Veteran’s Day Musings on My Dad and what it means to be a Leader

A very young Robert Gruhn at the start of his military career.

A very young Robert Gruhn at the start of his military career.

My father, Col. Robert S. Gruhn, Sr. has been gone for more than a decade, but I think about him every day and am forever grateful for the lessons he taught me that continue to influence my work and relationships at home and in the office. I was fortunate to have an incredible role model, someone who pushed each of his children to be our best and give our best, without hesitation or reservation.

Having served in both WWII and in the Korean Conflict, Dad believed in the importance of committed leadership, of following the chain of command, being of service to one’s family and community, and the power of words over weapons. Wherever we lived, my parents made service a priority, dedicating countless hours to improving their community in a myriad of small and large ways, and they always had enough to share, whether dinner, a spare room, or free legal advice.

Being born long after Dad left active duty, I can’t say with confidence how he was a leader during either stint of active duty. But I can say with confidence that his 38 years of military service made him the man he was, honing his leadership skills and framing his perspectives on life, service, family, government, and business.

Dad married late, after his tours of active duty, to the love of his life, my mother. They went on to have five children. Yes, we did wake up to Reveille each morning at 06:00. We learned to play cards where the winner got out of KP duty for the night. And, I know how to make a bed so you can bounce a dime on it (something I never practice now). 

I grew up with stories of the coldest winter in Europe where soldiers shared blankets and body heat to stay warm, of creating a makeshift shower from a helmet, and of the joys of ice cream shared with the family dog upon arriving home. And, on many a weeknight, we ate ‘Shit on a Shingle’ as a favorite family meal. But, as an adult, I also heard different stories of horror and devastation created by nationalism and greed. I saw the decades-old tears from memories of landing at Normandy, liberating a concentration camp, and the loss of friends grown close through the common experience of war.

If I had to cast someone to play my Dad in a movie about his war years, I’d say (while shamelessly mixing generations) that he was more Tom Hanks than Clint Eastwood, leading with confidence and kindness rather than swagger and charisma. He was an intuitive mentor, helping others find the best in themselves and then pushing them to dedicate those talents to making the world better. He was unfailingly kind and gracious to a fault. He didn’t seek out the limelight, but enabled others to shine. And, when the tough jobs came, he was the first to volunteer and the last to leave.

With my mother, Dad was always active in one cause or another, whether organized by others or initiated in our kitchen. He was willing to put in the hard work to create change. He practiced law for more than 50 years, but the hours he seemed to enjoy the most were the pro bono work he did for social causes, whether working with my mother to protect an undeveloped coastline or to deliver public radio to a community. He spent the last years of his career volunteering as a museum lawyer, helping small museums protect the collections. And, he fought large and small battles for his children.

And, as a member of the Greatest Generation, Dad believed in being politically and socially active. He saw the political process as a means to improve the world, and as a result, he’d have hated the current environment. He’d have been marching alongside his kids, maybe even wearing a pink hat in protest of hate, division, and privilege.

As I read books and articles about leadership, written by academics and practitioners, I sometimes wonder what my father would have made of the competing of recommendations for how leaders are supposed to be and what they need to do. But, after a lifetime of watching and learning, I think I know: Leaders are at their best when situations and people are at their worst. They step up when most people step back. They lead from the front, taking risks to support and empower the people behind them. True leaders like my father remind us that leadership is not about the person; it’s about what the person does for others and with others to make the world a better place.

So, thank you, Dad. And, thank you to all the veterans who continue to show us daily what real leadership is. Thank you for your service, your sacrifice, and your commitment. I am grateful today and every day.

Seeking the Next Home Run: Using Metrics to Change BDM Processes

A huge thank you to all of you who attended SMPS presentations in Napa and Atlanta over the last month and a half. I enjoyed seeing so many friends and industry partners, both new and old. What fun it is to reconnect and remind ourselves that in the often-solitary work of proposals and research, we’re all fighting the same fights and working hard to deliver exceptional results for our respective clients and firms.

Last week I was honored to give the closing keynote at the Atlanta SMPS SERC conference. In a venue overlooking the new Atlanta Braves stadium, I spoke about the need for metrics in AEC business development and marketing. In the season of Spring training (in Mariners’ country, I like to call this the ‘Season of Hope’), linking sabermetrics to what we do in AEC marketing seemed particularly apropos.


The backstory of this presentation was that when my team at CRNW learned I was giving a presentation next to a baseball stadium, I was exhorted to watch “Moneyball” (no challenge there since it stars Brad Pitt) to learn more about sabermetrics (the search for objective knowledge about baseball through analysis of key metrics that enables teams to pick the right team versus invest in a single high-dollar player). The link between baseball and AEC marketing seemed clear. Just as in baseball, where savvy team managers have learned the importance of creating high-performing teams by combining players with the right set of skills under exacting conditions, firms seeking to improve their pursuit hit rates can create a winning combination of team members and conditions.

