Babette Ten Haken works with technically-focused companies, enhancing team performance for revenue generation. Her popular blog, Sales Aerobics for Engineers® helps bridge the gap between technical and sales/marketing professionals. Click here to read the first chapter of her new book, “Do YOU Mean Business?”
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This is Samir Penkar. Welcome to the Future of Project Management blog. Today we have with us Babette Ten Haken, and she is the founder and president of Sales Aerobics for Engineers. She leverages process with strategy. And essentially she tries to get the technical folks and the sales folks to speak productively and profitably. So thank you Babette for making the call, and I’m sure we’re going to learn a lot from you today.
I’m looking forward to it Samir.
So Babette, for the benefit of our audience, will you start off by telling us, what is it that you exactly do?
Oh that’s a good question. You know, I believe that the fulcrum for leveraging innovative business development is collaboration, between technical and non-technical professionals. And, you aren’t able to achieve this goal within status quo, corporate silos, or discipline driven mindsets. What I’m trying to achieve is cross-functional collaboration across professional disciplines. After the economic meltdown of 2008, that is really what is needed to be globally competitive.
Ok. So why are you so interested in teaching engineers or technical professionals how to sell?
Well, engineers and technical professionals have to learn how to develop business. It’s really part of their job description, even though it may not be written. Every technical professional needs to understand this. There’s really no place to hide from the customer.After 2008, as I was saying, many technical professionals, for the first time engineers, IT professionals, project managers, they found themselves on the outside of the job market looking in. In the past, being an engineer was like having an insurance policy for your career. You were the keeper of the kingdom. You knew the secrets, you kept everything running. Everyone came to you to make things work or to fix things. So, in a sense the technical and engineering component of manufacturing drove the rest of the company, but that was a post-industrial mindset.
And once we had that little economic meltdown in 2008 it really firmly drove everybody into the digital millennium. The digital millennium, when you think about it Samir, had been kind of creeping up underneath this post-industrial mindset for quite a while. Because when you think about it, IT interfaces have become more familiar to non-technical professionals. They use apps in their everyday job navigation. So, what really becomes important then, is that everyone’s competing digitally. You might work with a digital work team, I’m sorry, a virtual work team rather, and the non-engineer is going to be involved. So you have to understand how to speak across your disciplines. You’re not just going to be talking to your technical peers every day.
And, you know, I am a project manager and many of the people who are listening to this are project managers. And we work a lot with the technical folks and engineers. And I can tell you that engineers by nature are very reluctant to do anything with sales.
Why do you think so?
Well, you know I think it’s because of the stereotypes. It’s interesting. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Dilbert comic strip stuff, but that’s kind of the stereotypical engineer. Then there’s the stereotype of sales. In my conversations with technical professionals, the majority of them tell me that they would never have gone into the field of engineering if they thought they would ever have to do anything but solve technical problems and provide elegant engineering solutions.
I mean, if they thought they would have to sell, and they consider “sell” a dirty word, it’s a bad word you know. But when you think about engineering education and the coursework and the projects, they’re very segregated during their education. There’s no time to have cross functional discussions with non-technical folks. When you think of the rigors of engineering education, literally, they’re constantly on the defense. They’re justifying their knowledge. They’ve got peer reviews which are designed to identify the weaknesses in their solutions. When they come out of that environment, first of all, they feel every question they have to defend their knowledge base. That’s first of all, which isn’t the case.
But technical professionals become technical professionals because they’re problem solvers. The problem, and I always tell them this, root causes can have really, really large contacts, but they’re not trained to have the conversations that uncover non-discreet situations. Business development, in fact, is having conversations that uncover non-discreet situations and root causes. There’s no one root cause or one solution to the problem. So it’s really counter intuitive and it makes them feel very uncomfortable.
And you talk about this cross-functional communication. What do you mean by them looking at cross-functional communication strategy? What does it mean?
Well, when you think about it, hands down, and I always tell engineers and I always tell my entrepreneurs that I work with, you’re always going to be the smartest person in the room. But people are not going to do business with you, because of how smart you are. In order to do business you have to communicate more, than just how smart you are, to potential customers. Although you may prefer to speak with technical professionals, often these peers aren’t the decision makers for their organizations. You’ll have to speak to the business owner. The person with the money to hire your company or the venture capital investor with the money you need to move your start up along. That involves the ability to be able to communicate across that table.
