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September 10, 2020
Many in the AEC community may be familiar with Karen Johnston, especially those in need of a little help when it comes to winning that important project interview.
Johnston founded Johnston Training Group in 1979 and has since shown oodles of firms how to make the perfect pitch to get new work. She said the AEC teams that she coached have won 71 projects over the years. The firm also trains on presentation skills, business development and stress management.
At age 79, Johnston will retire later this month from the company that her son, Scott Johnston, now runs.
“I absolutely love what I do,” Johnston said. “I have never been bored with what I do over 40 years.”
How did she get here?
Johnston's career path started with a 5-year stint as an elementary school teacher, followed by a few years off to raise Scott.
Johnston said she didn't want to return to the public school system, but still loved teaching and came up with the idea of holding a seminar on stress management. That was the start of Johnston Training Group.
Wish Johnston a happy retirement, Zoom-style
Date: Sept. 24
Time: 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m.
Johnston didn't have experience running a business but was a good speaker and teacher, initially relying on her instincts to get by.
Johnston marketed her seminars by giving speeches at associations and by networking. Then the Seattle Chamber of Commerce asked her to give a seminar on presentation skills for its after-work program. Johnston said instead of the usual 20 or so attendees, dozens showed up and that led to more work and her putting together a series of four half-day seminars on the subject.
Johnston found that she liked to work with groups — and she could bill more that way.
Those chamber presentations resulted in consulting work for an Everett bank, and then big firms like Honeywell and Sundstrand hired Johnston to train their employees.
In the late 1980s, Johnston began coaching groups of 12-18 workers from the city of Seattle. She said she learned how to manage every type of personality in those groups. “That was my training ground,” she said. “Now I can walk into almost any group and make them productive.”
Coaching law firms became a focus for the company in the late 1990s, with much of that training on public speaking. Johnston said she liked to keep classes small, but there were some out-of-town seminars that drew 500 attendees.
A turning point for the firm came in 2002, when Seattle architecture firm Mithun asked Johnston to coach its staff on the High Point housing project that it had been shortlisted for. She said she didn't know what an RFP was at the time, but knew how to give presentations. It turns out that Mithun won that project — and nine out of 12 others that Johnston coached the firm on.
“I was walking on water then,” she said.
Since Johnston didn't know much about coaching for project interviews at the time, she decided later in 2002 to go to the source: the selection panels that conducted the interviews, including officials from universities, public housing and private development companies.
She personally interviewed 100 or so of those panel members over several years, asking them what was important in their decision making.
Armed with the results of those interviews, Johnston turned the focus of her firm to the AEC industry, calling it a “breakthrough” decision. Soon, she found herself working 12-hour days to keep up.
One of her big clients is The Miller Hull Partnership, where she has coached the Seattle-based architect on 25 projects.
Perhaps her biggest “win” for Miller Hull came in 2009, when the firm beat eight national contenders to design the San Ysidro border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. Not only was that a huge project, but it also was the first time that Miller Hull worked in that sector.
Johnston Training Group bases its training on the learner, not the teacher. Johnston said her job is to help clients better use what they already know by enhancing that. She said everything clients do is a skill that needs to be practiced, such as giving speeches.
Training with Johnston starts with a personal interview, so she can find what skills need to be enhanced.
“We work with really smart, successful people,” she said. “We don't do three-ring-binder training.”
One of the skills Johnston has helped AEC firms enhance is business development. She said many AEC workers are used to managing projects, which follow patterns and have few gray areas, but those workers aren't familiar with business development, which is much different from project management. She said her firm gives them a pattern for business development.
Johnston Training Group has been holding a class on business development for technical professionals for 13 years through the local chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies. Johnston said every class except one sold out and several were added over that time.
On the construction side, Johnston has worked with a lot of superintendents over the years on presentation skills.
“They are such wonderful people and brilliant at what they do, but if you put them in a conference room they are paralyzed,” she said about old-school superintendents.
One time, she let a superintendent attend an interview with his baseball hat because he was more comfortable with it on. That jibes with the panel member interviews, in which some said they want to see superintendents come in with mud on their shoes.
Johnston said superintendents today are younger and more sophisticated when it comes to presentations.
When given the question of which group — architects, engineers or contractors — is best to work with, Johnston said there isn't one that's better than the other, they are just different. She said contractors are straight-forward thinkers, while engineers are sequential and methodical, and architects want to create a PowerPoint slide for everything they say.
“I am notorious for cutting 75 PowerPoint slides down to six meaningful slides,” she said.
And the lawyers she coached for five years prior to focusing on the AEC community? Johnston said they have to be confident in their jobs, but sometimes are not, especially the younger ones.
SCOTT TAKES OVER
Scott started working at the company in 2015, after tiring of a career in strategic writing for several large companies. He shadowed his mother for six months to immerse himself in the company and added strategic writing to its offerings.
Karen said Scott wasn't a good speaker at first, but learned the system and became an excellent speaker. “He did the extra work,” she said.
Scott bought the business in 2016. Karen said it has been wonderful having Scott as a boss and partner. She said they have had to make some tough decisions, but never have argued.
Karen's last seminar is today for a Spokane architecture firm, where she and Scott will cover business development.
Scott had planned a retirement party, but the pandemic changed that. Now it's a Zoom party set for Sept. 24, with over 75 people expected.
Johnston said one of her California clients in late July held a virtual retirement party for her, where everyone got a chance to say something. “It was nice,” she said.
Retirement will give Johnston a chance to unwind after an extended career. She said the pandemic, with its stay-at-home order, has given her a preview of retirement.
In her next stage of life, Johnston plans to read and spend more time with her husband, and may go on a cruise or two when that industry returns. She said she has done a lot of travel over the years, including 25 cruises.
“I've made my contribution to the professional world and now I get to rest and enjoy,” she said.
Benjamin Minnick can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.