Top 10 Rules for a Successful 2017

January 2, 2017

Man changing his mood

I predict that 2017 is going to be an amazing year for all of us.  I wanted to share some of the most common coaching notes that I give to folks in the AEC industry.  If you follow these rules, I can guarantee that your 2017 will be even more successful.

1.  Avoid the use of I, me and my in your conversations.  Minimize your self references.  This forces you to make it all about the other person. Also, make your questions to statements ratio 3:1.  Ask a lot of questions and listen!

2.  Avoid starting questions with the word “why”.  It sounds like an interrogation, and the other person will likely be put on the defensive.  Find a way to ask the same question with the other reporter questions:  what, where, when, how.  And “What the hell were you thinking?” doesn’t count.

3.    Beware of REF (Resting Engineer Face).  The most popular coaching note that I give is to simply smile.  I know it’s tough.  But it puts people at ease and opens them up.  It also reduces your stress.

4.  It’s not about the information.  It’s about making a connection with others.  Instead of a transaction, try to create a positive emotional experience.  Whether it is your spouse, your kids, or the person at the grocery store, this makes your encounters with others much more meaningful. Also note that you cannot logic your way out of an emotional response. Don’t even try.

5.  Try this empathy exercise:  Get rid of the kids for a while, sit your spouse down and ask them to tell you about their day.  You can’t offer any suggestions, comments, or criticisms.  You can’t tell them what they should have done.  All you have to do is listen and try to determine what emotions they were feeling throughout their day.  And that is the only comment you can offer:  “That must have made you feel . . . ”

6.  An old man told me before my wedding a sage piece of advice:  “You can be right or you can be happy.  And the choice is yours.”  Think about this one.  Many folks in the industry have a need to be right and they sacrifice relationships as a result.  Can you let some things go?

7.  Whenever anyone gives you advice or a comment or criticism, just say thanks.  Nothing else.  Just thanks.  Then, think about the advice.  And remember, if you meet ten asses throughout your day, then you are likely the one who is the ass.

8.  Build in personal reflection time EVERY DAY!  This can be prayer time, meditation time, quiet time, vision time or whatever you want to call it.  It doesn’t have to be long, but it should to be consistent.

9.  Lighten up.  Don’t take things so seriously.  This too shall pass.  In the movie Stripes, there is a soldier who tells everyone he will kill them for any minor infraction.  The Sergeant tells him,  “Lighten up, Francis!”

10.  Spend more time with your spouse, kids, and pets.  Check in with them often.  Don’t sacrifice you or your family for work.  Remember, when most people are on your death bed, they rarely if ever say, “Gosh, I wish I could have worked a little more!”

If you want a deeper dive, check out our Total Leadership Library!  All of our courses on emotional intelligence and critical people skills are now online.  Click here for more information.

Why Project Relationships Go Horribly Wrong and How to Prevent it

June 7, 2016

a skyscraper with glass walls and the reflection of landmarks on the opposite side

“Building is the quintessential act of civilization.” Tracy Kidder

Think about it.  If three people washed up on a deserted island, the first thing they would do is collaboratively build a shelter.  Unless, of course, the three people were an architect, owner’s rep, and contractor.  Then, they would have to wait for two lawyers to wash up on the beach so that they could proceed with the project.

There is a project that I read about recently where the parties involved hate each other. I don’t say that lightly.  You can tell from their comments that they truly loathe and despise each other.  Here is a link to the ENR article titled  A Hospital Job Dispute Reaches Fever Pitch:

How did this project get to this point?  Could the parties involved have seen this coming?  How did they begin the project, and more importantly, what can you do on your projects to avoid such a fate?

We have created a program called connEx, which creates high performing teams who care about each other’s personal and professional success and well-being.  Click here for more information.

