It comes down to being good at your work, finding a way to apply it, and then showing your ability to solve your clients’ problems. Let’s dig into each of those steps.
Technical excellence – your foundation
Most professions have a “body of knowledge” that in many cases is embodied in an accreditation process, along with an examination. Learning those technical aspects is important.
One reason I love working with engineers and other technical professionals is their geeky and low-key enthusiasm for their work. I did an interview recently with a woman who’s an energy consultant. In her quiet way, she was a powerful advocate for the idea that putting a price on carbon emissions will help save the planet from climate change. And her enthusiasm was even more infectious because it was so clearly based on sound technical knowledge and science.
Understand the problems you’re solving
While technical excellence is essential, it’s kind of like having a tool but nothing to use it on. Your skills must be backed by a solid understanding of what problems those skills solve for clients. My experience is that sometimes (just sometimes!!) lawyers and accountants can get so absorbed in the process of their work that the purpose gets lost. And this divorce-from-reality aspect is one reason some people have trouble working with (or relating to) (some) lawyers. Hence the term “legalese” as a specialized language that only lawyers can understand.
Don’t be THAT person. Be someone who takes the effort to understand the context of your work and convey your ideas in terms that your clients will understand clearly. You need to have that if you’re to become a trusted advisor that clients enjoy working with.
That’s because, “We need to bring in an energy auditor,” said no client ever. Rather, they’re more likely to say, “Our utilities costs are going through the roof. We need to get a handle on where we’re wasting money, and plug those gaps.”
So if you’re an energy auditor, of course you need to know how to analyze a building’s energy use, determine which energy users are the most problematic, and make recommendations on how to reduce waste.
But if you want to be in high demand by potential clients and employers, you need to decide which industry or sector you want to serve. To go on with our energy audit example, the issues involved in residential condo towers are much different from the energy challenges facing a steel mill.
True expertise lies in becoming familiar with that industry’s issues so that you can become a credible, recognized subject-matter authority in that industry (I’ve gone into this in more depth in post #40). And you can only do that in a sustained way, year after year, if you have a passion for what you’re doing and whom you’re helping.
To switch examples, let’s say you’re a geotechnical engineer, which is a specialty that involves foundations, soil, slope stability, and other underground issues. And … you’re
also just a little bit nuts about amusement parks. You just love the thrill of a higher, faster, twistier roller-coaster.
Can you put these two together? Yes you can.
You can blend your work with the rest of your life so it doesn’t feel like work. Start by finding out what are the issues facing the amusement park world. Those might include the need to have a new star attraction ride each season, to avoid shut-downs over safety issues, and to reassure riders (and their parents) that every ride is scary but safe. The park needs to get repeatedly visitors and season ticket-holders, to keep people in the park as long as they can, and to sell them lots of food, drinks and swag.
What can a geotechnical engineer do to make that happen? Quite a lot, as it turns out. You can help parks design foundations in a way that is easy for them to dismantle an old ride and then, before the next season starts, have a new ride built in its place. That cycle gets speeded up if they don't have to design, excavate and build new foundations each time.
It also gets speeded up if you can tell park owners about technologies like helical piles and pier foundations that are quick to install, can be built on almost immediately, and don’t disturb much ground.
How do you find out about these hot-button issues, so you can offer solutions? You burrow into their world. Learn about torque loads on each type of ride, so you can design foundations that are strong enough, with a safety factor, but are not over-engineered. You learn how to speak in terms that are important to the industry, like the number of riders per hour.
Going further, you learn about the trends in the industry. Learn about the pressure to create bigger, higher, “thrillier” rides every year. Every park wants to be able to say it has the highest, fastest, most loops, or something else to attract visitors. You learn their terminology, metrics and other factors; moreover you learn to express your profession’s ideas in terms that make sense to them. Maybe, you learn to translate the torque load on a roller-coaster’s pillar into number of passengers per train, or maximum safe speed.
You do this through reading their trade media. For example, there are several trade magazines (and associated websites) for the amusement park industry, as there are for most niches.
You can also learn about influential bloggers, and find association websites that are information-rich. You join their groups on LinkedIn, you find people on Twitter who have a lot to offer. You get to know people in the industry, and ask them for advice meetings.
Maybe most important, you join their industry and professional associations. And you get involved. Volunteer. Particularly, volunteer to do the kind of work nobody wants to do – maybe joining the communications committee and helping with the newsletter, or with email distribution. Help to plan meetings.
In doing this, people in the industry will get to know you and see how you work. If they’re favorably impressed, they’ll come to know, like and trust you. Then, they’ll be interested in what you have to say about engineering solutions that can help them, and because they trust you, they’ll believe what you say.
Get known for your expertise
While you’ll get some repeat work and referral work, this “go narrow” strategy works best if you take the effort to show your expertise. If you get known outside your immediate circle, you’ll be able to attract more of the work you need to do.
Most of the posts in this blog talk about how you can do that. It involves creating really useful content that focuses on the needs of the people you want to serve. It could be articles in their trade media, videos that help them get to know you as a person, or a LinkedIn profile that’s content-rich – whatever works best for the people you want to reach as your clients.