A little less than a year ago I went to hear Seth Godin speak at the Warner Theatre. It was awesome. He was promoting his Linchpin book with a tour and the program was really entertaining, engaging, exciting and a ton of other adjectives that start with an E.
When I left the event, I was energized (I swear I’m not doing the E-word thing on purpose now), and couldn’t wait to implement some of the new ways of thinking about business and problem solving. However, by a little later in the evening when I was talking to my wife about the program, I couldn’t help but think, “If even half of the people in Warner Theatre were ACTUALLY linchpins, DC would be a changed place in no time.”
I mean no disrespect to my fellow attendees, but playing devil’s advocate, not everybody in that room was destined to be a linchpin. Not everybody has what it takes or there would be no “doers.” And just because we pay money to hear Seth speak (or buy his books) doesn’t mean we are going to leave that room and change the way we work, live, think, problem solve. Linchpins are rare.
Fast forward to today, literally earlier tonight. I’m playing indoor soccer with a group of friends in an organized league. Now you should know that I haven’t played organized soccer since I was about 13 and as I remember things, I used to be pretty good.
I am currently…not good. But that’s ok.
Even though I am entrepreneurial in spirit and always want to try to run things by nature, this has been a fantastic exercise for me in reminding me how to be a role player. I’m turning out to be a better sweeper (defense) than I expected, at least for now. More importantly, I’m learning how to settle into the team, do one thing and try to do it well. I’m finally feeling better about myself when I leave and I’m not scoring goals. I’m contributing something crucial for our team.
A great friend of mine emailed me last week and jokingly referred to his office as a great case study for the Peter Principle. I provided a link, but the brief explanation is that people continue to do their jobs well enough to get promoted, and then the cycle repeats – do well at your job, get promoted. The cycle continues until the person is finally promoted into a job where they fail, usually because they are promoted to a position that they aren’t qualified for and haven’t been properly prepared for their new responsibilities. Many businesses are filled with “Peters”.
While these three principles are really applied to individuals, I wanted to apply them to firm-wide behaviors and more importantly AEC firm brands for illustration purposes.
A firm that has a strong grasp on its brand and knows how to only pursue its strengths can be a linchpin in the industry. They can change the game, apply new technologies, dominate a particular type of project delivery because they know their clients intimately. They will get more opportunities to try the experimental or risky jobs because of their reputation. They will become known for being the best by doing something nobody has ever done, or by doing something others have done in a completely new way.
Firms that struggle with prioritizing their target audiences, chase any number of opportunities that come up and market only reactively are likely to become role players. Now sometimes a role player can be a strategic move (say you’re partnering to build a client relationship or experience in a new industry), but for the most part the role player will probably compete on cost, be included to fill the necessary number of bids, or sustain a book of business based on being the go-to firm for a few clients. They may actually be great at certain projects or industries, but won’t be able to capture a market leadership position because they are afraid to discount other clients or industries.
Finally, Peters can be the firms that focus on only one or a few industries but don’t continue to develop their staff for the next shift in the AEC community (tech shift, generational shift, project delivery shift). Similar to role players, existing long-term relationships are likely the only source of business, but eventually clients’ needs shift, competition increases and Peters can’t deliver the projects like they used to. Eventually, this pattern puts this type of firm in a scramble to get new work when relationships disperse or clients retire.
Do these three categories leave a little gray area? Sure. But I’m willing to bet that a high majority of firms are on the path of one of these with their brand and marketing efforts – how about your firm?