We see it in the news every day. Division. The media, politicians, powers that be, and the dreaded “THEY” all want us divided by race, color, gender, religion, and political parties. Pick a subject, and it can be divided into two sides, ready to battle against each other.

Aesop’s tale, “The Four Oxen and the Lion,” from where Mr. Henry’s quote is derived, tells the story of four oxen under daily attack by a lion. Initially, the oxen stand tail-to-tail when the lion attacks to guard against him in all directions.

One day, a quarrel fell among the oxen, and they each went to their separate corners of the field to graze. The lion, seizing the opportunity, attacked them one by one and ended all four lives.

The question becomes: why? Why divide us? As engineers, architects, and other members of the professional construction community, what purpose would dividing us serve?

The simple answer is always money. In the competitive bid market, the way to a lower price is to divide the community against each other in a race to the bottom. “He quoted you what? I’ll beat it by $1,000!” We battle our colleagues to “win the job.“ Our entire industry does us a complete disservice by insisting we make ourselves a commodity. No wonder we can’t advance our status as professionals.

If that wasn’t enough, to appease our clients, we do all our work upfront and wait months to get paid! What other professional services industry can you think of that does that? Private doctors charge you for an “office visit” before you leave. Private attorneys want a “retainer” to begin working on your case. Even your CPA will either take a portion of your tax return as payment or charge you full price before submitting your taxes.

How do we remedy the solution? The first step is to meet and talk with one another. We can’t hide in the shadows of our fees. We must be willing to share information and know that plenty of work is available to us all. Not every architect is suited for small tenant improvement work. Not every engineer is capable of completing a hospital. All contractors can’t build hotels. Have an abundance mindset and know that you find work within your specialty.

Next, we must stop the race to the bottom by asking our clients what they expect from us before submitting fees without being afraid to send them to a competitor if we feel it is a better fit. Do they want the lowest price? Maybe we know Architect Joe who can provide that for them. Do they want a superior design? Then Engineer Suzie is the right answer. Do they want it fast? Then select Contractor Kate. Her team is available and capable of fast but effective work.  

Finally, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard by stopping work when clients haven’t paid for our services. We should also be charging retainer fees up front to start work on a project. I’ve seen too many projects go unpaid because the owner decided not to build it, and therefore felt our work was unnecessary. Or pays a small portion of the construction when the building is nearly complete, then argues about the final payment because the paint is the “wrong color.” Remember, our skill sets are required to complete the project. That’s why the owner is hiring us.

Revolutionizing our industry to create greater value and, ultimately, more respect for our industry will take time. It will be a long process, but it needs to start now. The best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago. The second-best time is today. Plant the tree that our value is equal to that of other professional services and not to be commoditized. Charge according to the value you provide, not the square footage or time spent on the project. Respect yourself and your peers and have pride in your product, or owners will never respect us.