Part of the problem in making lasting change in AEC marketing is, in my view, the lack of measurable predictive analytics that would enable us to use past behavior/outcomes to predict future success. The problem with many good ideas in both organizations is that we lack the structure to objectively talk about behavior; when we can measure something, it’s easier to track—and talk about—performance. Absent metrics, in fact, many good ideas relative to streamlining work flows, making better go/no-go decisions, reducing the waste in our work, etc. need objective measures to help teams and their organizations make meaningful and lasting change.

I propose our organizations consider several objective measures around which to manage our work. These are still in process, and I’m interested in feedback. However, in an environment focused on lean practices in the design and construction marketplace, it is timely to be considering the use of metrics to guide our work in AEC business development and marketing. While making these metrics purely objective will be difficult, they may be a good start to informing the decision-making and team practices that guide our work in a way that more subjective processes have not.

  1. SERR = Strength of Early Relationship at RFP
  2. SLPR = Short-List Proposal Ranking
  3. SSPE = Speaker Skill Performance Evaluation
  4. RRSR = Repeat/Referral Selection Rate
  5. ACPM = Average Cost/Presentation Minute

What if we created an easy way to calculate the strength of the existing relationship? This ‘score’ could be used to inform the go/no-go as well as the design of the proposal and the development of a compelling interview. Perhaps by having a metric, firms would value early relationship development more and make it a priority, spending more time and resources in early positioning versus. wasting dollars on chasing work they can’t win.

Strength of Early Relationship at RFP (SERR)

SERR can be calculated using a series of yes/no questions, each awarding a predetermined number of points. I’m still working out the scale, but for consideration, following are some contenders that get us to an easily used five-point scale.

  • Have we had a meaningful interaction with key client decision-makers in the last six months? (Yes=2 point; No=0 points)
  • Have we been able to discuss the project with the client in a meaningful way before the RFP hits? And/or Did the client invite our team, either exclusively or as part of a select group, to the project? (Yes=1 point; No=0 points)
  • Do key members of the client organization know members of our team (those we’d propose for the work) by face and name? (Yes=1 point; No=0 points)
  • Has the potential client attended an event/conference, etc. with our team—and interacted with the team there in a meaningful way? (Yes=1 point; No=0 points)

I suspect that if firm leadership created a simple five-point scale using the questions above—or your own—and tracked them rigorously against both the conversion rate (proposal to short-list) and hit rate (presentation to award), they might realize the value of investing in client relationships as precursor to pursuits. While anecdotally, most leaders know the value of relationship development, but nonetheless push to pursue projects that are marginally winnable even with exceptional proposals and/or presentations. Perhaps by using data, even an imperfect scale, leadership would either push for greater investment in relationships or make fewer ill-advised go decisions.

Short-List Proposal Ranking (SLPR)

SLPR is fairly simple, relating to how proposals are ranked in the field of pursuit contenders. While oftentimes this is difficult to determine in the midst of a pursuit, when asked after-the-fact, many selectors are willing to disclose the ranking. In fact, if selectors are told why a firm wants the data (to track ROI and evaluate go/no-go decisions), I suspect many more might be willing to provide this information, even if just for the requesting firm.

Having not gathered this data industry-wide, I can only use conjecture from the thousands of interviews my firm has completed with owners across our almost 30-year history. It seems that a proposal that is ranked more highly  in the short-listing process has a greater likelihood of resulting in a team’s win. Of course, there may be a slew of intervening factors at play: skills and experience of the team, relevance of the portfolio, approach to the work, etc. However, I suspect that better written, more complete, and more visually compelling proposals outrank their lesser counterparts more often than not.

In our interviews, I frequently hear from selectors who commit the hours it takes to really read a firm’s proposal. While in competitive environments that yield more than a dozen proposals, reading every word may be impossible, it appears many selectors take their jobs as reviewers seriously and seek to honor the investments made by submitting firms. That said, savvy firms use every strategy to make proposal review easier, including design, organization, and emphasis, both visually and in the writing itself.

Speaker Skill Performance Evaluation (SSPE)

SSPE refers to the skills of individual speakers. While the combined skills and chemistry of a team is more important—most of the time—than an individual speaker, speaking skills do matter. Owners needs to have confidence that individual speakers can represent the project to stakeholders, constituents, regulators, etc. And, the selection of a team is a statement of confidence by a selection committee that the selected firm and its team leadership reflect the aspirations and values of the selecting institution.

