Raise your Expectations

Jun 14, 1999

Most people would agree: Much in life works out like you expect it will. So why, if this is the case, do so many of the people running A/E/P and environmental consulting firms have such low expectations? You’d think that we could get our heads out of the dirt and look around, set our sights high, demand a lot from ourselves and our people, and accomplish miracles. Some people in this business are tremendously successful and do perform miracles. Others, however, gripe and moan about why things are the way they are and never look in the mirror. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about: “We don’t get good fees.” Why is that? Is it that no firm serving the same markets as you serve gets good fees, or you don’t get good fees? I find that most often getting a good fee starts with asking for a good fee. If the people you have writing proposals lack confidence in themselves, they will give the job away every time. Or if the people you have out there selling jobs came from firms that didn’t make any money, they too will give the job away every time. If this sounds familiar, let me suggest that you spend more time and money on marketing such that you drive demand beyond your firm’s ability to supply it. Then you can raise fees to knock some of that demand down and really make some profits. “None of our people could take over this place and fill my shoes.” Why is that? If you are saying this, I’ll bet the problem is you. You aren’t hiring strong folks in the first place. You are letting your current crop of people dictate how much you can pay a newcomer. Or perhaps you’re one of these people who doesn’t share any information with others. How can someone learn “what it takes” if that’s the case? Or maybe you get good people, give them the information and tools they need to do their jobs, but don’t let anyone do anything without first checking with you. Or maybe you just need to be a little tougher and run off the people who do a yeoman’s job (but no more), and take your chances with someone new. “Our clients are slow payers.” So what are you going to do about it? Do you always stop work if your contract allows it? Do you turn clients over for collection if they don’t pay, or just shrug your shoulders? Can you say no to a project opportunity coming from a client that is a proven slow payer? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you may in fact be setting your expectations too low. In my experience, there are always good paying clients (and slow paying clients) in any project category or market sector. Stock in an A/E firm never really appreciates.” Why do you feel this way? If you work in a firm that doesn’t grow, has mediocre cash flow, or makes little or no profits, then I can understand your point of view. But are any of those outcomes unavoidable? I think not. If I were an investor in a company in this industry, I would expect top management to deliver an acceptable dividend, and the stock to appreciate every year. I would get results in my own area of concern such that people would listen to me when I spoke. The fact is that stock in A/E firms can appreciate, and will, if the company grows and makes profits. If the shareholders would expect it to appreciate, elect boards of directors that accept the challenge, and take action if the results aren’t good, things could be a lot different. “That schedule is impossible to meet.” Is it really impossible, or is it just impossible for you to meet based on the way you do things? Some people in this business think it makes them look smart when they can give a zillion reasons why something can’t be done. But maybe it could be done if a real effort were put into it. And maybe you (if you are the boss) need to let your people know that sometimes they have to do that if they want to be part of your company! More is within our control than we think. Better to spend your time thinking about how it could be done than why it can’t. Originally published 6/14/99

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