Archive for the ‘Firm Management’ Category

This week is Build Boston week in, well, Boston. Sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects (Boston’s local AIA chapter), it’s a week where architects from New England and beyond converge upon the city for a crash course in everything of interest in the profession and pick up their much coveted learning units along the way.

On Wednesday I had the pleasure (or was it self-inflicted torture) of sitting in on McGraw Hill’s 2010 Construction Outlook presented by VP of Economic Affairs, Robert Murray. I say torture only because of the often depressing data that was presented. The good news is things are getting better, the bad news – many of the things that are getting better are merely presenting in lower negative numbers. For example, in 2010 commercial building starts are expected to be at negative 4 percent, in 2009 that number was negative 43 percent.

Here are some  highlights I took away:

  • There’s lots of talk about new urbanism, smart growth and transit oriented development. As I enjoy the benefits of urban living every day I think these are all great things. However, the data is showing that it’s still the big box stores and single family residences that are getting built. I think it’s going to take a stronger economy before developers and banks are flush enough to return to funding more creative urbanistic projects.
  • Residential construction will start rebounding first, composed primarily of single family and small scale multi-family housing. This could be a nice boost for single architects that have decided to set up shop on their own after a layoff. Sole practitioners and/or small firms are more nimble by nature and can reap more from small fee jobs than the big firms can, putting the smaller guys at an advantage for long term success.
  • Having the knowledge and experience working with sites in need of environmental clean-up will be a strong competitive advantage as we see growth in spending resulting from stimulus funds distributed to the EPA, Corps of Engineers and DOE ($17.8 billion). In most cases previous matching requirements for cities and towns to take advantage of these funds will be waved. Money for the 2nd round of stimulus dollars needs to be allocated by March 2010.
  • Now is the time to be looking at transit oriented development as these projects will likely start breaking ground in 2011. However, as I stated in my first point, we need to look at ways to make these successful without relying on big box stores. To make TOD truly livable we need to be thinking lifestyle retail and take the gamble that this market too will come back. In Massachusetts we have Westwood Station as one of our TOD projects that has been put on hold. Robert noted that while this project started out incorporating a mix of lifestyle retail with a couple anchors, the developers are now looking to bring in more big box stores to help lift the project off the ground.

These are just some of the takeaways from 30 data laden pages of slides that were presented. If you’d like a copy of the presentation send me an email and I’ll be happy to share the document with you. Vconyngham [at] gmail [dot] com.


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annoyingI’m looking at doing a few different projects at my office. Each one requires the use of an outside vendor. I’ve dealt with salespeople before – hey, I’m in marketing, I’m part of the sales process. But this round has been different. I’m not sure if it’s bad luck or too many people reading too many books on sales processes, but I’ve come across a lot of annoying sales habits lately. I’m sharing my top 5 with you in hopes that you wont repeat the offenses.

My (current) top 5 annoying sales habits:

  • email read receipts – don’t give me an extra step in reading your email. I really don’t care to let you know that I’ve read your message, or deleted it.
  • Pick up the phone and call me if you have a question, but please don’t ask me to attend a web meeting in order to review something mundane. I don’t care about your sales process and looking at a contract via a web meeting just annoys me.
  • Don’t tell me that I need to make a decision today so that you can make your sales numbers for the month – you making your sales numbers is really of no interest to me. Remember, in this transaction I care about me, not you.
  • Emails sent front salesforce – it just makes you look like a sales weasel. Don’t make your tracking process obvious to me. It makes me feel like a number instead of a human being.
  • Don’t tell me what I need before you’ve asked me what problem I’m trying to solve – It makes you sound ignorant.

image credit: flickr user BarelyFitz’s

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3236829403_1c872dfe6aLast week I needed an employee to stretch the boundaries of her job function through a task that she was uncomfortable doing. We were in a desperate situation and she was the only one available for the task. If I was able to I would have taken the task over to alleviate her discomfort. But in retrospect, would that have been the best thing for either of us? There’s something to be said about discomfort. It usually happens when we’re in a situation that pushes the boundaries of our everyday, like when we’re tasked with something new at work that we have no prior experience doing. Discomfort is a important feeling. It’s when we’re uncomfortable that we’re growing. If you spend everyday at work being comfortable it’s likely that you’re not:

  • stretching your boundaries
  • learning anything new
  • bringing the highest value to yourself or your employer
  • or you’ve hit a professional growth roadblock

There have been many uncomfortable days in my past. But in each one, I faced my discomfort, figured out a game plan and learned from the experience. At the end of the day I was stronger, more confident and ready for another uncomfortable experience.

Image credit: Flickr user freebird (bobinson)

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Anniversaries are important, they can celebrate positive occurrences in life or mark challenges that have been overcome. They can be happy, sad, or filled with mixed emotions. They’re dates that we hold dear to us and should be celebrated, whether it’s a party or just a thought dedicated to the day.

Today is my one year anniversary with my employer. It will likely go unnoticed by everyone but me, which got me to thinking. Shouldn’t employers be celebrating their employees’ anniversaries? Especially in today’s economic turmoil where employee morale is at an all time low. I’m not suggesting extravagant celebrations, just a card or an email, something that says, hey, today marks x number of years with our company and we’re happy to have you here, glad for your contributions.

