By Michele Atkinson, Guest Contributor
Each time I prepare for a professional conference—such as the upcoming 2018 SAME Federal Small Business Conference for the A/E/C Industry, Oct. 31-Nov. 2 in New Orleans—I get excited for the opportunities ahead. This enthusiasm is not because conferences are a chance to make sales or meet potential clients (although that might seem like the logical reason). It’s because I know I will get to spend time with some of the best people in the federal contracting business—people who have so much knowledge and experience, and who gladly share their incredible wisdom.
The real excitement and energy I experience comes from gaining the knowledge passed along to me by mentors and industry experts who are willing to share what they know. It’s from getting the chance to listen.
As a self-proclaimed “eternal optimist,” I have sharpened and fine-tuned my natural personality trait into a business strength, which has proved very successful for me both personally and professionally, and which has benefited my clients along the way through profitable contract awards. And I know that even though I have always been optimistic and goal-driven, I could not have accomplished my goals—or truly identified my purpose—without the influential mentors and educational opportunities I have encountered through my membership and participation in SAME.
Especially at conferences, the status quo is to come in with your elevator pitch blazing and start talking about yourself or your business to everyone who will listen. I challenge you to stop, ask questions first, really listen, and talk later.
Ambitious readers might be wondering: “How do I get to be a lucky recipient of such valuable knowledge?” The answer is not a secret; it’s very simple. It requires a small change in mindset, either by necessity or by conscious effort.
Think of the last conversation you had and think about how well you truly listened. Were you absorbing all the information that the other person was saying, or were you thinking about what you wanted to say next? Especially at conferences, the status quo is to come in with your elevator pitch blazing and start talking about yourself or your business to everyone who will listen. I challenge you to stop, ask questions first, really listen, and talk later. This is how you will truly learn and develop great relationships.
The Lesson I Learned
When I first entered the A/E/C industry as a proposal coordinator, I was coming from another industry. One of my earliest projects was to write and submit an article to The Military Engineer, SAME’s bi-monthly professional magazine. I didn’t know very much about military construction at the time, so I had to get every detail for the article I was writing from subject matter experts. I conducted interviews with project team members from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the contractor. I also had to speak with the squadron commander to scrub any sensitive data before the article would be approved for publication. Because I didn’t know anything, I had nothing to contribute, so I just listened. I listened, and listened, and listened (this guy liked to talk). I learned so much from that conversation. We talked for an hour. He gave me an incredible understanding of how the squadron operated, why they only can share so much information, and so on. I learned more than I could have planned or asked for, and I might have said 15 words during that entire hour.
That was a powerful lesson. I learned that when I get a chance to talk to someone who has much more experience than me, I have an incredible opportunity to learn if I truly listen. That is what I love the most about attending SAME conferences. Through many years of membership in the Society, my biggest recommendation for these networking opportunities is to listen to those who have been doing this longer than you. The advice and information they provide is better than a management book, and it is specifically directed at you and your situation. If you aren’t listening and learning from it, you are missing out on so much. These people are investing in you and can offer great advice. Take it, use it, and report back.
You won’t find any better sources than those who have lived and experienced it. I have learned from a colonel who led thousands during the recovery of Hurricane Katrina; from leaders who have grown firms from zero revenue to hundreds of millions; from women who run multi-million dollar construction firms; and from crazy-smart engineers who design massively intricate structures. And really, that is just the tip of the iceberg.
If you see me at #SAMESBC18 in New Orleans, please be sure to start a conversation. You may learn something from me, and I would love to learn more about you!
Michele Atkinson is President & CEO, Cavalry Consulting.