While a talented coach can bring out the best in any speaker, nothing beats a team of skilled and competent speakers able to focus on content and creative, dynamic delivery versus remedial skill building. High-value speakers for any team are those who are skilled in vocal and non-verbal communication (posture, movement, sound), can develop differentiating and well-organized content, and can deliver extemporaneously and conversationally across contexts.

SSPE could be used to both evaluate individual speakers to enable earlier skill development and could help leaders balance speaker skills across a slate of presentation participants. For example, I could use the following analytics:

  • Ability to self-develop relevant and well-organized content
  • Ability to deliver content in compelling and conversational manner
  • Ability to work as part of an integrated speaking team
  •  Ability to adapt to changing interview conditions/requirements
  • Ability to present information clearly in an impromptu setting (relevant to Q&A)

If each potential participant were evaluated on a five-point scale, we could track the development of an individual over time, we could determine the right combination of speaker skills that more frequently lead to team success, and we could even balance skills/strengths across team members on a single speaking team.

More importantly, however, I offer the idea of an SSPE metric as a development tool, highlighting the skills speakers need to bring to the interview. This should spur their organizations to value professional development and growth. Effective speakers have both content development and delivery skills. Potential team members need training in both types of skills, as well as regular opportunity to practice. Because speaking skills are 100 percent learned behavior, future interview participants need regular, frequent, and endorsed opportunities to practice their craft, building confidence and competence over time.

Repeat/Referral Selection Rate (RRSR)

RRSR refers to the win rate on projects for repeat or referral clients. While many firms track their repeat/referral work, few track their pursuits in this context. To state the obvious, the win rate for this type of pursuit should be very high. In both politics and pursuits, it’s hard to beat a well-regarded incumbent. Unfortunately, for many teams, they are not maintaining strong client relationships at the very time they have the greatest access to their client. A low win rate for repeat/referral clients suggests problems in project execution and/or ineffective relationship development or management.

Calculating RSR should be relatively easy and objective. Categorize each pursuit into one of two ‘buckets’: Clients for whom we have performed similar work or related projects within the previous ten years. Clients for whom we have no previous work/contractual relationship. Calculate both your firm’s conversion rate and hit rate for both types. If firms are doing all they should to build and maintain strong relationships with existing clients, the conversion and hit rate should be significantly higher for repeat clients.

Some firms are clearly better than others in developing and maintaining strong relationships with their clients, both during the project and after completion. During the project, firm leadership should make relationships a priority, setting aside time and resources for regular check-ins and, when necessary, course corrections. After the project is over, clients with whom a firm wishes to maintain a strong relationship should also be prioritized, with champions assigned and performance managed. Unfortunately, for most of us, while we are fully engaged during the project, making time for relationship management after the project is challenging. Successful firm leaders empower their team members to maintain relationships and, in some cases, reward them for keeping client relationships strong and relevant.

I believe all firms should have a robust client research program to identify issues, inform both macro and micro project and client decisions, and enable leadership to make course corrections in processes, tools, and even teams. If well-designed and implemented by mature internal champions, client perception programs can be managed in-house. Firms can also look to external resources for objective and timely data gathering and reporting.

Average Cost/Presentation Minute (ACPM)

Finally, the metric I use most often to inform my work as a presentation coach is ACPM.  While the rest of the metrics above deal with broader issues of positioning, go/no-go decisions, professional development, and client retention, this metric is useful for changing behavior in a single interview. From a utility standpoint, I find this one the most useful for transforming how teams and individual speakers evaluate content and make decisions relative to emphasis, timing, and visuals.

For larger firms spending bid dollars on significant pursuits, the ACPM across presentations is often staggering, upwards of $3,500 per minute (average length of an interview = 30 minutes; average cost of a major pursuit = $100,000). For smaller firms or different markets, this number is, of course, lower, but even considering a range of $1,000 to $3,500 highlights the importance of a single minute. I use this metric to emphasize the value of what each speaker says in each minute, usually in an attempt to move speakers off of reminding a client why they are excited (or passionate or committed) about the project or away from spending multiple minutes reminding a client of their firm’s history.

If every minute in the interview is valued the sameand each has a high value—then team members should make better decisions about content and delivery. Teams and team members should embrace lean in their development and delivery, eliminating waste and maximizing value. By stripping out the content that is low impact and by honoring the firm’s investment in the presentation by coming to each meeting prepared and practiced, team members reduce the cost per minute and return value to their firms by way of a higher hit rate.

Leading Effective Change

After nearing three decades in the industry, I think it’s time to rethink how we encourage firm leadership to change entrenched and ineffective pursuit processes. Anecdotal evidence of the efficacy of different strategies suggests the strategies I’ve outlined above work. However, using objective and quasi-objective pursuit metrics, tracked over time, would enable firm leaders to see how changed behavior impacts the hit rate and ultimately, the bottom line. Pursuit metrics can enable firm leadership to see the impact of changes in both processes and behaviors.