You know when you think about cross-functional communication, it’s very interesting. You traveled to other countries and so do I, and I did my post-graduate work overseas. There are accents and behaviors, and cultural norms that you and I take into account in order to communicate. We naturally accept that people will be difficult to understand or they may not speak the same language, they may not have the same education, yet we are very patient. We try our best to communicate. And you know what, we do end up communicating very nicely.
I mean, think about Engineers Without Borders®. I firmly believe communication is the hallmark of humanity. But this hallmark gets lost in the business setting, because when we go into the workplace it becomes us versus them. Techies and the business folks, and there are barriers to communication just because of job titles and educational background. We become impatient with each other. So, our goal should be to find the common denominators across disciplines and mindset. The cross-functional communication strategy, it should be everybody’s job strategy as well. Because really when you think about it you are the CEO, the Chief Executive Officer,of your career. So it really makes sense for you to learn how to communicate across all strata of the business continuum in your workplace.
As project managers, very often we are very deliverables focused. At the end of this you need to have this artifact. So is this cross-functional communication strategy like an artifact? Is it a document you create? I mean how would you actually put it in action?
That’s a really good question. Because really, when you think about it in larger companies with designated infrastructure and specific job titles, project managers are at the crossroads of a lot of actionable items. I feel that they should serve more than just the role of a traffic director or a through-put specialist. Obviously, there are deliverables you know, scope, cost schedule, than involve quality. But when you think about it the role of project manager often involves supervising people and overseeing many aspects of the project, once it comes in house.
So it’s more than just checking off things completed on a list. We know there’s methodology, there’s forms, there’s deliverables, but when you think about it Samir, there’s another layer too, outside the project management universe in which you operate. The projects you supervise came from somewhere out there.
And the projects that come in house for you to supervise, are the output of the business development initiatives of your company. It’s that aspect that you have to really be aware of. In smaller organizations perhaps the owner is the sales person and then they do the project. They’re the project manager as well. So in a sense, in small companies the owner, doer, better understands the relationship of business development to revenue generation, because he or she is usually involved in every step. But in larger companies with more established infrastructure, with designated responsibility, the relationship between business development and revenue generation is outside the scope, shall we say, of the project manager’s job description.
What I’m saying is you need to make it part of your scope, because the better you understand where your input is and where your output goes, your through-put and your output goes, the better you understand how critical not only your role is but everybody whom you supervise roles is to revenue generation. You know, the business development folks usually rustle bushes, win a project, bring it in house, the owner’s designers seal the deal, win the business, and then they give it to the project manager. So it’s like a relay race, where everybody is passing a baton. But when you think about it, in the transaction of passing the one business over to the project manager, there is a lot of extremely rich and important insight that is lost.
Because everybody goes back to playing their specific role in a vertical organizational structure and specific methodologies. I think what’s most important to realize is you have to maintain the lateral flow of information cross-functionally. Where the team sticks together throughout a project in varying degrees of involvement as the project progresses through the company. That’s what’s needed to win more business.
You know, and I can tell you from experience, if you tell most project managers that you’re responsible for the deal, one of your responsibilities is to the deal of business development, it would be a pretty radical thing for them to hear.
So are you saying that project managers need to be involved in sales? Is that what you’re saying?
Absolutely. Yes. Absolutely, in a word.
It’s very interesting, I work with project managers quite a bit and I ask them about what the business development process is for their organization, and they really don’t have a clue. They actually really need to grow some antenna to understand not only where the business is coming from, but also what the deliverables are and how revenue is generated more than just what your billable and non-billable hours are on a project.
Everybody in an organization ultimately is responsible for business development. It’s critical for everyone within an organization to at least understand the processes, and the habits and behaviors, involved in acquiring customers and retaining customers because otherwise your job resembles piece work on an assembly line. As a project manager you have to be an advocate for your customer and the business that’s been won, but a lot of times the conversations that you have with that customer may be confined to peer conversations with their project manager or their engineers.
