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Robert Uhler

About Robert Uhler

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So far has created 48 blog entries.

The Indelible Christmas

 

This last month I received a request from the National Archives Foundation asking me to write down some experiences from my tour of duty in Vietnam combat. Apparently, this is a national effort to gather the stories before they are lost in a disappearing generation. I have dozens of memoirs from my tour of duty, but here I’ve chosen to recall these two, because they describe how fragile life can be.

I served on the front lines of combat in Viet Nam and, in retrospect; Christmas Eve 1970 was the most formative and life-challenging month of my life. It was the first day of the so-called “Christmas truce.”

U.S. soldiers in field operations hated the Christmas Cease Fire truce that was about to start on December 24th at 10pm and go through New Year’s Day. The Christmas truce concept during war, dating from WWI, was created by Christian countries without considering that it made no sense to the non-Christian enemy we were fighting in 1965-1973. The truce was negotiated that both sides would stop all maneuvers and shooting at each other for six days. The U.S. politicians thought is was a great symbolic idea, but the enemy thought of it as an opportunity with one-sided rules of engagement intentions.

Throughout the Viet Nam war, that “Christmas truce” ended up being a most harrowing week for our troops in the field of combat­, and a chance for the enemy to take advantage of static U.S. field positions. In this war, the Americans owned the day with firepower and the Vietnamese owned the nights with surprise and ambush. Successful night ambushes from the enemy were set up by probes and exploration to understand weak spots in our defenses. That took […]

By |December 16th, 2016|Career Lessons|2 Comments

Characteristics Of Great Business Leaders

 

My consulting role exposes me to some great corporate leaders. When you run across an accomplished and talented corporate leader, their uniqueness from the mass of contemporaries is like red lights flashing. They are different, but have common characteristics to one another. Characteristics of individuals who fit in my ‘real and effective leader’ category include the following:

They have a sense of purpose or vision, and have the ability to articulate it in simple concepts. They can visualize the destination. They are consistently dedicated and focused to accomplish the vision, and can avoid the distraction of divided attention. They are often more into creation than maintenance or incremental improvements. They are open to innovation and new ideas as long as they support the accomplishment of the end vision.
They are energetically driven to accomplish something and show progress. They are impatient. Often their greatest fear is not having enough time. They have the ability to translate their frustration of slow action in others into productive inspiration without being demoralizing. They inject energy into organizations.
They have a value-based and intuitive decision-making style that uses analytics only as a supplement. They realize that getting ever more analytical when it comes to decision-making has diminishing returns against the benefit of getting on with it. They are not afraid of making mistakes because they are confident that they can correct their mistakes later. Their value-based foundation gives them protection against unpredictable decisions that causes disorientation and freezes subordinates in similar situations.
They have the amazing tenacity to overcome obstacles. They don’t quit. They see problems as expected potholes on the journey to successful results. They are not afraid of setbacks as long as a learning curve is embedded […]

By |November 1st, 2016|Career Lessons|0 Comments

Historic Walls Provide A Clue

Don’t Cling To History
Today I seem to be doing more strategy consulting and advisory work for engineering and construction firms, after a three-year hiatus to avoid conflict of interest after leaving corporate management. I am usually called in when things aren’t going great—either revenue is flat or declining and overhead is rising. That formula leads to declining profit and sustainability.

Engineering firms are the easiest enterprises to determine what is wrong and the hardest to get to do anything about it. They are stubborn and set in their ways. They are a people business, so business change means getting a mindset change in a diverse and distributed leadership base. At the exposed level of the iceberg, the problem will appear to be poor personnel utilization and low backlog. But that only indicates a more critical, below the surface problem of not having a competitive product and/or the marketing ability to sell it. The firm is just not winning enough work to allow it to hire new people and stay fresh, so they get older. The older the firm, the more energy goes down and expectations decline. The older managers complain that the new generation is not as talented as they are. It can be self-fulfilling prophesy and a resultant downward spiral.

Many of these firms have a long heritage of success that proves to the management that they must have had the ‘right’ model. Awards, plaques and project photos line the walls that beautifully describe the past leadership, the company’s stages of growth and landmark projects. Many older firms also have their age embedded into their business cards and letterheads.