Just as sabermetrics transformed how many ballclub managers think about baseball, our firms may be able to use pursuit metrics to change how our leaders and our teams think about pursuits. Star players will continue to be valued across organizations, but in the long season of both baseball games and AEC pursuits, finding the right combination of players and strategies across games can be a more effective strategy in the long run.

Roses in the Vineyard: Marketers as the Vintners of Pursuit Health

This week, I’m thrilled to present some new ideas about proposals and presentations to my clients and colleagues at the SMPS Pacific Regional Conference in Napa. Given the location, there are a lot of presentations, mine included, using a wine theme. But, that’s okay; wine works….for so many things.

Going through high school in eastern Washington, I came to love the dry, arid climate and the rolling hills, many of which are now covered by vineyards. What I didn’t know at the time is these nascent vineyards would grow the Washington wine industry into the second largest in the country (behind California) and producing some of my favorite wines (thank you, Leonetti Cellars!).

If you’ve been wine tasting, and I highly recommend you do (note: this is different than the celebratory bottles we open and guzzle sip at the conclusion of a particularly difficult proposal), you’ll notice something interesting about vineyards. In many vineyards, at the ends of the rows of vines are rose bushes, beautiful spots of color in the palette of brown and green.

I actually worked as a grape harvester for a season in college (best job….ever!), and I do know that few things in a wine making operation are purely for aesthetics. Roses in vineyards serve multiple functions. Yes, they are beautiful, but they were originally planted as early harbingers of disease and because they both attract bees for pollination and provide habitat for beneficial bugs.

These roses are a lot like marketing professionals. As marketers, we don’t create the technical content, but we do ensure our firms are set up for success in the BD/Marketing process, create compliant and compelling content in proposals and presentations, and coach our teams toward many a project win.

So what makes a great wine? I’m not a connoisseur, but my mother used to make wine in the basement, so I’m practically an expert. Fine wine comes from good grapes grown under favorable conditions under the nurturing of a talented vintner who coaxes the right mixture of flavors through careful additions and an exacting process. Sounds like most successful pursuits I’ve been involved with in the past 35 years.

The right grapes are the right team members who bring the right portfolio to win – and deliver – the project. They have knowledge of the project and the client’s needs; they are passionate about the project type, the client, and/or the delivery method. They bring strong writing and/or speaking skills, and they are coachable, able to work as part of a well-choreographed team. When we don’t have good ‘grapes’ it’s almost impossible to create a winning proposal and/or presentation. Firms that are thoughtful about matching people and portfolio and who value training, professional development, and coaching are ones that consistently deliver the right ‘grapes’ to the pursuit process.

The right climate is a supportive organization that values performance in the proposal and interview; leaders choose pursuits carefully in a rigorous Go/No Go process, and always choose investing in developing quality pursuits over quantity. Markers support a favorable climate by providing project, client, and context research. Team leaders participate in early client engagement. The firm values industry and targeted positioning to establish the optimal climate for a future win.

The right additives can make a difference in the success of a pursuit. While I was surprised to learn about the addition of beet sugar to up alcohol content or the introduction of sulfur to control wild yeasts, it makes sense. Sometimes having the right grapes isn’t enough. We’ve all worked on pursuits where we struggled to get a talented team of the right experts to deliver the content and/or the delivery required for a strategic win. Over the years, I’ve learned the value of being an outside coach and the importance of partnering with internal leadership to ensure consistent and quality engagement by team members. And, sometimes the best addition to the mix is the meaningful engagement of one of our outside consultants or subcontractors who bring a perspective from outside the organization.

The vintner is the presentation coach and/or pursuit champion. As a coach, I’ve been honored to work on multiple winning pursuits. In fact, as I write, I was just notified of a $40 million win with a talented team of contractors who eagerly embraced a rigorous, creative way to design and deliver strategic content (yea, team!). However, as much as I  love to help winning teams, at this stage in my career, I’m enjoying transferring coaching knowledge more, creating vintners in many of my client organizations who are able to distill content from their teams, helping their proposals and interviews be both compelling and compliant.

So, to all you roses out there: What marketers do is critical to the success of a high performing organization. We aren’t window dressing, and we don’t just create ‘pretty’ proposals. Our work creates the climate for a successful pursuit; our care of the team during the critical stages of message ‘ripening’ creates the quality experience our audiences expect.

This conference and the SMPS organization is great fertilizer for me – and I hope for my marketing colleagues – to share ideas, give and receive support, and be inspired. I’m looking forward to presenting, listening, learning, and drinking some wine as we celebrate the pursuit roses in our marketplace.

