In his bestselling book, Good to Great, Jim Collins emphasizes the importance of people to an organization by using a bus analogy. He encourages companies to focus on “getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” In the engineering world today, there seems to be an abundance of seats on the bus, each with their own important sounding job titles: Junior Engineer, Engineer, Engineer II, Project Engineer, Associate, Senior Associate, Vice President, Principal, etc. etc. Despite all of these confusing titles, the essential functions of any successful firm can be narrowed down to three key roles: the Rainmaker, the Manager, and the Technician. Let’s look at each one individually and compare the critical parts that they play in keeping the bus on the road.
The Rainmaker. Among Native American cultures, the Rainmaker is the medicine man who, by rituals and incantations, makes it rain. In dry climates, rain brings life to people by providing food and water. In the corporate environment, the Rainmaker is the person who, by networking and building relationships, makes it rain new work. In competitive business climates, new work provides a steady source of revenue for the people tied to an organization. The Rainmaker’s job is selling. He or she sells professional services to a diverse clientele that is willing to exchange money for the assurance that their project will be in good hands.
Some engineering firms try to make it without a Rainmaker. For bringing in new work, they rely solely on their good reputation, repeat business, and word of mouth. This strategy can create a false sense of security when times are good and their services are in high demand; but these fair-weather firms are the first to cut salaries and layoff staff when the economy starts to level off. It is only through consistent business development efforts, during both good times and bad, that a company is able to maintain a steady and diversified backlog of high quality, profitable projects. Rainmakers are the fuel in the bus that keeps a company moving forward.
The Manager. Most often referred to as a Project Manager, the term becomes redundant when one considers that projects encompass every essential function that can be managed in an engineering organization. From the scheduling of submittals to the collection of fees, everything of any real value is ultimately tied to a project. Without projects, engineering companies die. Without good Managers to oversee these projects, the death is a slow and painful process. Managers keep a company on track through the effective oversight of revenue-generating projects.
Good engineering Managers are a rare breed. They are almost as scarce as engineering Rainmakers. Many times, engineers are promoted to the role of Project Manager simply because there is a need and he or she is available to fill it. However, the effective management of tasks, clients, schedules, and budgets is not something taught in engineering schools. Managers need to be technical experts in their chosen field, yet at the same time be skilled in organization and interpersonal communications. Managers are the bus drivers that navigate a company to success, one project at a time.
The Technician. Stated quite simply, the Technician is the person who does the technical work. In land development engineering, the Technician creates the grading plan, prepares the drainage study, calculates fire water flows, and designs sanitary sewer collection systems. This is why most of us went to college and became engineers in the first place – to do engineering! The Technician is not to be confused with the now antiquated role of CAD Technician, which has been largely dissolved with the advent of civil modeling applications in which design and plan production occur in tandem.
Unfortunately, the pressure to climb some twisted corporate ladder is what leads many great Technicians into roles for which they are ill suited. A smart Technician with an eye for detail is a critically important factor in completing any project. This often underappreciated position is the third and final key role in successful engineering firms. The Technician is the engine that propels the bus down the road.
About this time, you’re probably asking yourself, “If there are only three key roles, who are all the other people on the bus?” It’s a great question. The fact is many of them are just along for the ride, beneficiaries of an outdated business model that’s people-heavy and service-deficient. A vast number of engineering companies that you see today are stuck in an old way of doing things that ultimately results in wasted talent, poor service, unhappy clients, and disgruntled employees. Perhaps it’s time to consider trading in the old bus for a true performance vehicle.