While at sea a captain of a steamship hears a distress call, “Captain, captain you must alter your course by ten degrees, you are in danger of collision.”
To which the captain replies, “I am at the helm of a mighty steamship sound and sturdy. I say to you, if my path endangers you, you should alter your course as I will not.”
The voice once again cries out “Captain, captain you must take heed and change your course by twenty degrees, you are in danger of collision.”
The crusty old captain replies, “I am at sail and will not change. I am in command of a mighty and fierce steamship.”
The voice replies, “Yes, you are at the helm of a steamship, but I am sitting in a lighthouse.”
There appears to be a surfeit of egos in the homebuilding business, each loudly protecting his or her “me”. But there really are only two “me”s that matter. The first and most important “me” is the homebuyer for without sales there is no homebuilding business. The second “me” is the homebuilder, the individual or company who has the vision and who has incurred substantial risk and is therefore entitled to make the decisions. But there is no “me” in team, which comprises the rest of the homebuilding cast of players, unless you jumble it up, get it backwards and allow the egos to run free.
I vividly remember an incident several years ago that occurred while sitting in the Milwaukee airport for a meeting with my builder/developer client and one of the country’s most prominent residential architects. I had not worked with this architect before but had seen his work and was impressed. The purpose of the meeting was to review the architect’s first pass concept designs which had been prepared after he had been furnished with my development strategy and surveys of the property. Instead of first sending out the concept plans for review by the team, the architect wanted to make a personal presentation so this was both my client’s and my first look at the plans.
The property was an attractive in-fill site located in an established suburban bedroom community surrounded by 20+ year old larger single family detached homes. Based on my research I had recommended a clustered duplex product for the local empty-nesters, believing that this housing would fit in well with the existing neighborhood and satisfy the needs of the target market. Imagine my surprise when the architect’s plans detailed linear row townhomes with 18’ widths.
At the time I was a relative newcomer to consulting (although I had been in the homebuilding business for twelve years previously), and as this architect was one of the most visible nationally, I chose my responses very carefully. I asked if he had read the strategy and agreed with the research on which it was based; If he had done any work previously in this specific market; And why had he chosen this specific product type and design.
His responses were: “I only skimmed the report as I knew what would sell from my experience. My design has done well in similar markets (suggesting that the Washington, D.C. metro area was a similar market to suburban Milwaukee). And I have done work all over the country and won countless awards”.
I then asked why he believed it necessary to create a product with double the recommended density when the land cost did not require it and why he thought that empty-nesters moving out of large single family homes would accept a dense and narrow product with such inherent design limitations as a second floor master bedroom and an 8’6” x 8’6” dining room. He responded “This plan has sold well wherever we have used it – are you questioning me on what to design?”
I took a deep breath and answered “yes”, explaining that each team member has his or her own responsibilities and that we need to work together to achieve the common goal, not merely stroke our own egos. I reminded him that he had been retained to design a product as conceptualized in the strategy, not bring us something off the shelf that may have had some success in totally different markets. I explained that my responsibility to the client was not only to have done the research and prepare the strategy but also to be an ongoing part of the team, acting as the ombudsman for the homebuyer to make certain that we would actually sell whatever we built.
I went on to state that while I certainly respected his talent and experience and would have been more than happy to listen to his constructive criticism of the strategy, he had not bothered to even read it. Therefore, unless he was willing to become a major equity investor in the development, in which case he would become my client and he would have the right to make all of the final decisions, or he would join me in the sales office on Saturday and Sunday helping the sales team make those sales, that I was strongly recommending to my client that we reject the designs. And in fact, that is what I did minutes later and the client chose to follow my advice. Another architect was retained, the development proceeded as originally conceptualized, and it sold out on time and at a profit. And I made a decision never again to work on any assignment in which that original architect was involved.
Over my many years as a consultant I have had the pleasure of working with some amazingly talented professionals, both outside consultants and clients’ employees, in the fields of architecture, land planning, advertising, promotion, merchandising, sales training and every other facet of the homebuilding business. Many of these individuals were the absolute industry leaders, geniuses in their chosen fields, and I have learned from every one of them. And while many of these people deservedly had large egos, they all understood that the sole purpose of working together was to achieve the final goal of producing sales.
Consulting professionals, no matter how talented or experienced, have not assumed the risk of the homebuilder. In fact, most of us get paid a substantial sum whether or not the development is successful. So I believe that we have an obligation to not only do our best work, provide our best advice and deliver the best product possible, but also to subordinate our own egos to the team effort to create the best possible opportunities for success. But that’s just my opinion.
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