Moving Through Writer’s Block

At some point in our professional lives, each of us will experience some form of writer’s block – or speaker’s block, and it will be painful, fattening, and unproductive. Sometimes our block comes from being too busy as in “I’ve been too busy to even think about a blog much less write one,” or because we don’t know what to write as in “I don’t understand what they’re asking for in this RFP,” or because we just don’t want to write what we’ve been asked to write as in “Surely someone with more background in this topic can figure this out…”

So, what’s a talented, but blocked professional to do? After you’ve raided the kitchen and eaten half a package of Oreos (a tactic I’m not proud to admit trying on more than one occasion), following are some more productive, and certainly healthier, alternatives. These strategies are not designed to create a superior document, but rather to get a writer started by having content to consider and evaluate. Sometimes they result in a working draft for a document, other times in a more logical exploration of ideas I can use to frame a future document.

Just do it. This is not an attempt to parody a Nike ad, but rather the truth. In a book I just read, when faced with an epic challenge, the protagonist recognized that ‘the only way through it is through it.’ I use this a lot, recognizing that as much as I don’t want to write a document, the only way I’m going to get started is if I actually get started. Sounds simple, and in reality, it is, but it seems so hard.

Write the first line, then the second, then….and see where you are after you’ve written for a while. Don’t worry about the quality of each sentence, nor if each sentence flows seamlessly from its predecessor. Just write.

Let’s be clear, this will not transform you from blocked writer to ‘great American novelist.’ Rather, it will simply get some ideas down so you can see them. Being on paper doesn’t mean good or done; it just means you’ve got something written on paper. The result of this exercise is what we politely call a ‘visual brainstorm’ or a ‘data dump.’ You are free to fill in another metaphor more appropriate to what you actually write down.

You can also start with a topic sentence (sometimes called a ‘central claim’) that synthesizes your content into a single statement of truth as in “Because today’s employees can work from anywhere, we must design workspaces that are both flexible and accommodating.” Then, ‘draw’ content pathways from your claim to see where the content takes you. Different from traditional brainstorming, this method of breaking through writer’s block pushes you to consider different directions on a topic without investing significantly in any one path.

Conducting this exercise on the computer is fast, enabling me to quickly spew a range of ideas upon the page from which I can pick and choose. I can quickly visualize what I know–and sadly, sometimes what I don’t know –to ‘prime the pump’ for the real writing to come. I’ve also found it useful to engage in this exercise on a whiteboard or large sheet of paper, physically drawing links between ideas, crossing out those that don’t bear fruit, and expanding others. As a visual learner, I find the combination of a large board and different colors of pen spurs my creativity and enables me to see linkages and content ideas or direction that I couldn’t see on the computer screen.

Whatever method you choose, a visual brainstorm will show you a pattern of content from which you can develop a logical outline for writing better content. Or, it will help you realize that you don’t know enough to write what it is you’ve been asked to write. This either means that you’ve got a wrong topic, or that you’re the wrong person to be writing about it. For example, when recently asked to write a proposal section for a client, it took me starting a section before I realized that the client hadn’t supplied me with the information I needed to complete the assignment. I wouldn’t have realized that until I actually applied ‘pen to paper’ (or in my case, fingers to keyboard). Only by getting started can you realize what you know and what you don’t know.

Even for those of us who write for a living, writers block happens, and when it happens, it can be professionally challenging and personally frustrating. There are no surefire ways to prevent it, but there are ways to work through it.

For me, there’s a quote from one of America’s greatest writers, Maya Angelou, that pushes me forward, What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”

New Year, New Commitments - You In?

In response to the ill political winds of the previous year, Communication Resources committed to donating a significant amount of staff time to charitable and community causes in 2017. When we made our commitments, I promised to write about what we did, so in the spirit of keeping that part of our 'deal', I’m reflecting on what we did last year and where we still need to go in the coming year.

Our volunteer work and giving this year focused on programs that support community and enhance family and social connections.

Interactive installation at the BattleGround Public Library: A conversation between parents and Kids.

Interactive installation at the BattleGround Public Library: A conversation between parents and Kids.

Our team donated almost 100 hours to Battle Ground’s Prevention Alliance to support a broad-based community outreach campaign designed to encourage kids and parents to talk about drug and alcohol abuse. Noah Pylvainen led our efforts for the Alliance, designing the Talking Points campaign to spur positive conversations among teens and parents. The campaign included a broad range of collateral materials and support of several of the Alliance’s community events. Research has found kids who learn about the effects of drugs and alcohol from their parents are 50% less likely to use drugs or alcohol than those who do not. Talking Points is designed to make these conversations easier and more regular.

