Think About the Important Stuff

Feb 21, 2000

Whenever I see people get all upset about some trivial detail in their lives or their work, I find it distressing. Life is so much easier if you spend appropriate amounts of mental and emotional energy on the important stuff! What is the important stuff? I’m not going to attempt to tell you what it is for your personal life. Only you can make that determination. Business— and the A/E/P or environmental consulting business in particular— is my specialty, however. This is something that I do know about. Here, the priorities lie in securing work, finding and keeping those who can do the work and handle the other aspects of the business, doing the work well, and getting paid. That’s what it all boils down to. Everything else is incidental. With that being the case, you would think people would not get all bent out of shape dealing with internal stock sales, minor personnel policy violations, or someone who said something uncomplimentary about one of their projects. You would also think we’d put our money and our time into the things that are important. Yet here are some disturbing trends we are witnessing right now in A/E/P and environmental firms: Lack of time spent mentoring younger people. Just talking to the younger and newer members of the staff is one of the most important uses of the senior staff members’ time. But how many of us do it as often as we should? Is it really important to go out to lunch with our fellow partners? Wouldn’t it be better to spend some time with other people? Maybe it would mean a lot to someone if you showed interest in him or her. Maybe you could redirect someone who is going off course. Maybe you could learn about someone who you didn’t know anything about before, resulting in new opportunities for the firm and the employee. All of these benefits and more are possible if you make mentoring something that’s real and not just a buzzword. Underfunding marketing. If marketing is considered top priority— and it has to be if we want to stay in business— then why are firms spending less on it? Because it’s easy to be a success right now. It’s kind of like the entire industry is in the state that asbestos consulting was in the early 1980s— too much work for the available talent pool that is qualified to do it. Then once supply catches up with demand, firms act surprised when their margins go in the tank, and they can’t support their overhead! Look around, folks. It doesn’t get any easier than it is now. You better start your marketing machine so there will be some possibilities in the pipe when things slow down! Ignoring recruiting. Anywhere you go, anyone you speak with will tell you there’s a crying shortage of talent in our business. “It’s the only thing holding us back” is what my associates and I hear daily! Yet just about no one has even a single full-time recruiter. Firms don’t budget for recruiting, and outside recruiters are used as a last resort after all else fails. If “people are your greatest asset,” as so many like to say, why is it that the average firm won’t spend any time or money on recruiting? Underfunding employee welfare. We know it’s essential to have people who can do the work we sell, yet too many of us act like Ebenezer Scrooge when it comes to taking care of them! Business owners are fond of speaking of the sacrifices we make for our people, but what about the sacrifices people make to work for us? That’s why I think it’s best not to be too cheap with the benefits package, not to nickel and dime folks on their health insurance program, and to do things such as give away free food and soft drinks all day. These are small considerations to the business that have a big impact on employee welfare and help you keep your workforce available and dedicated to the firm’s best interests. Loss of interest in doing the work itself. I’ve said before that I find it perplexing that so many architects, engineers, and scientists strive for the day when they don’t have to do any architecture, engineering, or science again! That is really strange! How can one possibly keep his or her eye on what’s important (the work itself) if you never do any work? You can’t! You will eventually become obsolete and out of touch. Then what? Minimal effort and resources applied to billing and collecting. Let’s face it, as a group of companies, we have horrible cash flow. Our collections stink, with 70-day post-mailing average collection periods not even causing a raised eyebrow! If we want this to stop being a problem, we need to hire collectors, change our invoice formats, talk about the issue, and more. Human nature being what it is, it takes something horrible to happen for some of us to learn we have to keep our priorities first and foremost in our minds. That’s a surefire way to reassess and realign around the important things. For others, it’s a break from our friends, family, or safe environment— and the loss of security that goes along with it— that gets us to change. But for many of us, we return like a boomerang to our old ways of thinking as quickly as we can. And that’s when I want to say, “please think about the important stuff!” Originally published 2/21/00

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