I think all this is fine…if the company is doing well. ‘If it is not broken, don’t fix it.’ […]

By |October 6th, 2016|Career Lessons|0 Comments

Risk Management, The Precursor To Profitability

 

In 2002, after having been a CEO for a couple of years, I faced a looming liquidity crisis. I had several large stockholders who wanted their stock repurchased, total accounts receivables (AR) globally of >110 days (not unusual for significant offshore AR content), and the company was annually losing significant profit on four to six projects out of the firm’s portfolio of hundreds of jobs. I was quickly heading to a point of no return for liquidity that required urgent action. An independent director came to me and said, “Bob, you could make some money to solve your problems if you could just stop those bleeders.’ So simple, but so correct! I knew that was great advice but it required more than just doing that.

I immediately initiated three separate efforts:

A ‘war on the receivables’ to reduce them by 30 days within six months;
Continue to grow the best clients’ revenue as fast as possible; and
Reduce the number of losing projects by one half through better risk management.

 

I did not want to co-mingle, confuse and dilute the efforts, so I created three separate cross-discipline teams to set goals and implementation. I gave each team wide authority to institute policies by studying risk management from larger and more sophisticated firms. Perhaps it was just luck, but in 18 months we had repatriated nearly $200m of AR from our clients, doubled our profit margins (only by reducing the number of large losing projects) and had a demanding and disciplined risk management program in place going forward.

This article is on the topic of risk management.

Risk Management is certainly one of the most mundane topics to write about. If you ask a CEO whether they have a good […]

By |September 1st, 2016|Career Lessons|0 Comments

Look In The Mirror For Your Best Career Advisor

 

These days I occasionally have younger professionals say to me: “Bob, you seem to write from the level of the CEO and often it is not applicable to us. Can you give some advice to people in mid-career?”

OK, here it is: Don’t believe the propaganda of your company’s human resource department relative to their interest in your career development. They are there only to serve the immediate needs of the enterprise, not your career. If the two interests coincide, it is accidental. In good times, they might spend some money on their employees’ development, but in any financially stressful times, they will stop all programs. For example, too many times I have seen great corporate universities opened with enormous effort and cost only to quickly close based on temporary economics. Your career development must be tenaciously selfish, not waiting for better economic times.

That means that the best career advisor or developer is YOU. Don’t delegate or expect it. Take charge of your own career. Plan it and work to make it happen regardless of the stop-and-go interest of your employer.

I do recognize that I have a generational gap issue on what is considered “success” today. My generation was taught that success was striving to be the person in charge, so excuse this article if it does not match your goals. I’ll continue with my lessons learned hoping those who don’t want to be the ultimate leaders of an organization will still find ideas to glean.

In any organization I have been associated with, there is a ladder hierarchy. In service organizations the job roles slowly move from content orientation to business process. For instance, the lowest level of an accounting firm is an accountant (content) while […]

By |August 1st, 2016|Career Lessons|0 Comments

Saving Private Ryan Companies

 

Last month I had a very lucrative, but sad day.

I spent nearly four decades in the same private employee-held service sector company, the final eleven years as its CEO. Over my career, I witnessed it achieve world-class status in its focused sector of global water infrastructure. Three years ago, I left the management for an independent consulting practice but, as did other senior retirees with large holdings, retained a stock position in a multi-year sell-down allowing the company continued use of my investment capital.

Since I left the management team, the firm repeatedly told its employees of its exciting future as evidenced by its ever-growing record backlog, strategically enhancing acquisitions and improving internal efficiency. They credited much of the success to the dedication and care of employees who were also the sole owners.

But last fall, the Board quietly self-initiated a structured sales process with about a dozen self-chosen firms and sold this spring to a public company—to the surprise of its shareholders, employees and the industry. When the deal closed I benefited through my residual stock’s escalation, but it was a depressing day for me. Another mid-sized, privately held, services company was gone…this time; it was the firm to which I had dedicated my career.

As a result of the acquisition, many of the latent ambitions of both individuals and the company’s leadership, that was not possible before the sale, may now be achieved with the new configuration. The buyer is an established public company in the infrastructure space with proven leadership and better accessibility to growth capital. All this may be true, but sadly, the merger results in the rapid evaporation of my former company’s enterprise legacy and independence. And that change is irreversible. There is […]

By |June 7th, 2016|Career Lessons|2 Comments