Talking Point Logo.jpg

Our team also continued our long-term support of Housing Hope in Snohomish County. Housing Hope has created a successful model based on stable housing that moves families into economic sustainability. Laine Potter continued her years-long work with the organization that started with rocking babies and where she now serves on HH’s Resource Development Council. Our entire team assisted by providing time and dollars to support annual fundraising programs. Mike and I were also pleased to be a part of the original investment team for the HopeWorks Station project in Everett as it moves from concept to reality in the coming year.

In 2017, we exceeded our time and resource commitment. But, more importantly, what’s next? After this year, we learned how hard it is to sustain charitable giving and volunteering over the long haul, particularly as we serve clients and ‘feed’ our growing practice. Community giving takes a dedicated focus and team members who are willing to champion our efforts.

This year, I’m committing to continuing our efforts on behalf of local organizations and causes that support both communication and community. Internally, we’re going to talk more about charitable giving and volunteering, and we’ll make both a more regular part of staff discussions. And, I’m designating a team champion to coordinate all of our efforts. It’s not enough to make the commitment; we need to designate the time and develop the internal infrastructure to support that commitment.

At a time when corporations are given tax breaks while private citizens are hurting, all of us who own businesses need to either step up or continue to step out in front of community giving. So, here’s our commitment and (in the spirit of the week’s political tweetstorm), my challenge for 2018:

I’ve got a ‘charitable giving button’ on my desk that I’m going to push frequently to support important programs in our state and our community. It’s huge, and it works! We’ll give the value of 40 hours/ full-time employee this year to our community. I challenge each of my colleagues across the industry to do the same. Let’s see what we can do together to support the communities in which we work and live. Game on!


A Tale of Two Emails

I received the nicest email yesterday afternoon. The email was a form ‘letter’ from a State of Washington agency to which my team and I had submitted a proposal. The short note thanked me for submitting, acknowledged how much work the proposal had certainly taken, and apologized for a delayed decision. It provided a date when the decision would be made and let me know what to expect in the process. For some reason, this short note made me feel good, that my work mattered, and that the man at the other end of the email really did care about the impact his words and his agency’s actions have on my organization. Uncharacteristically, I actually sent a short reply thanking him for his email and letting him know his ‘nicety’ had made a difference in my day.

Compare this to the email I received this morning. This email was another mass email asking me to submit a proposal to a local county for a project that looked quite enticing. The difference is that we aren’t interested in responding for this project—or for any project with this agency. About a year ago, my team and I submitted another proposal. We’d made the requisite phone calls, researched the project, wrote a responsive proposal, and even drove out to the peninsula from our office in Mill Creek (a four-hour round-trip journey) to hand deliver it.

It wasn’t the fact that we weren’t selected that bothered me and caused me to hit delete after reading today’s email. What still ‘sticks in my craw’ is the officious and cold letter I received almost six weeks after we submitted our proposal after I’d left a voice message requesting information about project status. Despite this individual having sent me a personal email asking me to submit, having had several conversations about his agency’s interest in working with us, I received a form letter, not addressed to me nor even coming to my email but delivered to our info@ address. The letter was brief and to the point, letting ‘to whom it may concern at Communication Resources’ know that we had not been selected for the ‘aforementioned project’. I decided then and there that I’d hit ‘delete’ any time an RFP or request solicitation came from this individual or agency.

How we deliver information matters and how we make requests matters. Having served in both City and County government, I’m very aware of the time constraints on public servants. I’m also keenly aware as a consultant how much time and effort goes into the average proposal, even those when a procurement officer has tried to make the process as easy as possible. The average proposal, even a short one takes an organization 50—100 hours to analyze, write, edit, design, proofread, and produce a document that will be responsive to the prompts, reflect the character and quality of your organization, and that respects the unique nuances of the project. That’s about $10,000 for a small organization, much more for a larger organization on a more complex project.

For most of my A/E/C clients, the average cost of a proposal is between $20,000 and $50,000. For any sized organization, this does not count the cost of business development, industry outreach, collateral development, and the maintenance of an overhead function within the organization. With overworked marketing departments, principals writing into the wee hours of the morning to get proposals out between client and project requirements, and ever challenged budgets, two things must happen: our firms need to get smarter about what we pursue and our clients need to be more thoughtful about what they ask for and who they ask.

I’ve written and spoken before about making effective Go/No Go decisions as being the most important thing any organization can do to positively influence its hit rate. Today, however, my message is more direct: I think we need to augment our Go/No Go decisions to consider the ways in which our potential clients procure work and make requests for proposals or bid. We need to push our clients and potential clients to consider the cost of the pursuit and the adverse impact on businesses that their actions in the procurement process may have.