Some Solutions to the Workforce Development Crisis: How to Attract and Retain the Very Best People

May 24, 2016

Group of workers at a construction

“Employees who believe that management is concerned about them as a whole person – not just an employee – are more productive, more satisfied, more fulfilled. Satisfied employees mean satisfied customers, which leads to profitability.” Anne M. Mulcahy


Workforce development has reached a crisis level. The number of projects moving forward continues to increase, and worker demand (labor and management) continues to rise. That, along with the dwindling workforce, is already negatively impacting the industry. If we don’t take concrete steps now, this workforce development crisis has the potential to cripple the industry.

There are many factors that have created this crisis.   Krantz’s job ranking survey regularly ranks construction jobs at the bottom. Our industry image is not good.  It is viewed as dirty and difficult.  We don’t treat our workers as well as other industries do, and we don’t offer very many befits like paid vacation and healthcare.  We also have an issue with diversity and inclusion.

There are some very good long term initiatives such as the ACE mentor program and outreach to high schools.  But what should companies do in the short term?  Consider the fact that to fill a position, it costs anywhere from two to three times the annual salary.  For someone making $75,000 per year, that’s $225,000!

There are some very concrete steps companies can take to attract and retain the very best people:

  1. Let them control their own destiny:

If you want to attract and retain people, give them as much autonomy as possible. Give them the ability to set their own work schedules and work the way that they want to work. This may be difficult with some projects, but there is always room to experiment. Many companies are toying with flexible work hours and ROWE (results oriented work environments).

  1. Provide a Clear Career Path and Training to Get There

All workers, especially young workers, want a clear career path and the resources to attain the skills to be able to make it happen. If your company doesn’t have clear career paths for all employees, and the skills training needed to travel along those paths, this is the time to implement a program. If you are an individual, and your company doesn’t have this career path/training in place, let them know that it is important to you. Get the ball rolling and ask them to provide it. Obviously, they value training or you wouldn’t be enrolled in this course!

  1. Make Sure Employees Know Your Why

Employees, especially younger ones, want to have a sense of purpose in their life and work.

What is your company’s purpose? What is the project’s purpose?  Do you articulate that and communicate it clearly on a regular basis?  Every company and every project has a purpose.  Tap into the purpose with your employees.

  1. Make Their Lives Better

This is a simple concept, but perhaps not that easy. If you make your employees’ lives better, they will be more loyal to your company. So how do you do that?  There are two areas that we see that can make your employees’ lives better.  1.  Improve their finances.  Hire someone to come in and help people set up budgets and pay off debt.  2.  Improve their health and well-being. Start a wellness program (formal or informal) and help them to be healthier and happier.

  1. Create a Fun Place to Work

I usually get pushback from this concept of creating a fun place to work. To many people in the AEC industry, work and fun just doesn’t go together. So what can you do as an individual and a company to infuse more fun in your work, on your projects, and in your offices? Put in games, have contests, have laugh time, start every meeting out with something fun, and promote and encourage fun ideas of team, collaboration, and play.

Some of these ideas are pretty far out for folks in the AEC Industry.  But if we don’t start embracing these kinds of changes, this workforce development issue will only worsen. Embrace these new ideas. Company leaders tell me that they can’t try the flexible work initiative because some people will just sit at home and watch television. So what they are doing is punishing the 90% who will actually honor this open way of working. If you are a company, push the envelope and start trying these new ideas. If you are an individual, be strategically subversive. Try some things and see if you get a good result. When you do, share it with the company.

Whether it is for you, your company, or for the AEC industry, how we attract and retain people to the industry is vital to our livelihoods and the very industry in which we work. It’s time to take some action.

I have a personal story about recruiting. My nineteen-year-old nephew had dropped out of high school. He wasn’t a good student in the traditional sense, and he didn’t like school. He had no intentions of going to college. But since he was a small child, he loved trucks and big equipment.  He said he wanted to be an equipment operator. I told him he should probably get his GED before trying to go to operator’s school. (Most of those schools require a high school diploma or equivalent.) He took the GED several times, but couldn’t pass the tests. He soon started working as a bus boy for minimum wage. He gained weight. He was depressed and languishing in a low paying job.

