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Tom Kahl

Tom Kahl


Tom Kahl is currently Chief Financial Officer at GEI Consultants, an 800-person multi-disciplinary engineering firm with 40 offices across the country.  Tom has spent 25 years at GEI in a variety of capacities including geotechnical and environmental engineering, project management, regional operations, and corporate finance.  For the past 5 years, Tom has led GEI’s Business Services team, and is currently engaged in GEI’s transition to BST10.  Tom has Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Engineering from Tufts University and a Master’s in Business Administration from Cornell University.

Are You a Good Partner?

Tom Kahl
TomKahl
Chief Financial Officer
GEI Consultants
In 1970, a decision maker would have said “I need an expert to tell me what to do.” Today, it’s “I need experts who understand my business, who I want to work with, and can get me a solution.” There has been a shift in the professional services business paradigm and because of it, being a good partner is more important than ever before. Technology has made it easier to learn and become informed. People are educated. Clients are educated. Service providers are educated. When looking to start a new project, we seek more than just hiring the team with the most impressive portfolio. It’s about finding the people who best fit what we want to do – it’s about finding good partners. Partnership is not a new concept. But, it is the key organizing principle of our time and it’s time your professional services firm takes notice. So, what is partnership exactly? Partnership happens when we: Work to seek common understanding Put common interests ahead of factional interests Do the “right thing” because we owe it to each other in service to our common interests It’s this third point–doing the right thing–that extends partnership from simply a good behavior to an organizing principle and ultimately into a cultural attribute of an organization. If everyone in an organization does things because they owe it to each and not because they have a stick at their back, it makes life easier. You just trust that people are trying to do the right thing and getting it done. Why is partnership an organizing principle? In short, differentiation. There was a time when professionals had a monopoly on knowledge, information, and skills. Now, you come into contact with people who are self-educated and have endless opportunities to learn from the Internet. People no longer seek firms out as an exclusive purveyor of knowledge. They are coming to you because they need collaborators and they need somebody who can help solve their problem. The value of work comes from getting to the optimal solution, which requires seeing the challenge from your partner’s perspective. In my grandparent’s age, the world with regards to professionals was driven by awe. Their world was one where they trusted implicitly. Ministers, teachers, doctors, lawyers – they knew what my grandparent’s didn’t know and they took them for their word, case closed. Even my parents are reluctant to ask questions of their doctors. Me? When I visit a doctor, I am asked what I think the problem is. We talk about it and then collaborate around a solution. I find that more productive and satisfying. This is the paradigm for all professional services now. Most professionals and clients want, as much as anything else, to work with good collaborators. And the ones who embrace this set themselves apart. Plus, partnership extends to everyone– clients, employees, and colleagues. As a firm, you seek to attract the right kind of employees and the right kind of clients to join your organization. With partnership set as an organizing principle you can expect your partners to do the right thing because it is embedded in the culture of the organization. And, that’s attractive to clients and recruits. I probably didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know, but I hope to have laid the framework for a guiding principle you can take back to your firm. Of course, implementing a culture of partnership has its challenges. In my next post, I’m going to explore obstacles to partnership and what you can actually do to be a good partner. Does your firm embrace collaboration and partnership already or do you have room to grow? Tell us more in a comment below! Author’s note: This post is the first of two and is based off of my keynote presentation for the BST Global PowerUp 2016 Annual Users Conference.   

Partnership: Simple, But Not Easy

Tom Kahl
TomKahl
Chief Financial Officer
GEI Consultants
On the surface, partnership seems easy. We come to work to solve common problems and it’s more efficient to work together. In practice, things aren’t so straightforward. Are you doing all you can to be a good partner? As professional service providers, we’re not here to make people do things. We’re here to help them get work done. This takes collaboration. And, this means being a good partner. Tackling the obstacles to partnership is paramount to success today and in the future. Now is the time to break through the partnership resistance force fields. But, what are the obstacles to partnership? Bullies, Narcissists, and Cynics. These people are the number one reason partnership doesn’t work. (A Stanford professor wrote a book about this!) These are the individuals who are habitually self-serving and always steer discussions back to their own interests, needs, whims, and hang-ups. They are un-satisfiable, unchangeable, unpredictable, and constantly focused on other’s perceived shortcomings. They believe they are among a courageous minority that “tells the painful truth.” And, they are tolerated in surprising numbers because of a “magic” they have with clients or some other skill set with perceived value. Imagine what could happen if you removed all of the bullies from your firm: productive meetings, broadly supported solutions, and energy focused externally! This may seem like a fantasy, but if you concentrate on what you gain instead of what you lose, it’s entirely possible. Lack of Trust. A lot of issues with trust stem from the unknown. How easy is it to trust partners you work with remotely and cannot see? Do staff need to “earn” trust individually and incrementally? Is there a test? Who gets to make that decision? Do some staff simply declare lack of trust in others to opt out? You don’t need to build trust. A better approach? Assume trust. Then deal with the exceptions. Put the responsibility of trustworthiness on each other and focus management attention on the breaches of trust. If you don’t, you will be in an endless paradigm of questions. How can I be a good partner? It’s all well and good to say get rid of all the bullies, but what else can you do to make a difference? Treat your employees like internal clients. Adopt a problem-solving mindset, not a compliance mindset. Trust that staff are trying to do the right thing, as best they understand. Climb into the ring and spend time understanding what all parts of your business do. Make the “right way” to do things also the easy way to do things with regard to systems and processes. In professional services firms, the currency of the land is client relationships. And to be successful, it’s imperative that we are good business partners. It’s time to take away the excuses. What obstacles to partnership have you experienced at your firm? Tell us more in a comment below! Author’s note: This post is the second of two and is based off of my keynote presentation for the BST Global PowerUp 2016 Annual Users Conference.