I have three requests to potential clients, particularly those in the public sector:

  1. Take time to write your RFP document in a way that is clear, concise, and direct. Only request information that you need to make a good decision. Read your document and ask yourself how much time it would take your agency—and you in particular—to respond to this request. Read it again to make sure the requested information is not redundant and that the prompts are clear to the reader as to what exactly you request. Align your page limitations to the realities of the questions you’ve asked. Simply asking for a ten-page proposal is not enough; you have to limit the questions to enable a writer to fit what you’ve asked for in that space.
  2. Only short-list firms you really would consider for the work. And prior to that, don’t lead a marketer or firm principal on who calls you for information, wanting to know if their firm or team might be competitive. I know there are procurement rules that limit what you can say. But, make sure the RFP and your comments about the RFP make it really clear what you will and what you won’t accept as minimum qualifications.
    For example, I’ve worked with smaller construction firms struggling to get noticed in my state’s relatively new GC/CM procurement environment (Washington State’s version of construction management at risk procurement). They’d been encouraged by friendly procurement representatives to throw their hat in the ring, told that indeed their negotiated work portfolio would be enough, only to find out in the debrief that their lack of specific GC/CM experience kept them from being awarded the work. This after spending tens of thousands on the proposal and another huge sum on the interview.
  3. And, when you must write the inevitable letter or email telling a firm they have not been awarded the work, be specific, gracious, and kind. Thank the firm for taking the time and making the investment in the pursuit. Address the individual who signed the proposal letter directly and make sure the firm’s name is spelled correctly. Acknowledge the significant effort of the people who wrote the response and participated in the interview. Remember, you may not have selected this team or firm for the current project, but you want them, and their colleagues from other firms, to consider your agency for future pursuits.

If agencies really do support small business, and business in general, they will think carefully about the incredible expense it takes to compete for their work. And, they will align their practices to truly be supportive of those businesses. While my requests may not make a difference, I hope they get read by an owner or procurement officer or two. I think it’s time for agencies and organizations to recognize that it is in their best interests to rethink their procurement practices, returning to a more intentional way of asking for proposals or presentations and a more gracious way of doing business.

My clients and colleagues, and my own team, need to remember that the way we are treated in the procurement phase is likely a good predictor of how we will be treated when working on the project. For example, my team and I are working for a wonderful client in the Seattle area, one who values our team’s work and who reminds me on a regular basis that we are a valued part of their team. I think back to what happened in the procurement process. What sticks out is when my team delivered the proposal to the front desk, the security guard called up to the main office and the Director of Operations came down personally to thank my team for submitting. He was charming and gracious. In the interview process, the selection committee was welcoming and interested, and they had carefully read our proposal. How they were in the selection process paralleled exactly how they are to work with on projects.

I’m certain most agencies and organizations want highly qualified teams and firms to compete for their work. So, as teams, we need to be more selective, not just for the project for which we complete but the people who make the request who are the first and most visible representative of the culture of the organization. I’m advising my clients, and my own organization, to make the procurement practices of the agencies with which we work matter a great deal in our business development and marketing decisions.

So, let me send an anonymous shout out to the representative who sent me the nice email about the status of your agency’s procurement process—and who is very likely not reading this blog. (I’ll send it to you after you make a decision.) Thank you for being gracious. Thank you for writing an incredibly clear RFP document, one that minimized our time and maximized our ability to think creatively about your work. Thank you for keeping us informed. As of this writing, I don’t know if we’ll get the chance to work together, but I do know that my team really wants to work with you and your team—as much for how you treated us in the marketing process as for the scope of your project.

A Celebration of Friendship: Barbara Falconer 1954-2017

Yesterday morning, the AEC community lost a marketing star, and I have lost a dear friend. Barbara Falconer and I met each other many years ago at a two-day marketing workshop at SmithGroup. With children of the same age and an affinity for all things dramatic, Barbara and I became instant friends, and we sustained a long-distance friendship for more than 20 years. We shared space under a desk during the 1998 Seattle earthquake, and we coached each other through raising children as working moms, career shifts, project recovery, and more proposals than any two marketers should admit to writing.

Barbara reminds me of the importance of the relationships we build with each other in this field. We stay up late together writing, drawing, collating, and editing. We celebrate when our teams win, and we cry when they don’t. We share our work stress, and we advise each other through the inevitable challenges in each of our lives and careers. For those of us who are lucky, our friendships are deep and permanent. We come in and out of each other’s lives, and we share our dreams, our insecurities, and our aspirations in intense spurts of activity and more sustained periods of support.

Barbara was the calm voice on the other end of the phone, my work wife, and my partner in crime. She taught me how to make chocolate chili, and she shared her incredible family in Chicago with me. As recently as two months ago, Barbara and I were planning a spa weekend and looking forward to catching up in person. We thought we’d have more time.