I asked him if he would like to start as a laborer on a construction project until he could pass the GED. He said he did. I made a call and got him a job with Batson Cook in Atlanta—making double what he was making as a bus boy. As soon as he started working, he knew that this was his calling. He loved going to the project each day. He’s a big, strong kid and very conscientious and reliable. And they loved him. He is very smart, and very capable with equipment. It’s intuitive for him. Whenever they had trouble with a piece of equipment, he could figure out what was going on. It’s a shame that our education system doesn’t recognize that kind of “smart.”

In just over six months, they gave him a raise, and there was talk of making him a foreman. My guess is that there are tens of thousands of young people out there in the same boat, who would love to be part of this wonderful business. All we have to do is reach out to them.

The Emotional Side of Marketing (Part 4 of 4)

September 9, 2015

Being different,taking risky,bold move for success in life - Concept vector graphic. The illustration shows orange fishes moving together in one direction while blue fish taking a risky different way

“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” Coco Chanel


I recently was engaged by a well-established, top 200 contractor. They were great builders, but when they hired a firm to get the pulse of owners in the area, the results were surprising to them. All owners admitted that they thought that this company built great buildings, communicated well, and were technically excellent. They also stated that this company wasn’t as good with relationships, were difficult to work with at times, were not as fun to work with as their competitors, and the owners rarely heard from them between projects. They now are strategically focusing on the human side of this equation and teaching their employees basic emotional intelligence and relationship principles.

A couple of the top managers from this company awaited the return of one of their executives from a meeting with a potential client. When they asked him how it went, he replied, “We Brent Darnell’d ‘em”. In other words, he used all of the principles we talked about and applied them to this client meeting. He made it all about them and did not tout schedule, price, or quality. It went very well. They tell me that now BD doesn’t stand for business development. It stands for Brent Darnell. They have found out two very important things:

  1. Every company comes to the table with schedule, price, and quality. It is not really a competitive advantage. It is the price of entry.
  2. When you compete on price alone, you become a commodity, but if you create a positive experience for that client and really pay attention to your customer service, they are much more likely to choose you, even if you are not the lowest bidder.

This company is a believer. They implemented these concepts recently on a $45 million project that they were chasing. They were third on price, so they went into the presentation focusing on connecting with the selection committee. They must have done a pretty good job because they were awarded the project. Since then, they have created such close connections with the company that they have been awarded a total of almost $80 million worth of  work without bidding.

Explore how to create a positive emotional experience instead of a reliable transaction. Think about all of the ways that you can create these experiences. Tap into the intangible, emotional side of business to make your company stand out. Of course, your people will have to be trained on how to carry this initiative out. They must hone their empathy skills so that they can truly understand what is important to the project stakeholders. But once they start taking this concept and running with it, you will start to see miraculous changes internally and externally.

You will find that you are no longer competing on price alone because there are more criteria to choose from. Why do you think some owners choose on price alone? It’s because they think that you every contractor there will be the same pain in the ass as any other contractor. But what if they loved you? What if they couldn’t imagine their lives without you? That is another criterion, and the short list for those projects are very small.

So, if you want to differentiate yourself, if you want to make your competition irrelevant, then pay attention to the emotional side of marketing.


The Emotional Side of Marketing (Part 3 of 4)

September 2, 2015

Site office in field destroyed by the severe storm. Dark threatening clouds are looming in the sky.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ― Maya Angelou

I’m going to give you two scenarios. These are actual scenarios from companies that I visited. I want you to decide which company you would rather do business with:

Scenario 1: I walk into the office. It is a stark place with grey walls. The receptionist doesn’t look up. She is busy.  I sit at a small coffee table on a small, uncomfortable couch. There is nothing on the table. I wait for a few minutes. Finally, the receptionist looks up and says in an exasperated way, “Can I help you?”

I say, “Yes. I’m here to see John.”

“Just a minute.” She calls John and says, “Someone is here to see you.” She turns back to me. “Have a seat.”

“Thanks,” I said, and sat back down.