But, you’re in a unique position to be able to identify other potential projects for your company if you understand the types of conversations to be having in addition to just making that you’re meeting their specific project objectives. Think of a four by 100 meter relay race in the Olympics where each team member of the relay race runs a specific leg of the race because they have a specialty that’s needed, for that particular part of the race. But their role isn’t over once they hand the baton to the next person. So when you run the race, it is horizontal. It’s a horizontal flow of energy, input, through-put, and output. That’s what’s needed today for business development. A horizontal flow, where everybody is pulling to get to the finish line together, and that when you debrief it’s not simply how well you performed your specific function within your specific discipline, but how what you did impacts business development. People’s ability to win more business impacts your revenue generation and your profitability. You get a sense more of the horizontal value quite honestly, that you have in a relationship to the rest of your colleagues. I propose to poke holes in departmental silos in vertical methodology. Let the knowledge flow horizontally.
You know, I like that analogy. Because many times when you get into the guts of projects you get to know so many business issues and pain points that really you could solve or your company could solve. The business development could land you the first gig or project, but as you understand the project, as you understand the company and their challenges, I don’t think there’s anyone better than a project manager to really synthesize this, and sort of grow it.
Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. That’s really why I encourage project managers in particular, to grow a few more antenna and to realize they’re not just traffic directors. Because, you might be having, for example, you might be having a discussion on a specific aspect of a job and other issues come up. Write them down.
You may not have to develop that discussion fully, but you could call up that customer or the customer’s engineers, and say something like, “While we were discussing this one project you happened to bring up this particular aspect of it. Why is it Important? How has it impacted your ability or your company’s ability to be competitive?” When you start having those types of discussion you’re becoming relevant to them. You move out of a doer, role. You become a resource. You become an expert. Business development is really about, the latest phrase of course is, providing value to your organization. But value is a word like quality Samir. It needs an adjective.
I call it relevant value.
People will do business with you not only because you provide great quality within the cost scope and schedule of a project. They call you up because you offer insight into, let’s say industry trends or into a specific type of technique, or you can start connecting the dots horizontally. People buy you; they’re not buying your company. They’re buying your ability in a sense, to become the physical embodiment of what your company is. It kind of creates a personal brand strategy for you. When I was talking about, you become the CEO of your career, well part of that I think, is distinguishing yourself within your profession by a personal brand strategy so that your colleagues internally, inside your company, as well as your external customers know that this is what you stand for. This is the type of expertise you bring to all projects. That makes you the go-to person for your company. It’s very powerful.
Now, other than companies Babette, you also work with technical entrepreneurs. And what is the kind of work you do with them?
Well entrepreneurs, and it’s funny, entrepreneurism in a sense have always been part of every culture ever since there was something to barter or sell or trade in a marketplace. With the economy changing though, there is a growing initiative, for example, for researchers and academics in academic settings to commercialize their research. To get it out of the lab and into society.
It goes beyond just publishing research to maintain your job tenure. Universities are developing programs that teach entrepreneurs in terms of formal courses as well. There are also business contests and business model, business planning competitions as well for intentional entrepreneurs, and what I also call the unintentional entrepreneur. And those are people that have been displaced from their jobs in the economic meltdown that have decided to form their own company. So I coach and mentor these teams in particular.
At the University of Michigan, they have a Center for Entrepreneurship within the College of Engineering as well. I teach these talented technical folks how to have customer conversations. Because without the input and insight from customers, there really can be no innovation that sees the light of day. Having customer conversations doesn’t mean calling up your family or you friends who are going to tell you, of course, that your idea is great. You know.
It also doesn’t involve calling a peer and a fellow scientist, or a fellow technical professional, and kind of having a peer discussion with them and asking what do they think. It’s really a question of getting some real live insights out there, and it can be mind blowing. Because many entrepreneurs get so excited about their great ideas and develop the product or project too far down the road without ever having talked to real life potential customers. What’s interesting is, I’m taking this entrepreneurial mindset and coaching, back into manufacturing as well. Because when you think about it companies who have been in business about, let’s say 10 plus years so they’re survived several economic meltdowns. They’re just thrilled to still be in business. But, they have become too complacent in the status quo way of the way we’ve always been done. They lose perspective on how their markets and customers actually perceive them.
