Change is good

January 2011 » Columns » PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE
John P. Bachner

My last “Risky Business” column was the last “Risky Business” column. Starting now, the column’s name is “Professional Practice.” Why the change? Because, truth be told, the civil engineering business is not that much riskier than any other professional service business. What makes civil engineering seem riskier is civil engineers. They have three strikes against them.

Strike one — Civil engineers are taught to be civil engineering professionals, not civil engineering businesspeople. The result: They know a lot about civil engineering and all too little about business in general and the professional service business in particular.

Strike two — Many civil engineers are ineffective communicators. Some, it seems, sense these deficits at an early age and find comfort in math and science, where a lack of expository skills doesn’t matter all that much; numbers do the talking.

Strike three — Many civil engineers have weak interpersonal skills, except when it comes to other civil engineers who want to talk about civil engineering. Regrettably, in the civil engineering business, most of the folks civil engineers deal with are businesspeople, administrators, “finance guys,” contractors (who may be graduate civil engineers but now live in a far different world), government officials, and so on. Those civil engineers who do not fit the stereotype — the gregarious extroverts — have a huge advantage over their less-outgoing brethren because the service business in general and the professional service business in particular are all about people.

In columns during the last nine years, I’ve addressed risk by identifying those business functions you need to know more about to perform better. However, professionals deal with risk avoidance in different ways. Take ASFE/The Geoprofessional Business Association, for instance.

ASFE began life as an organization committed to helping its member firms manage their risks, especially through contract provisions. The overriding goal was to delineate via contract who was and was not responsible for what. ASFE’s experience, gathered through numerous case histories, showed that being responsible for more, rather than less, reduced risk because it meant fewer communication gaps and less reliance on others whose attitudes and capabilities could be subpar.

Unfortunately, some geoprofessionals seem to display a “dark-side” mentality when it comes to risk. They focus on risk avoidance by relying on contracts and scopes of service that minimize their responsibility, believing that less responsibility results in less risk — a concept 180 degrees from ASFE’s. Plumping up billability by focusing only on work and sacrificing opportunities for establishing strong relationships with client representatives, contractor representatives, and others is wrong. Do it and you will fail in the professional service business.

Firms that buy into ASFE’s approach have lowered their risk exposures significantly, while building relationships that result in repeat business; client requests to open new offices and offer new services; recommendations and referrals from an array of construction industry friends and colleagues; and strong profits, among many other benefits. They have learned through experience that no business is, in some cases, far better than some business, given the clients involved, and that even high-risk projects are acceptable as long as they educate their client’s representatives and therefore obtain the scope of service required to make the risks less onerous.

Most important, technoprofessionals who are at ease in management don’t have to focus so hard on risk because effective risk management is an inherent component and outcome of effective business management. Their management skill frees them to formulate a vision for the future and put into place the planning required to get them there. Those who still focus mostly on risk lack such luxuries.

Can you learn what you need to learn to be an outstanding civil engineering business professional? Absolutely. In fact, the civil engineering approach to problem-solving is a key attribute of many business leaders (about two of every 10 Fortune 500 CEOs hold Bachelors of Science in engineering) and why so many Bachelor of Science, Civil Engineering graduates are recruited to businesses other than civil engineering. You need to learn about key business issues. You need to write better. And, of course, you need to speak better. Accomplish those things and you can take your civil engineering business wherever you want to take it, with less or no more risk than that posed by other service businesses.

John P. Bachner is the executive vice president of ASFE/ The Geoprofessional Business Association, a not-for-profit association of geoprofessional firms — firms that provide geotechnical, geologic, environmental, construction materials engineering and testing (CoMET), and related professional services. ASFE develops programs, services, and materials that its members apply to achieve excellence in their business and professional practices. He can be contacted at john@asfe.org.


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