Demand what you’re worth

To gain more respect, demand what you want—or even say no.


In a Consulting-Specifying Engineer article in April 2011 entitled “Successful engineering in the 21st century,” I posited that for an engineer to be successful in the 21st century, he or she needed to develop skills around three things:

  1. Vision and the world
  2. Situational leadership, strategy, and systems thinking
  3. Organizational leadership.

Now, I would like to put forth the proposition that the engineering profession and engineers suffer from a lack of self-esteem and a lack of fortitude to demand what we are worth.

Throughout my career and my involvement in many professional organizations, I have continually heard engineers bemoan the fact that they feel we don’t get the respect or remuneration we deserve. They point to myriad examples of how engineers have made the world better and are not recognized for that work.

About a decade ago, I was telling a fellow engineer that I served on the board of an insurance company. He asked what I was paid for that work, and I said it worked out to be about $1,000 per hour. His response was, "You are not worth that much." To which I responded, "Yes, I am. Someone is paying me that, so they must think I am worth it, and the real problem is that you don’t think you are worth it."

I once attended a conference where the keynote speaker noted that engineers are more responsible for extending life expectancy than the medical profession. There was a palpable sense of disbelief in the audience. The engineers were asking themselves, “How could that be? We don’t do things like that.”

The speaker then noted that the two biggest reasons that life expectancy had been extended were clean water and better sanitation—just look at sanitation in the Third World and life expectancy there. You could see the entire audience smile in unison. They realized that their profession had been responsible for something that had brought real, tangible life benefits to people.

I personally have served on the boards of large publicly traded companies, one an insurance company and the other a utility. If we polled engineers in private practice, I bet less than 10% would answer yes when asked if they were qualified for board positions. While I did not actively search for board positions, I made myself available for them. And over the years I built my skill set, my belief in myself, and my network so I would be ready for the positions when they presented themselves.

There is an old saying, "If you don't ask, you don't get." And my grandfather (an engineer) said that the most profitable word in the English language often is “no.”

Too often I have heard engineers say, "We had no other choice than to take the fee and terms offered." Sure you had a choice—you could have said no. I realize that it is difficult to say no; it might hurt your business, force you to let staff go, and require you to take other unpleasant actions. But by saying yes, you are often throwing good money after bad.

If you stand up and say no, you just might garner the client’s respect

Over the years, many clients have asked me why I should change the fee or terms when I have firms that will agree to them. If engineers and the engineering profession want to gain more respect and a more prominent place in our society, they need to believe in themselves and demand the position.

John F. Hennessy III is a principal in the firm of Hennessy Energy, an energy conservation and project performance-consulting firm. He is the former chairman of the board and CEO of the Syska Hennessy Group.

Neil , CA, United States, 03/24/14 09:58 PM:

Easier to write this article in 2014 in lieu of 2010-2013
DAVID D , OH, United States, 03/29/14 08:51 AM:

Mr. Hennessy make a strong point, to which I must concur. Many engineers reflect the attitude discussed. They take projects for less then they should. Yes, they have work for which they make less value then the effort needed to appropriately complete it successfully.
Jerry , MO, United States, 04/14/14 03:16 PM:

The proposition has great merit. As a profession, our aversion to 'interpersonal relationships' makes it difficult for us to convince our clients of our value. Further, as a second and third tier subconsultant, we have allowed ourselves to be insulated from our clients and their real needs for far too long. You can certainly ask for what you think you are worth. But, if it respect you seek, remember you have to earn that. And that requires that we engage with our clients in productive ways in which our value is determined not by our sales pitch but by the obvious delivered value that our solutions provide our clients.
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