President, Precision Executive Search, Inc
Managing Partner, CivilEngineeringCentral.com
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In a January 2011 article in CE News titled Change is Good, John P. Bachner, CEO of Bachner Communications, Inc and Executive Vice President of ASFE/The Geoprofessional Business Association stated that civil engineers right out of the gate 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.
Many of you have seen the wide array of satiric videos on YouTube published by xtranormal right? <blank stare>
In any event, I uncovered such a video that, though likely a little “over the top,” leaves no viewer scratching their head as to the point they are trying to get across:
I know, I know, those of you who are engineers and have taken part in these conversations yourself may be thinking, ‘you’re right Matt, the message in this video is indeed quite clear, the homeowner is a knuckle head ! ‘ Often times it is the public that cannot see the forest through the trees, and that is exactly the point. As a consultant, you need to remove your engineering hat and put yourself in the shoes of the homeowner, the business owner, or the organization that is being impacted by the changes taking place. Like John mentions in Strike Three, civil engineering consultants do very well at speaking with the State Bridge Engineer regarding a cable-stay bridge that is being designed, or with the Director of Public Works regarding drainage issues on a major thoroughfare being built through the city, or with the home builder or developer in the design of a 3,000 acre master planned community. But what about homeowners whose property is being effected by a street widening? Or the citizens of a local community where a Wal-Mart Super Center is being proposed who are concerned about traffic congestion and drainage issues? The video very much makes light of this issue and for all intents and purposes is overly dramatic in order to make the point. Most civil engineers have a “knack” for what they do and the advanced math, physics, and engineering courses they study in school build upon that innate ability and passion they have for civil engineering.
So, what is the best way for a civil engineer to hone their communication skills when dealing with the public?
-> Is it the trial-by-fire method where they are just sent to public meetings and expected to learn through immersion?
-> Do they tag along with project managers and company principal’s and learn by example and mentorship?
-> Will seminars alone on this very topic make a difference?
-> Should one join Toastmasters?
-> Or does this ability just come along with maturity in the profession?
What has your experience been in relation to this topic? How have you honed your communication skills when interacting with the public? What strategies would you recommend implementing in order for a civil engineer to improve this particular skill set?