Today, to mark my anniversary, I will take my own advice and make note of all of those who work with me and begin recognizing their anniversaries.
Other notable occurances today – the founding of Boston 379 years ago and my father’s birthday – Happy birthday dad!

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ProtestI was reading an article on-line about Mayor Menino, Shirley Kressel and the Boston Redevelopment Agency. Shirley Kressel, a landscape architect, is a long time voice against the BRA and has been lobbying for its demise, as have the candidates running against Menino in Boston’s mayoral race. I have many opinions about the race, the candidates and the issues surrounding them, but I will not share them here. Instead, what I’d like to explore are the individual responsibilities we have to our employers when it comes to political activism, particularly those whose work is primarily in the public sector.

It’s reasonable to say that if you owned a design firm that was working with or hoped to secure work with a particular public agency you would not hire a candidate with a history of opposing your client/prospect. It just doesn’t make business sense. But what if you hired someone that had no obvious opinions about your clients/prospects, at least not initially, but then began publicly announcing, either through words or actions, that they held disdain for them? As an employer what are your options? Can you ask the employee to abstain from sharing their views on the client and/or prospect, even if it stifles their freedom of speech? Can you fire them if their activism becomes problematic in securing work from the client/prospect, without risking a wrongful termination lawsuit? And from the employee side, do you have an obligation to abstain from becoming involved in a political campaign/cause that has the potential to negatively affect your employer, even if it’s something your believe strongly in?

I imagine these questions will become more prevalent with the increasing adoption of social media. Social media gives everybody a (louder) voice while giving more controls to employers wanting to keep tabs on what their employees are up to outside of the office (which in itself brings up another ethics question – should employers keep tabs on employees’ personal lives just because the tools are available to do so?).

As information becomes easier to share and get it brings up new questions related to appropriate employer/employee relationships. If your firm starts thinking about them now so that there is a strategy (that’s been run through legal) in place your job will be easier when (if) you run into the questions posed above. And if you’ve already been in any of the above situations and have feedback you’d like to share, I’d love to hear it.

Image credit: Sniderscion on Flickr

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Setting goals

Setting goals – the tangible, reachable kind – is one of the most important things you can do for your business. A goal gives you something to focus on, and set in varying stages of complexity they allow you to map out a future for your company. Having a mix of long and short term goals helps a company and its employees to stay focused.

It’s easy for a firm to become so overwhelmed with the day to day that everyone becomes a master at production and so when a new project lands on the boards people start working immediately with no though to goals. No one asks – what’s the goal for this project? Is it to produce a 15 percent profit, to break even, but be well aligned for future projects or do you realize you’ll likely lose money on the project but you’re willing to take on the risk because it’s got the potential to be an award winner for your firm?

Starting with a goal in mind will help you to better align your marketing and business development efforts. A firm whose goal is to make a 15 percent profit on all projects will run differently and seek out different clients than a firm whose goal is to line its walls with award winning projects. Goals are individual and fluid; they can be changed or re-aligned over time. The key is in establishing your goals early. That’s what will position you for greater success down the road.

Image from flickr, by quasimondo

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Following is the text from an article I wrote for the Boston Society of Architects ChapterLetter. The article is geared toward the design community and how important it is to maintain a firm’s most important asset – its people, but the basis of the advice applies to any company.

An economic downturn can present a number of opportunities for the forward thinking firm, including developing your staff with free money from the state. The hurdle is the reduction in billable hours and what that means to a firm’s bottom line. Maintaining the right size staff is a challenge for any company in any industry. A balance needs to be achieved in billable hours and overhead and in slowdowns overhead is often first on the chopping block. Instead of reducing staff to the lowest level needed to complete the work in hand, it’s wiser to continue operating with the best staff to help a firm grow. That means keeping those employees with great promise, but minable projects in hand happily employed.

With more overhead hours available there’s more time for professional development, an often-overlooked benefit during times with heavier workloads and more demanding schedules. One way to use a downtime productively is to invest in new technology, such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) and the training it demands. And the silver lining is that many Massachusetts employers are eligible for training grants that can pay from 50 to 100 percent of an employee’s training costs.

Massachusetts has three types of grants available through its Workforce Development Fund. Grants include Express Grants, General Grants and Hiring Incentive Training Grants (HITG). Express Grants are limited to employers with 50 or fewer employees and pay 50 percent of an employee’s training costs within a year, up to $15,000 per applicant. Training courses must be chosen from a pre-approved list of courses registered with the state. Current pre-approved courses include classes on Solidworks and AutoCad; ArchiCAD BIM courses are pending approval and should be included among the pre-approved course list within the month. The grant application is simple and the turn-around time is quick.

General Grants are available to any size company and can be used toward courses of the applicant’s choice. Grant matches can be in-kind or cash and higher levels of grant money are available to companies creating significant job growth or higher levels of job retention. While General Grants can be generous and courses aren’t limited to a pre-approved list, the application process is arduous, requires a significant amount of preparation and can have a three to four month timeframe for approvals.

HITG Grants are available to companies hiring a person who has been unemployed for one year or permanently separated from his/her previous employer. These are the richest grants available from the perspective that there is no monetary employer contribution required toward the training, with the exception of paying the attendee’s wages during the training time. Applications must be filed within 30 days of a new hire’s start date and the application has a quick three day turnaround.

To learn more about Workforce Training Funds or to apply for a grant visit http://tinyurl.com/6lynna.

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