Making the leap from project manager to principal

Georgia Dome by Scott Braley, FAIA

The Georgia Dome in Atlanta, a project where Scott Braley—then with Heery International—played an integral role in both selling and delivering the services.

A practicing architect for over 30 years explains how he transitioned from doer to seller

A talented project manager was arguably among the best in the firm. Highly regarded for both his talent and accomplishments, he was on a sure path to becoming a principal. One day, two leaders of the firm asked to meet for lunch; one was his informal mentor and hinted that this was an important discussion.

And indeed it was. While the leaders wasted little time in addressing his opportunity to become a principal, the conversation then took an interesting turn. The leaders noted that, with the promotion, his responsibilities would shift more toward bringing work into the firm. A bit surprised, the project manager (PM) said he had helped with proposals and presentations but his real talent was leading teams and delivering excellent projects.

The leaders spoke very candidly, saying the firm could always hire people to “do the work” but the key to future success was bringing work in. In fact, from now on the PM's main responsibility would be to extend a service line and grow a market sector. The leaders ended lunch with a request: “Give it some thought. We have great confidence in you, but we want to be sure you want to take this on.”

Later that day the PM's mentor stopped by, and his words might as well have been a solid punch to the gut: “Here’s the truth. You either learn to be successful in marketing and business development, or you might as well resign. You’re going no further unless you can bring work into the firm.”

Learning to sell

What would you do? Or, perhaps more appropriately, what will you do? This story repeats itself over and over in our industry. It’s not a hypothetical fable; I was that project manager. My mentor was absolutely right; I was going no further unless I stepped up and took on the task of helping grow the firm. After some soul searching and reflecting on my other options, I decided that it was time to change behavior and focus.

With predictable bumps along the way and a lot of trial and error, I learned to sell. Today I am genuinely grateful for the wise counsel those leaders offered, and for the kick in the pants from my mentor. I was able to enjoy career successes that I never would have known had I remained at the PM level. And while PMs remain in great demand today, there is an impenetrable “glass ceiling” of sorts: no work means no need, no marketing means no opportunity, and no ability to sell means no advancement or security.

You can study it, argue with it, cuddle up to it, or even convince yourself to embrace it out of necessity. Whatever your personal approach, you must make peace with this core question: “How will I bring work into the firm?”

Two paths to choose

In my 30 years of practice experience as well as in consulting work, I have encountered two distinct and effective ways of helping your firm secure work. The first one is to go into the marketplace and ask clients to hire you. The second one is to do work so well, and become so highly sought after, that the clients will come to you.

In our industry, the predominant method is to “go out and ask.” And it's also the relatively easier option. It’s humbling but true that only a few PMs can become so exceptional that clients beat a path to their door with work in hand. However, clients will often quickly open the door to PMs who want to talk about the client’s needs and opportunities.

No work means no need, no marketing means no opportunity, and no ability to sell means no advancement or security.

In 2013, the Society of Marketing Professional Services completed a 15-month primary research and analysis effort focused on how clients will behave, what business development will look like, and how clients will hire AECs in the decade ahead. That effort culminated with AEC Business Development - The Decade Ahead, which painted a vivid picture of what lies ahead. The research addressed inputs across multiple market/client sectors and virtually all types of firms. In one of the most provocative findings, clients said the traditional methods of business development (BD) are on their way out; they've shifted tectonically, with the majority of buyers of services professing, “I am no longer going to meet with non-technical business developers; I want to talk with PMs and others who will actually deliver the services.”

The message was clear: buyers want to talk with those who know the client, will solve their problems, and make their short- and long-term work easier. One client captured this pivotal change in a seminal statement: “I want the Steve Jobs of design and construction. Somebody who can tell me, show me, what I need to be more successful.” In virtually all cases, the buyers labeled that person as someone with “a technical background” and often said it was the project manager.

What is a "seller/doer"?

The term “seller/doer” says it all. In a nutshell, they are design or construction professionals who blend bringing work into the firm with leading teams and delivering the services. They are, in fact, “selling” and “doing” simultaneously. As mentioned above, the clients love them; they'll likely welcome your personal involvement and commitment to deliver the services related to their projects. Most successful seller/doers begin by concentrating on the “doing” component and then move deliberately into more “selling.” Eventually, the most successful settle in on a mix that is 60 percent selling, 40 percent doing.

First steps and an action plan  

First steps can be scary, but they lead to incredible journeys. So take that step and decide which of the two paths you are going to take to bring work into the firm: ask for it, or attract clients. Don’t forget that a mix of both may be the most comfortable place to start.

Next develop an action plan. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Revisit your career plan: Revisit your career goals and rethink your plan. Either reconfirm or change your approach to success.
  • Focus on current clients: Concentrate on your current work. Enhance your working relationships, and engage your clients in more and new work. Never let these key relationships fade away.
  • Get out, get active: Get into the marketplace, become active with client-centric organizations, be around people who can hire you and your firm. Build a network.
  • Polish your skills: Brush up on the skills that enable you to present yourself and your ideas well. Concentrate on communication and business savvy.
  • Learn about marketing: Dig into your firm’s marketing and BD plans. Talk with your best “sellers” and learn from their successes.
  • Get help: Talk with your colleagues in the marketing/BD group; maybe get a mentor. Look both inside and outside your firm for resources.
  • Set goals: Set objectives for yourself. Be aggressive, but make each stage achievable. Identify what works and what doesn’t for you; grow and evolve your role and responsibility.

While “selling” does not need to be the only thing on your mind, you’ll benefit from moving it to a more prominent place in your work ethic and routine. Take heart; if you are now a successful design or construction professional, chances are you have what it takes to be a great seller/doer.

Scott Braley, FAIA, is principal of Braley Consulting & Training, helping design and construction firms in the areas of strategy, leadership, ownership, marketing, management and project management/delivery. He can be reached at info@braleyconsulting.com or by phone at (404) 252 9840 or 9854.

Image credits

Georgia Dome by Scott Braley, FAIA

ucumari photography via Foter.com

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