So I try to bring an entrepreneurial mindset to established manufacturing companies as well. And really either way, as you do product development, there is constant and continual, and rapid iteration of customer conversations. Which is daunting to technical professionals. The fact that they would be calling upon a manufacturer and asking for an appointment to talk about either their technology or market trends. What’s amazing is many of these entrepreneurs cannot believe that everybody is not clearing out their calendars to sit down to talk to these very bright, very smart people.
They find that, why doesn’t anybody want to talk to me? I’m so smart and I’m so bright, and it’s like, yes and these people are so, so busy. There are not enough hours in the day for them to do their own jobs let alone talk to you about your great entrepreneurial idea. It’s a fascinating exercise that you can tell excites me. I really enjoy working with entrepreneurs and established manufacturers as well, and bringing this entrepreneurial mindset to both.
And this topic excites you so much that you wrote a book on it.
Yeah. Yeah I did. I did. I’ll tell you, after the economic meltdown of 2008 a lot of my customers, and I must say that a lot of my clients, made it through the economic meltdown, and they stayed in the black. That was fantastic. But there were a couple things that I noticed. I noticed that as I was coaching the younger student entrepreneurs I thought that I would see a fresh new mindset and some new business development techniques. And I was hearing the same old conversations that I had 25 years ago when I was a newbie in a corporate environment. It was the same entrenched status quo of the techies versus the non-techies, and the business folks and sales types versus the engineers, and it was the same dialogues.
I thought, my goodness. How many times can we survive economic meltdowns! This stuff has got to change. We are now doing business horizontally across the globe. There’s no room for discipline driven mindsets, “we’re smarter than you are”. There’s no room for sales people who do not know how to use the left side of their brains. And there’s no room for today’s manufacturers that are complacent, and think that things are going to go back to the way they are going to be, because they aren’t. So I realized that it was time for what I call, it was time to teach people how to do simultaneous translation. That’s my methodology.
It’s simultaneous translation across professional boundaries. So when you think about it Samir, I always talk about rock concerts or a classical concert, whatever. But when you go to see theater you have the performer on the stage and you have the audience. When the energy from the performer on the stage meets the energy that’s going towards the stage, by the audience, there is this interface, and that’s where the artistry is created. I talk about the sales engineering interface in my book, Do YOU Mean Business?: Technical / Non-Technical Collaboration, Business Development and YOU. It’s about creating that cross-functional communication style that makes everybody want to be part of the conversations that you bring to the table.
You’re not less of an engineer or project manager if you understand how to build business, and you’re not less of a sales person if you actually take the time to work with your sales engineers, to understand the technical aspects of business development. You know, it’s all about being able to have a relevant discussion that’s valuable to your customers and colleagues. They’re just as hungry for information as you are, and you want to make yourself the go-to person. So that’s why I wrote the book and it sums up pretty much my strategy about business development over the past 25 years, and what I feel really needs to be taken into strong consideration today by today’s entrepreneurs as well as mature companies and manufacturers.
You spoke about energy and it was maybe last year before that. I went to see the Fiddler on the Roof and it was one of Topal’s last performances. It was so great I went there a second time to see the second show. I don’t know if somehow in projects we could feel that energy and get that energy. I think we could do so much more.
You know, that’s an excellent, excellent point. You went back because it reached you. It really spoke to you, that performance. It made you think or relate to things, and it gave you an “aha!” insight. That’s why we follow particular artists. That’s what artistry is all about. As engineers, as business development professionals, as sales people, as project managers, we are artists. We are the CEO’s of our own careers and it’s really all about, when you talk about being an expert, it’s about being an artist within our professional discipline. So that we enjoy working with people, as much as they enjoy working with us. Even if the solutions aren’t discreet. Even if there’s more than one root cause. Even if it’s more of a qualitative feel to things versus a quantitative feel of things. It’s about risk, but it’s about moving a millimeter outside of our comfort levels as well.
That’s true. That’s true. In your career who has been some of your role models?
I would say three people have really impacted my world view, shall we say.
