September 10, 2020
Karen Johnston, Queen of the Interview, will be retiring this month
Photo by the Johnston Training Group
Johnston has been teaching professionals for over 40 years.
Many in the AEC community may know Karen Johnston, especially those in need of a little help getting this important project interview through.
Johnston founded the Johnston Training Group in 1979 and has since shown tons of companies how to pitch the perfect pitch to get new work. She said the AEC teams she coached have won 71 projects over the years. The company also trains presentation skills, business development and stress management.
Later this month, aged 79, Johnston will be leaving the company now run by her son Scott Johnston.
“I absolutely love what I do,” said Johnston. “I’ve never been bored with what I’ve been doing for over 40 years.”
How did she get here?
Johnston’s career path began with 5 years of primary school teaching followed by a few years off to raise Scott.
Johnston said she didn’t want to go back to the public school system, but she still loved teaching and came up with the idea of holding a seminar on stress management. That was the beginning of the Johnston Training Group.
|Wish Johnston a happy zoom style retirement|
Date: September 24th
Time: 4 pm-5:30pm
Invitations: [email protected]
Johnston had no experience running a business but was a good speaker and teacher who relied on instincts to get through.
Johnston marketed their seminars through association speaking and networking. Then the Seattle Chamber of Commerce asked her to give a presentation skills seminar for their after-work program. Johnston said dozens showed up instead of the usual 20 attendees, and that added to the work, and she put together a series of four half-day seminars on the subject.
Johnston found that she enjoyed working with groups – and that way she could do more billing.
These chamber presentations led to consulting services for an Everett bank, and then large firms like Honeywell and Sundstrand hired Johnston to train their staff.
In the late 1980s, Johnston began coaching groups of 12 to 18 workers from the city of Seattle. She said she learned to deal with every type of personality in these groups. “That was my training ground,” she said. “Now I can go into almost any group and make them productive.”
Coaching law firms became a focus of the company in the late 1990s, with much of that training focused on public speaking. Johnston said she’d like to keep the classes small, but there were some out-of-town seminars that had 500 attendees.
A turning point for the company came in 2002 when Seattle architecture firm Mithun enlisted Johnston to coach its employees on the High Point housing project that it was shortlisted for. She said she didn’t know what an RFP was at the time but knew how to give presentations. It turns out Mithun won this project – and nine out of twelve others that Johnston has trained the company on.
“I was walking on the water then,” she said.
Not knowing much about coaching for project interviews at the time, Johnston 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 interviewed around 100 of these panel members personally over a period of several years and asked them what is important to their decision-making.
Armed with the results of these interviews, Johnston turned their company focus on the AEC industry, calling it a “breakthrough” decision. Soon she was working 12 hour days to keep up.
One of her big clients is The Miller Hull Partnership, where she coached the Seattle-based architect on 25 projects.
Perhaps their biggest “win” for Miller Hull was in 2009 when the company defeated eight national competitors to design the San Ysidro crossing between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. Not only was it a huge project, but it was also the first time Miller Hull worked in the sector.
The Johnston Training Group bases its training on the learner, not the teacher. Johnston said their job is to help customers make better use of what they already know by improving it. She said that all customers do is a skill that needs to be practiced, such as making speeches.
Training with Johnston begins with a face-to-face interview so she can find out which skills need improvement.
“We work with really bright, successful people,” she said. “We don’t do three-ring binder training.”
One of the skills that has helped Johnston AEC companies improve is business development. She said that many AEC employees are used to managing projects that follow patterns and have few gray areas, but these people are not familiar with business development, which is very different from project management. She said her company gave them a business development model.
The Johnston Training Group has held a business development course for technical professionals under the local chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies for the past 13 years. Johnston said that every class but one was sold out and several were added during that time.
On the engineering side, Johnston has worked with many superintendents on presentation skills over the years.
“They are so wonderful people and brilliant at what they do, but if you put them in a conference room they are paralyzed,” she said of old school superintendents.
She once had a superintendent attend an interview with his baseball hat because he was more comfortable with it. This is in line with interviews with panelists, in which some said they wanted to see superintendents walk in with mud on their shoes.
Johnston said that superintendents are younger and more demanding now when it comes to presentations.
When Johnston asked which group – architects, engineers, or contractors – to work with, he said that there is no one better than the other, they are just different. She said contractors are straightforward thinkers, while engineers are sequential and methodical, and architects want to create a PowerPoint slide for anything they say.
“I’m notorious for reducing 75 PowerPoint slides down to six meaningful slides,” she said.
And the lawyers she trained for five years before focusing on the AEC community? Johnston said they need to be confident in their work, but sometimes not, especially the younger ones.
SCOTT TAKES OVER
Scott joined the company in 2015 after pursuing a career in strategic writing for several large companies. He shadowed his mother for six months to delve into the company and added strategic writing to his offerings.
Karen said Scott was not a good speaker at first, but learned the system and became an excellent speaker. “He did the extra work,” she said.
Scott bought the company in 2016. Karen said it was wonderful to have Scott as a boss and partner. She said they had to make some tough decisions but never argued.
Karen’s last seminar is for an architecture firm in Spokane today, where she and Scott will report on business development.
Scott had a retirement party planned, but the pandemic changed that. Now is a Zoom party for September 24th with over 75 people expected.
Johnston said one of her clients in California held a virtual retirement party for her in late July, where everyone had the opportunity to say something. “It was nice,” she said.
Retirement gives Johnston an opportunity to relax after a longer career. She said the pandemic with her stay at home had given her a preview of retirement.
In the next stage of her life, Johnston plans to read and spend more time with her husband and may take a cruise or two when that industry returns. She said she had traveled a lot over the years, including 25 cruises.
“I’ve made my contribution to the professional world and now I can rest and enjoy myself,” she said.
Benjamin Minnick can be reached by email or phone at (206) 622-8272.