After 10 minutes, John arrives. He shakes my hand and we walk down a grey hallway. When we pass people in the hall, they don’t look up, they don’t acknowledge my existence. We finally make our way to a grey, windowless conference room with Successories on the wall with sayings like “there is no I in team”.

“Do you want some coffee?” John asks.

“Yes please”.

“It’s down the hall in the kitchen.”

I walk down to the kitchen and grab a Styrofoam cup. I pour the coffee in the cup and reach for the sugar and “cream” canisters. I pour them into my cup, but the coffee is cold, so the “cream” clumps up in the cup. I pour it down the drain and head back to the conference room. When I arrive, John and I immediately begin the meeting.

Scenario 2: I walk into the office. When I enter, the receptionist walks from behind the desk, puts out her hand and says, “You must be Mr. Darnell. Welcome! Please have a seat and John will be with you shortly.”

I sit on a comfortable couch in a beautiful lobby adorned with artwork from local artists. On the table in front of me are magazines and a book filled with the history of this company. I thumbed through it and saw some beautiful projects while I listened to some very nice, classical music.

John enters and takes me down the hall toward the conference room. Everyone we meet looks me in the eye and says hello and welcomes me to their office.

We reach the conference room. It is filled with windows and more artwork. “Would you like some coffee?”, John asks. “Sure”, I say, “if it’s not too much trouble.”

Soon, two young people enter, each with a silver trays. On one tray is a silver coffee pot, a small, silver pitcher filled with real cream, and a silver sugar bowl filled with sugar cubes. John pours our coffee into real ceramic cups branded with their logo and adds the sugar and cream. The second tray is filled with Petit Fours, cookies, and small cakes. John then asks me about my travel to the office and my hotel accommodations. He tells me about some of the buildings in town that they have built or refurbished.  He offers me some tickets to their local symphony and lets me know several other wonderful things I can do while I am in town. He asks me how my business is going. After some time, we begin our meeting.

Which company would you rather do business with?

One other example is when I went to a field trailer.  I walked in and was ignored for five minutes.  Finally, someone said, “Hey, dumbass, you want to close that damn door?  We can’t heat all of South Georgia.”  Wow!  What a negative impression.  That guy had no idea who I was.  I could have been the owner’s representative for all he knew.

More importantly, what do people feel when they walk into your office or job-site trailer?  Do they feel warm and welcomed, taken care of, nurtured?  Or do they feel unsure and lost?  Everything in your work spaces create an emotional impression.  So, what impression are you creating as you read this blog?

One final thought:  Most people’s first impression of you and your company is your outgoing message.  Have someone call your phone right now.  Most of the time you will hear an electronic voice saying that the person at this number is not available.  I always call those twice because I think I’ve reached the wrong number.  If you want to experience the real horror, start calling the folks in your company and listen to their outgoing messages.  It’s pretty frightening.  It’s either an electronic voice or a boring, perfunctory, outgoing message.  Some are totally incomprehensible.  There is rarely a mention of a company much less some kind of mission or vision or emotional connection.  Why not make your outgoing message engaging and fun?  Why not create a message that mentions your company and creates a positive emotional response?  Since this is the first impression, make it count.

Stay tuned for our final Part 4 next week on The Emotional Side of Marketing!


The Emotional Side of Marketing Part 2 (of 4)

August 25, 2015

Hand elevates half of a sliced head with brain inside

“And of course, the brain is not responsible for any of the sensations at all. The correct view is that the seat and source of sensation is the region of the heart.”  Aristotle


There is a great book called Habit: The 95% of Behavior That Marketers Ignore by Neale Martin. Martin’s work is based on Daniel Kahneman’s work.  Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics by studying the neuroscience of how people buy stuff.  Both of these books further reinforces this concept that people buy based more on emotion, memory, and ease than any other factors. And yet, what do we do when we present for a project? We focus on our resume, the experience of our project teams, the site logistics, the schedule, and the budget. We say that we will build the project with good quality and safety. Blah, blah, blah. You and everyone else.

