Principal Leadership; Choosing the Next Generation

September 15, 1998 · by Scott Simpson, FAIA

Finding the right people to run the firm you've built up is a lot like finding eagles--you have to do it one at a time. Ensuring that your comrades...or successors share your values and vision isn't as easy as it sounds.

Many an ambitious young architect has worked hard to become a firm principal, thinking that once this goal was reached, life would become simple. Adoring clients would walk in the door, awe-struck subordinates would follow every order, and consultants and contractors alike would instantly implement all design decisions. The truth, of course, is just the opposite.

Becoming a principal means that life gets much more complicated. Rather than having only one boss at a time, a firm leader must answer to many. This includes not only external bosses (clients, bankers, reviewing agencies), but internal bosses-the very subordinates that the principal purports to lead. Why? Because being a firm principal means that you are responsible for the entire organization--you must find and secure work, you must hire and train the right people, you must create design that is both imaginative and practical, and you must do all this on schedule and within budget. Make no mistake about it--running a firm is not the same thing as running a project. It's the difference between playing an instrument and leading an orchestra.

Smart principals understand this. They learn how to identify the critical issues that need the most attention. They think strategically, find a way to motivate others, and they delegate everything that moves. If they are really smart, they also start thinking about the next generation of leadership from day one. Why? Because if they don't do this, they risk becoming the last principal that the firm will ever have.

It is ironic but true that the best test of successful leadership is how well the firm is prepared for the next generation to take over. The landscape is littered with the carcasses of many once-proud firms which have lost influence because leadership transition was not a priority. One of the most important jobs of a principal is to make sure that there is an ample supply of talented, well-trained future leaders, at least one of whom will be able to do a much better job of running the firm than the current boss. Without an ethic of continually developing new leadership, the firm is in serious jeopardy.

How does leadership get passed from one generation to the next? Every year, a new crop of first-year students enters design school. A very few among them will emerge as leaders of their generation. Who are they? How do you spot the talent? How do you get them to work at your firm? And once you get them in the door, how do you get them to stay? These are critical questions for any principal worth the title. Identifying, training, and motivating talent is the single most important success factor for any firm regardless of size, location or market focus. Why? Because a firm is only as good as its people. If you doubt this, try producing a project without a team...it's like trying to play baseball alone.

So how do you go about finding your future leaders? First and foremost, you must be convinced that they exist, even if they are different from you. Don't look for clones, no matter how tempting or flattering that may be. Each generation of a firm must respond to different pressures and opportunities, and it is very likely that tomorrow's leaders will need different skills. Instead, look for values. In any talent pool, find the top ten percent--those who will find a way to rise to the top like bubbles in a carbonated beverage. They may not be obvious at first. Future leaders come in all sizes, shapes, and backgrounds, but they do share some common characteristics. Foremost among these are curiosity, the ability to deal with people, and the ability to hold attention. Curious people never stop learning--they read, they attend seminars, they bug you about continuing education, they participate in professional committees, they develop new skills, and they bring their enthusiasm with them to the office. For them, the line between the personal life and the professional life is a fuzzy one--they find a way to integrate the two. They see their professional careers as a lifelong commitment.

Curious types tend to have good people skills because they are interested in the world around them and what makes it tick. They have the ability to see more than one point of view at a time, and to understand conflict from a variety of perspectives without being judgmental. They recognize that everyone, without exception, has value to offer, and that the trick is to figure out what that might be and then engage it in a productive way. They may be passionate or opinionated, but they are also tolerant. They respect the feelings of others even when they don't agree with them on every point. They know when to be politically expedient without compromising their core values. In short, they are inclusive, not exclusive thinkers.

The combination of curiosity, consideration, and commitment creates a leadership style that holds attention. When there is a project meeting, a client presentation, or an office conference, pay attention to those whose words and actions affect the audience. Personal style is not the issue here--rather it is the ability to be an impact player, one who can articulate a sense of direction for the group. It doesn't necessarily take great oratory to move a crowd...sometimes a quiet comment or a perceptive question will do the job. While some people might strive for attention, others will concentrate on the outcome. There is a big difference between the two. Pay attention to those in your firm who think clearly and produce results, because those are the people your clients will be paying attention to.

Once you have found your "acorns", nurture them until they become oak trees. Challenge them with new assignments. Encourage them to get involved in community activities where they will meet many different kinds of people. Send them to seminars and conferences, and expect a full report and a presentation to the firm when they return. Demand that they take chances, and allow them to make mistakes. This will increase both confidence and humility at the same time--a most powerful combination. Finally, teach them to teach others. Make sure that the ethic of passing along leadership doesn't stop with you, or with them, but is embedded in the next generation down the line-the one that is in kindergarten today.

Actively promoting the growth of new leaders and giving away power might seem like a dangerous thing to do, but in fact it is the only safe path to the future. For when your successors are successful, so are you.

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