A cold wind blows

April 2007 » Columns
In the constantly changing world of "what’s happening now," what was and what used to be is of diminishing import to what matters next.
David M. Wahby

Dear Dave,
I worked for the federal government for 30 years as a civil engineer/project manager until a recent headquarters reorganization eliminated all civil engineering positions in an agency that uses most of its funding for construction-related grants. To remain employed within the agency for the sake of maximizing the retirement benefits that I invested 30 years of my life to earn, I agreed to accept an alternate position as a management analyst.

My engineering supervisors of many years took buyouts and retired, and I ended up working for a newly hired, glorified financial analyst. Within a short period of time after her arrival, she decided everything was "my way or the highway," which included job performance evaluation criteria that included checking all e-mail received, every hour of every day. Frankly, while doing that may be important to some jobs in today’s world, I failed to see this as anything more than an unnecessary and continuous distraction that delayed completion of priority projects and was imposed to enable management to harass career employees into accepting retirement offers.

Please let me know if I’m wrong and if you believe that imposing such requirements as evaluation criteria for professional employees is other than I’ve considered it to be. Have you ever heard of other professionals whose job performance was based in part on such "critical" evaluation criteria?

P.S.: I decided to politely retire without saying out loud, "Take this job and …"
Name and state withheld

Dear Engineer,
Being of your generation, your e-mail weighed heavily on me. Sadly, it is not a question of right or wrong, it’s a simple testament to the times we live in—the constantly changing world of "what’s happening now." A world where what was and what used to be is of diminishing import to what matters next. Ask countless displaced manufacturing workers how they feel. Ask the thousands of middle-aged managers cut loose from life-long careers in corporate America what they think. Do I like it? No more than you.

While you and I, my friend, may be too far along to change much, the most honest advice I can give to people earlier in their careers (which I’ve given to my own kids ad nauseam) is to depend exclusively on yourself. It is foolish to trust your future to anything or anyone other than "Me, Inc." You, and you alone, are responsible for your destiny. Want to stay safe and secure? Then invest heavily with your own personal time, money, and energy in a process of continuous re-invention to remain relevant (and therefore in high demand) in this rapidly changing world. The re-invention I urge transcends the classic boundaries of professional development to include social skills, the arts, technology, your physical health, philosophy, and politics. In other words, stay edgy, stay young. To do otherwise makes one too vulnerable, and more likely to be shunt aside when the next new wave hits shore.

As old-timers, you and I may howl at the moon all we like, but if the current regime determines returning e-mails hourly is the be all and end all for determining value, either you return e-mails on the hour as well or better than anyone else, or take advantage of your investment in "Me, Inc.," and move on to the next opportunity. If you’ve done the work and have the proper skill sets, there will always be another next opportunity. Fortunately, the basic economic laws of supply and demand are alive and well.

Probably the last thing you wish to do after 30 years in the same position is begin anew, but with the current shortage of civil engineering talent, I would imagine you would have very little difficulty in finding a full- or part-time position in the private sector should you someday decide retirement is not to your liking. Best wishes and good luck.

Free Fall
Dear Dave,
The Michigan economy has caught up with our firm, and our workload has bottomed out. We are civil engineers and surveyors working predominately on residential site projects. In 25 years, we have never had to market ourselves because we have enjoyed long-lasting relationships with a loyal group of builders and developers. Now it seems that price is everything for what little work still exists. What do we do now?
K.L., Mich.

Dear K.L.,
There is no quick fix. You’ve arrived at your current state not just because of the frail Michigan economy, but more insidiously and long term, because it is the fundamental way many businesses are heading—where price increasingly trumps long-term relationships. With a diminished amount of work available, your choices are limited to extending new lines of services to existing clients, finding new clients by taking market share away from others, or moving to a new geographic market. The key to any of these choices is effectively marketing to generate a greater quantity of higher-quality opportunities to make sales.

Especially in a consulting firm, effective marketing is not the job of specific individuals over defined periods of time, but rather the application of the key principles of marketing by everyone at your firm at all times. To thrive, you need to ingrain a marketing culture at your firm. This involves awareness, then training, then the consistent application of marketing practices until they feel completely natural and are second nature to all. It will take time, but in the long run you will be better for the effort.

David M. Wahby is president of Wahby & Associates (www.wahby.com), a management consulting firm serving A/E clients. He can be reached at 616-977-9756 or via e-mail at wahby@wahby.com.


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