Putting the Power on the Ground

Sep 21, 1998

At the car wash this past weekend I saw a 1969 Barracuda with a 440-cubic engine. It was hot pink (a factory color) with what Chrysler used to refer to as a “six-pack” (that’s three, two-barrel carburetors for those of you who didn’t know) and a four-speed manual transmission. There weren’t many of these cars made in the first place and fewer still exist today. “Pony cars” (Mustangs, Camaros, Firebirds, Barracudas, etc.) with huge engines seemed like a good idea at the time, but they weren’t all that successful. Back then, in addition to the ‘Cuda with a 426 Hemi or 440 Magnum, you could buy a Firebird with a 400, a Camaro with either a 396 or 427, an AMX with a 390, or a Mustang with a 390 or 428. You’d think that those huge engines (and high horsepower) in light cars would make for incredible performance. But many times, smaller-engine versions of the same car would outperform their big-engine siblings. The big-block cars had so much of their weight over the front wheels that all they would do is spin their wheels under acceleration. They had lots of potential but couldn’t really get all of that power on the ground! It’s kind of like a lot of the folks who work in A/E firms. Many have all kinds of potential but “can’t get their power on the ground” for a variety of reasons. Some of these include: Insufficient motivation. Maybe some people aren’t encouraged by their parents. Maybe they didn’t have successful role models. Maybe they have already achieved their goals. Maybe they are in poor health or physical condition. Maybe the firm’s leaders haven’t painted the picture for how good things could be. Maybe the leaders set a poor example themselves. There are a lot of reasons people can be unmotivated. Some are within the firm’s control, but many are not. My advice is to hire motivated people, as evidenced by their accomplishments prior to joining your firm. Then work hard to keep from demotivating them by keeping bureaucracy to a minimum, promoting from within whenever possible, and keeping everyone vested in the firm’s long-term success. Lousy verbal communication skills. Most people go into architecture or engineering or science because they enjoy the work. They like to solve problems, create things, put the pieces of the puzzle together. What these folks don’t always do so well is communicate verbally. And it’s a shame. Because clients and employers alike will judge you based on how well-spoken you are. It won’t take them long to judge you (most likely seconds!) and they may never give you a second chance. The result of being a weak verbal communicator is that you will be relegated to second-class roles. My advice here is to constantly emphasize that it’s not just what someone knows, but also how they get it across that determines their success in the company. And don’t tolerate the attitude that some design and environmental professionals have that how well-spoken someone is should have nothing to do with their success as an engineer or architect or scientist. Poor written communication skills. This is a huge (and growing) problem for architects, engineers, and scientists. They can’t write. I don’t know why— perhaps it’s the fault of the elementary schools, or maybe it’s not emphasized enough in college curriculums for engineering, architecture, or science. Whatever the case, the inability to write hampers the design or technical professional’s efforts to get his point across. He may know what to do, but he can’t explain it. Or, he can’t explain it in terms that will motivate the client to take the appropriate action. Bad habits. “Bad habits,” for the purposes of this article, include always being late to meetings, or keeping a sloppy office, or never getting timesheets or expense reports in on time, or regularly coming in late and leaving early, or thinking that it’s not important to dress properly or have good personal hygiene. This is the kind of behavior that makes the higher-ups in the firm think less of the person. These people then have less opportunity and their opinions are given less weight than others who may not be any smarter, but who are at least intelligent enough to recognize that others are judging them, in part, by these kinds of criteria. False notions. False notions that engineers, architects, and scientists often have are things such as believing the myth of the dual career path. The “dual career path” is where employees are told that they can go down either a managerial track or a technical track, and that either one can result in success. But the truth is, for most folks, the technical career path is a dead end. It has much lower limits. If somebody thinks that they can get the big rewards and not have to worry about management, business, marketing, or communications, they are most likely going to be doing the wrong things. This, then, will result in less opportunity for them. Employees with these kinds of misconceptions will not make the most of their potential! My advice to firm owners is to be darn sure you aren’t misleading anyone with false promises and to confront these people when you become aware of their false notions. If you are a leader in your firm, don’t you think it’s part of your responsibility to ensure that the people who work for you aren’t wasting their potential? Help them get their “horsepower” on the ground and your company will benefit from it. Originally published 9/21/1998

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