According to Martin, your customer is looking for shortcuts to good decisions.   There are two basic ways that the brain approaches thinking and decision making: Martin calls these two separate areas of the brain the habitual mind (System 1) and the executive mind (System 2). Think of a video of a baby laughing. Your response is from your habitual mind or subconscious. You don’t have to think about it. It’s an automatic response.

Now try to solve this in your head: 578 X 634 =

You are now engaging your executive mind (System 2) or the prefrontal cortex. And it’s hard. It takes effort. It takes energy. It takes glucose, a precious commodity for the brain.  You probably gave up pretty quickly with trying to solve that equation in your head.  The brain is pretty lazy.  When faced with this type of brain work, the brain usually reverts to some other state that involves less work.  That is one of the reasons some owner’s choose contractors on price alone.  It’s easy.  Low number wins.

On a personal level, think of mayonnaise. If you don’t like mayonnaise, think of peanut butter. What is your brand? Is it Kraft, Hellman’s, Dukes’, Miracle Whip, Blue Plate? Do you look at the price when you purchase it? If there was a mayonnaise beside your brand called Jerry’s Mayonnaise, and it was 50 cents cheaper, would you buy it? Of course not. That purchasing decision is based on emotion and memory. You probably grew up with that mayonnaise and maybe remember a wonderful home grown tomato sandwich slathered with the mayonnaise.

Our mantra for companies who embrace this work is that you must create a positive emotional experience instead of just a transaction. So what kind of emotional experiences are you creating in your offices and on your projects right this very minute? What do people feel when they walk into your office or the job-site trailer? What kind of emotional connections are you making with your outgoing messages? Most outgoing messages I listen to are pretty horrible. Some messages are an electronic voice that says the number. I always redial those thinking that I have reached a wrong number. Is your outgoing message transactional or connecting?  What kind of emotional connections are you and your folks making with project stakeholders as you read this blog?  Are they contentious?  Adversarial?  Filled with anger or other negative emotions?  Keep in mind that whatever emotional state they are currently in will affect their future decision to work with you and your company, whether they are consciously aware of it or not.

Stay tuned for a compelling story about The Tale of Two Offices next time in Part 3!

The Emotional Side of Marketing Part 1

August 19, 2015

Attractive builder is showing okay sign with happiness. He is smiling and looking forward with joy. Isolated on background and copy space in left side

“Nothing ever becomes real ’til it is experienced.” ― John Keats

One of the mantras in our programs concerns how people make buying decisions.  And this may surprise you, but most purchasing decisions are made using emotion, memory, and ease of the decision than anything other factors.  Note:  IT’S NOT PRICE!  The mantra is:  How do we create a positive emotional experience instead of just a transaction?

Are most of your project chases based on price alone? Have you cut your overhead and profit down to next to nothing and still find it hard to compete? Do you find it hard to differentiate your company in this highly commoditized market? Do you think that owners only look at price? If this is the case, then this chapter is vital for you and the future success of your company.

The first thing we must look at is how people make buying decisions. And although many contractors tell me that the buying decision is made on price alone, they are simply wrong. I know. Just keep reading.

At a recent AGC meeting, two large owners representatives (Disney and MD Anderson Cancer Center) were asked how they chose contractors. The contractors in the audience had their tablets and pens at the ready. They were going to find the magic formula, that one thing that would differentiate them from the competition. Was it fee below a certain percentage? Was it resume? Was it schedule compression?

To everyone’s shock and amazement, they both said that, “It was just a feeling that they had during the interview process.” They could tell which project teams would work well together and with them. They emphasized that if you are in that room for an interview, you were capable of building the project. So it really comes down to those intangibles of relationship and emotional connection.

The latest neuroscience bears this out. Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel prize winning psychologist who studied why people buy stuff. And what he found out was a little shocking. Purchasing decisions, whether they are for products or services, are formed in our subconscious or System 1 mind. The System 2 mind is the cognitive part and has very little input into decision making.

More on those two systems in part 2!