I was so fortunate to spend time with Barbara before she passed, and I got to tell her how much I love her and how much her friendship has meant to me. I am forever grateful to her husband and children for welcoming me into that sacred space and time. Even in the last week of her life, Barbara shared her irreverent sense of humor; we laughed, sang (badly), and cried. Our friendship was honest and true; she reminded me to be my best, and I hope I did the same for her.

In honor of Barbara, I celebrate the friendships in our lives, the people who make a difference in our worlds and who stick with us through thick and thin, who weather the changes in our industry and in our lives, who get older with us and who intertwine their stories with ours in so many ways. Ours is an industry of storytellers, and Barbara was the best of us.

Keep the light on for us, Barbara, and rest well.

Father’s Day: Relationship Rules from Meg’s Dad

In honor of Father’s Day this past Sunday, I’d like to share some insights about relationships, writing, and communication from my mentor and father, Robert S. Gruhn.  Dad was an attorney practicing labor law for more than 50 years in addition to volunteering legal advice and services to a variety of public agencies and museums around the Puget Sound.  He was an old-school attorney, focused on helping his clients preserve relationships and reputation.

Dad had three rules he lived by and that he taught his children and clients:

  1. Never write anything you wouldn’t want read back to you in court.  This is sound advice in any context, particularly in this age of rapid email and social media that gives little time for contemplation and the development of a cogent, well-thought-out line of reasoning.  We should all think before we hit send, avoid use of the “reply all” button, and write each email or post as if our words could come back to us in some form, some day.

    In fact, my Dad took this “rule” a bit further in reminding us that there was one reader worse than any court of law, and that was my mother.  He reminded me never to write anything I wouldn’t want my mother to read.  Oddly, this was not because of the obvious maternal consternation over content, but because my mother is a linguist.  As a result, I am more careful than most to proofread carefully, and to avoid mistakes in grammar and punctuation.
  2. Never do or say anything that might welcome the unwanted attention of the Coroner.  This piece of advice caused me no small amount of confusion when younger, but as I age, it makes perfect sense. Dad was trying to tell me to be aware of the repercussions of my behavior, even behavior that didn’t seem all that dangerous at the time.  He wanted me to think before I act, not to make me afraid of risk, but rather to consider the consequences and make sure I was willing to pay the price for my actions.  Again, sound advice. What if in business, leaders considered both the short and long-term consequences, for their organizations and employees, of the actions they take or recommend? 

    We should all take the long view, understanding how our corporate actions impact the world around us, including employees, clients, and stakeholders.  We should consider the risks, weigh them carefully, and then act with clear knowledge of risks, costs, and benefits.  In other words, we should “own” our decisions and be responsible for our actions.
  3.  Always preserve the relationship because in the end, that’s all that matters.  Dad was known as a ‘gentleman lawyer’, one who wisely advocated communication over litigation.  And, because he chose his battles wisely, when he did have to go to court, he rarely lost.  Over the years, I’ve learned that my Dad was right; relationships matter, and we can win more in business through talking and negotiating than we can through steadfastly arguing for our own point of view.

    Dad taught me how to look at conflict from different perspectives; he believed that everyone has a point of view and everyone deserves to be heard, no matter how strange or unconventional their perspectives seem at the time.  As a partnering and facilitation consultant, I’ve found this to be particularly true:  team members come to projects with a broad range of perspectives and needs.  If we take the time to listen and seek to build understanding of real needs and expectations, we can avoid conflicts and build stronger, more positive relationships across the duration of any project.

I’m a lucky daughter.  Though Dad passed away eight years ago, I get to remember him through his wise words every day (and through the 22 boxes of law books still in my garage).  By passing his advice on to teams around the Country, I’m helping him continue his goals of preserving relationships, building stronger teams, and keeping people out of the courtroom by negotiating in the boardroom.

Stop ‘Spamming’ Your Proposals!

Stop ‘Spamming’ Your Proposals!

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks reviewing proposals for a number of my clients. We’re helping some write better boilerplate, and I’ve performed emergency surgery on several proposals in advance of quick-turn deadlines. After several late nights, I continue to be amazed at how generic most proposal content is, and how often we miss opportunities for grabbing our audience’s attention in most marketing documents. Most proposals in our industry are too long, uninspiring, and difficult to navigate. 

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Leaning Pursuits: A Case for Change

FACT: The average team spends about $3,500 a minute to present their qualifications and approach for a project to a selection committee. When you add up the business development, marketing, and team costs to get in front of the committee, this figure is certainly much higher for larger or more complicated pursuits. When we consider the cost of a pursuit this way, all of us in the design and construction community—both owners and design/construction professionals—should start thinking differently about how we work. Simply, it’s time to ‘Lean’ the pursuit process.

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