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September 9, 2021

The five P's for winning AEC project interviews

Johnston Training Group


Your team was the most experienced, your people were the most qualified, and your firm is expert in this type of project — yet you lost. Why? In Johnston Training Group's (JTG) experience coaching AEC teams and surveying selection panel members, five clear themes emerge as the foundation for winning interviews.

1. Purpose. Your purpose is to win the project. But what is the client's purpose? What do they hope to achieve with the project? Is the developer building this apartment for long-term use or to turn as an investment? Is the university lab going to focus on a specific type of research to attract the best scientists? To stimulate donations? Your stories and examples that reflect deep understanding of a client's purpose prove to panel members that you will be a strategic partner and maximize their ability to meet their purpose.

2. Passion. All teams are passionate about their work, but just saying that doesn't benefit the client. In fact, it is a blow to many teams to learn that talking about how passionate they are about their work can leave a negative impression. Team members can sound rigid and difficult to work with. Instead, demonstrate passion through action. Get to know the key players, know the site like the back of your hand, communicate clearly, and listen attentively.

Speak authentically from the heart and the panel will pick up on your desire to work on their project. If you're interviewing virtually, this requires extra energy to overcome the numbing effect of communicating through a screen.

3. People. Selection panels often tell JTG, “We are choosing who we want to work with.” Since all the teams in the final selection process are made up of qualified people, winning often hinges on what panelists describe in different ways as “the right fit.” Making a connection with panelists isn't on the scoresheet, but it is critical to being selected. That connection can only happen when team members are their true selves — not scripted, overcoached, or affected by nervousness.

The best connections happen when team members describe what inspires them to do what they do. In the superhero universe this is called an “origin story.” In the real world, it's someone sharing what led him or her to become the project manager, architect, or superintendent they are today. Was it a parent or mentor? Watching a building going up across the street as a kid? A memorable experience that resulted in a career change?

JTG has unearthed many powerful origin stories during coaching sessions. An engineer who put together amazing Lego buildings as a child. An architect who sketched out her ideal dollhouse design on her mom's drafting table. A superintendent who took apart the lawn mower at age five — and put it back together at age seven. No two origin stories are alike, and once panel members hear one, they will understand what inspired someone to become the professional they are today. Origin stories should be short and used selectively during interview introductions. They are a good way to demonstrate the passion for what someone has chosen as their life's work.

4. Process. Teams often fall into the trap of talking about what they will do without explaining how they will do it. Because all the teams are proposing to accomplish the same thing, panel members (especially the nontechnical ones) need to understand how you will get from A to Z. That's why clear processes — broken down into steps, phases, or other understandable parts — are key to differentiating teams from their competitors.

The more routine the process, the greater the opportunity to stand out from the crowd. Safety, QC, and communication processes are often glossed over or covered by general boilerplate language. Who would you rather hire — a team that says, “We are great listeners,” or a team that says, “This is the step-by-step process we use to resolve a miscommunication.” Or “We ask at the beginning of the project whether you prefer to be contacted by text, phone, or email.”

When a panel understands your processes, they understand how you think. And when they understand how you think, trust increases — and they are one step closer to hiring you.

5. Price. Losing an interview hurts. Winning an interview and then losing on price hurts more. Pay careful attention to how the panel has structured the points around cost. In one recent project pursuit, a team was ahead overall after the interview but a close second on price when the bids were opened. However, the owner assigned such a large point difference between first and second place on costs that the team came up just short.

Firms often have a hidden motivation regarding how low they will go with their final numbers, and it can be a guessing game of “How low will the other guy go?” Many firms that compete against each other regularly have a good idea of their competitors' price points. And panels report that firms sometimes underestimate their costs and try to make them up later through change orders. At the end of the day, price the job realistically.

“Done right, you are never really selling,” said Jim Dugan, Owner's Representative services group manager at Parametrix. “You are simply introducing yourself and your team, your energy, attitude, and understanding of what matters most to your prospective client. If all of that resonates, it does not matter how many other firms are competing. If none of that matters to your prospective client, you should not want to work for them. It takes a great deal of discipline to let go of the outcome and be fully present in the moment. Yet when you do, you and your team are the best versions of yourselves, and you win whether they choose you or not.”


No firm can win every interview, nor should it. Focusing on the five P's will enable your team to make their best case to the panel on why they are the right choice — and improve every time they prepare for and participate in an interview. To learn more about winning AEC strategies, go to jtgroup.com/insights.

Scott Johnston is president at Johnston Training Group, which offers interview coaching, presentation skills and business development training programs for AEC firms.

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