Jill Konrath, certainly is the consummate sales strategist. She has helped me keep my business head on straight since 2005. In fact, she wrote the forward to my book. She has no-nonsense approach to sales strategy and sales method. She simplifies the process. She makes it accessible. What’s really great about it is, it’s very appealing to, quite honestly, my technically oriented mindset, and that’s what I really like about it. She has no-nonsense conversations that technical professionals can see themselves having, because it doesn’t sound smarmy or cheap, or manipulative. There is an art to selling, and she really brings it to the floor. Her two books are my sales bibles.
Another person who’s been my role model is a gentleman by the name of Keith Sawyer who is a psychologist at my Alma Mater Washington University. He has written a lot of books. His focus is on creativity and innovation. He likens the creative process to the give and take that’s involved with improvisational theater and jazz music. He is also a jazz musician. No surprise there about this interface. There’s a lot of trust involved and assumption of risk when you think about improvisational theater and jazz music. You’re not quite sure where everything is going but you pull together so the team can get to the finish line together. So he’s written some great books including Group Genius.
This final influence was W. Edwards Deming, and his influential work on the interrelationship between manufacturing processes and business in terms of the elimination of variation. I was fortunate enough to attend one of his last training seminars on quality and productivity.
Oh you did?
Yeah. I mean, it was such a highlight, and I can still feel myself in that room listening to him. It’s very interesting. I carry that experience with him. You talk about your going to the Fiddler on the Roof and that whole experience. That whole artistry, I have locked in my memory banks and I carry it around with me. When I first heard him the light bulb went on in my head that the way I saw things, fluid, interrelated, horizontal, relational, was actually part of a discipline, and that I wasn’t alone in having this perspective. No more siloed mindset, and I walked out of that seminar a changed woman.
I believe you. I believe you. What are some of your hobbies and interests, other than all of the work that you do now, and consulting and traveling, and writing books.
Samir, I love music. I was trained. I thought I was going to be an opera singer when I grew up. I studied the clarinet, piano, and voice as a child and into my college years. So music is very much a part of who I am. I studied ballet as well. So I performed, and I think that’s also why a lot of times when I work with people I understand how it feels to be a performer looking out into the audience, and be part of the audience looking at the performer. To take all those perspectives simultaneously. So my favorite composers are Pucciniand Verdi. I love Italian opera. You will find me at lots and lots, and lots of concerts, even when I’m on the road. I have music going in my office and when I cook all the time. Mozart, Bach. But I love all types of music. Jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, rock, you name it. Music is a huge part of who I am. And I also love the water. I love hiking and sailing, canoeing, just being outdoors, especially neat the water.
Great. Yeah, it’s beautiful day in Minneapolis. Very nice to go outside now. Great.
Same here in Ann Arbor actually. What are some of your hobbies and interests?
In fact, I am from India originally and Indian classical music is one of my biggest hobbies. You know I am trying to learn it. I didn’t grow up learning it, so I’m taking classes now in Indian classical music. That’s one of the big things. And kite flying. I do kite flying.
You design your own kites as well?
No, it’s not that sort of kite flying. It’s to fight the kites. I don’t know if you read the Kite Runner. It’s those kinds of fighting, you know, competitive sort of. If you [cut] you lose your kite. That sort of fighter kites.
Oh dear. I love it.
So one last question before we let you go is, if you want to leave the audience with one actionable idea, what would that be?
Invite somebody from outside of your professional discipline to have coffee or tea with you this week, or next week, since it’s Friday. Venture outside of your cubicle mindset in your job description; reach out across departments to one of “them”. Our perceptions of the differences between us form our greatest barriers for communication. So have that coffee and tea, find your common denominators, the values and perceptions that you both share about how you see your worlds, and you just might find that you have that “aha!” moment, that results in greater collaboration and understanding. And you come away with insight. It really helps you turn the corner. So please, take someone to coffee and tea from outside of your discipline next week, and tell me about it.
That’s a great way to leave it. So if people want to get in touch with you, what’s the best place you would direct them?
I suggest, the easiest way to get a hold of me is through email. Either through my Sales Aerobics for Engineers blog at http://salesaerobicsforengineersblog.com, or else at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I respond to all my emails fairly promptly. I enjoy it and I welcome the dialogue.
Great. Well thank you so much for coming on and spending time with us. I’m sure the project managers listening to this will take a clue from your last action and find someone out there outside their domain to speak to. Thank you so much.
It’s been a pleasure Samir.
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- Samir Penkar