Questioning Your Way to the Top

Questioning Your Way to the Top

questionWhy, how, when you should be asking questions

When I first started out, I was completely overwhelmed with the information I needed to learn in a such as short period of time–everything from reading RFPs to understanding roadway design and drainage design to finding the appropriate resumes and relevant projects. I knew the fundamentals of marketing from college and my previous stint as a marketing manager for an entertainment management company, but nothing prepared me for this new endeavor of an AEC marketer! I had to learn and learn fast!

I was fortunate enough to begin my AEC marketing career working a multi-disciplined office for a mid-sized national firm. I was the only marketer in the office but had a great support network through corporate and other local office marketers. I knew that I had to learn not only by doing but by asking questions. I had to put aside my ego, pride, etc. to ask for help and have enough patience to wait or sit through the answer. At the time it was tough, but by being this proactive early in my career and learning a wide array of engineering disciplines, made me an effective marketer faster than the average.

So, what should be asking and to whom and when? Below are some of the valuable resources I discovered over the years. Feel free to add your own in the comments below.

Technical Knowledge – Go to the source

I had absolutely no idea about engineering, planning, etc. when I started. I knew to make my job easier and faster, I had to know the basics of the work we were pursuing to help track leads, identify key staff, and recommend relevant project history. The fasted way I did this, was to literally sit down with project or discipline manager and ask them to explain to me what they did. Some questions include:

  • Can you explain this RFP’s scope of work to me?
  • Why or why wouldn’t we be interested in pursuing this type of work?
  • What types of clients procure this type of work?
  • What type of experience do you need for this type of work (years of experience, discipline type, etc.)?
  • What types of regulations are involved in this type of work?
  • What was your favorite project you worked on and why?
  • Who do you think are our greatest competitors are for this type of work?

I found that project managers especially loved to sit and talk to me at length about their projects and potential scopes. I would take diligent notes on key words or phrases they used. This helped me to start tailoring resumes and doing project searches in our database.

Financial Knowledge – Make friends with your accountant

Having a marketing degree from a business school, I have a higher understanding of business financials than the average marketer. However, as with most things in AEC, the financials and how the firm makes and loses money is extremely important. Not only will it help advance your career, but it will provide you with empathy for the struggles and stress of the mid- to high-level managers. Again, I was fortunate to begin my career with a very hands-on principal who took the time to answer my questions. I also had project accountants who worked in my office and who were not protective of the basic office financials. Each firm has its own procedures for sharing financials, but at the very least you need to have access to the sales information. This is where a having a great relationship with your project accountant is a must. Some questions to ask are:

  • What is the office/firm’s business goals for the year (sales, profit, overhead, etc.)?
  • How are those goals set? Who sets them?
  • What is the key metrics we use to measure our financial performance?
  • What is the metrics you would like marketing to track?
  • How are the financials reported and monitored each month?
  • What steps do we take if we are falling behind on our goals?

In an upcoming post, I am going to share with the financial basics for AEC marketers. Sign up for my newsletter at end of this post so you don’t miss it!

Corporate Insight – Look to the higher ups

Beyond the financials, are the activities involved in running a business. These include business planning, strategic long term planning, corporate hierarchy/structure as well as internal politics. Each firm has its own opportunities and issues with each. To advance your career quickly, you will not only have to understand it, but you will need to learn how to contribute to it. You have to ask for your seat at the table for at least your office’s annual business planning but stick your neck out even further to get noticed in other departments of your firm. Look to your immediate principal or marketing supervisor to ask these questions:

  • How is the corporate structure arranged?
  • How is our ownership comprised (employee owned, select stockholder/associate owned, publicly traded, sole proprietor, partnership, etc.)?
  • What are the opportunities to become an owner?
  • How is the annual business planning managed? How can I contribute to this process?
  • Does our firm have a strategic plan? If so, can I request a copy?
  • Are there any company initiatives from that plan that may need assistance that I could provide?

I was able to quickly gain internal connections beyond the marketing department by volunteering for task forces and committees outside of my daily responsibilities. Years later, these relationships I have made are still intact even after several of us have moved on to other firms and geographic locations.

Industry Insight – Get involved

Join your industry organizations and associations (such as SMPS) and get involved in your local chapter. When you do this you not only expand your firm’s exposure to your local market, but you develop relationships with peers at all levels of their careers. These relationships provide exponential potential for valuable industry insight to help your firm, but your personal career as well. Constantly be asking your peers:

  • What do you see are upcoming trends in our industry?
  • Are there any upcoming procurement changes for your client, agency, etc.?
  • How does the alternative delivery procurement work and how is it different than traditional design-bid-build? How does it affect me as a marketer?
  • How is bidding to the federal government different than to our local or state government?
  • We are thinking of pursuing __________. Have you ever worked with them? What has beenĀ  your experience pursuing work with ________________.
  • We are thinking of adding _______________ as subconsultant. Have you ever worked with them? What has beenĀ  your experience pursuing work with ________________.
  • What is the newest software/design trends you are using?

You may need to adjust these questions depending on your environment and/or market challenges as the environment is always changing. The most important thing to do first is to find and build these relationships so you have someone to ask when these questions arise.

Career Guidance – Find a mentor

We all have been told that all successful people have a mentor in their lives. When you are first starting out as a marketer, it is critical to find that mentor to help you through your first year or two. You have already started the process by reading this blog! Kudos! Feel free to email me or comment below to get specific advice.

However, you may need something a little more. First, I would look to your firm to see if there is a marketer a little ahead of you that you can go to with questions beyond just daily assignments. If there is no on internally, look to your local SMPS chapter for a mentoring program and/or resources. Next, look to other business groups. Recently, I have noticed business mentoring groups spring up all over specifically geared towards women in my town. Look at meetup.com or levoleague.com for local business support type groups–not networking groups.

Once you have found a support person or group, ask the following questions:

  • What type of challenges did you face early in your career and how did you work through them? What worked and what didn’t?
  • How have you dealt with difficult technical staff?
  • How should I approach my boss about ____________?
  • Who has influenced you the most?
  • When is breaking the rules okay?
  • What do you do to live a balanced life?
  • What characteristics or skills set you apart from your peers and enabled you to be so successful so quickly?
  • What are 5 key books you feel I should read and why?

Take Action Today

Figure out what questions are you going to start asking and START ASKING!

Also, please share any other questions I might have missed in the comments section below.