one caution to principals of A/E/P and environmental firms, it would not be “grow slowly so you don’t over-expand and outstrip your managerial capabilities.” Nor would it be “watch every nickel and dime, even when you are making money.” Nor would I advise principals to “keep a close watch on your employees who deal with money so they don’t embezzle from you.” And I would not suggest to principals that they “make sure to dot every `I’ and cross every `T’ on performance appraisals so you don’t get sued when you fire somebody.” Sure, some of this makes sense in some cases. But the negative ramifications— even if you follow none of the above advice— are small compared to those that could result if you ignore the one warning I want to give to principals. You see, there’s a huge problem in our industry that most of us seem unwilling to talk about seriously. That problem is “personal obsolescence.” Therefore, my warning to principals of firms of all sizes and types is: “Don’t let yourself become obsolete.” I’m talking about the “goal” or “ambition” that so many people in our business seem to have— they want to get completely out of doing technical work and dealing with clients so they can become full-time firm administrators. I think this is the biggest mistake a principal can make. Because, truth is, even if you grow beyond your ability to control it and go broke, get cleaned out by a dishonest bookkeeper, or unjustly sued by a scorned employee, as long as you personally haven’t become obsolete, you can always go find a job somewhere and make a living. If, on the other hand, you have gotten so far out of doing work and serving clients that no one wants you on their job and nobody ever calls you when they have a problem, you’re well on your way to becoming obsolete. In fact, if this is the case, it may already be too late for you. But if that hasn’t happened to you yet, let me give you some advice on how to avoid becoming obsolete: Don’t get away completely from doing technical or design work. No doubt about it— sometimes other, lower-paid people can do the same thing you’re doing just as well and just as fast. The rational principal therefore assumes that these others should do the work so he or she can do “higher level” work. Sounds great in theory, but works lousy in the real world. The first assumption is that there’s always “higher level” work to be done. My experience is that there’s about 5% or 10% of that, and then 90% or 95% grunt work, even in an executive-level job. The other problem with getting entirely away from technical work is that once you do, you can’t keep up. Then your troops don’t respect you anymore. They start to think of you as a paper-pusher instead of a doer. That really undermines your ability to get them to do what you want. Don’t get completely out of project management and into firm management. Once again, the problem becomes one of credibility— credibility with your troops and with your clients. Once you get to the point where you don’t do any technical work and know nothing about the jobs your firm is doing, you are more than halfway down the path toward personal obsolescence. Even if you get out of doing technical work, you should stay involved managing projects in some shape or form. Because it is through active relationships serving clients that you really get in touch with what your people’s capabilities are and identify future needs the client may have for your firm’s services. Don’t get out of project development or business development. If you don’t want to become obsolete, you had better keep selling work. Working in a project development capacity is how you stay in touch with what’s going on in the marketplace as a whole. What services are your clients and potential clients buying? Who are your firm’s competitors? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are the trends that could be guiding the future of your company? The answers to these questions and more can be discovered through remaining active in a business development role. And the added benefit is that your principal-peers and other employees respect you more when you sell lots of work. They know, and you know, that you are carrying your weight. Don’t get out of front-line staff supervision. Many principals in A/E/P and environmental consulting firms find managing people to be a big pain. I feel that way myself sometimes. But the answer doesn’t lie in avoiding your responsibilities and doling it off to someone else. If you get completely out of managing people, you become disconnected with their problems and concerns. Then, over time and after obsolescence sets in, you become a lousy employer. The moral of the story is that you can avoid personal obsolescence if you want to. And it takes a lot more than reading a trade journal or keeping your professional registrations current. I think avoiding obsolescence is essential to anyone who wants to start each day feeling good about themselves and their long-term ability to be useful and make a living. Originally published 6/05/1995

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