Climbing the Professional Growth ladder in four Steps

In support of Burwell Consultants, William M. Burwell writes articles sharing his experience in four keystone practice areas: Design; Marketing, Firm Management and Project Management.  Check him out at

Practice Management Post 1.6

It's a funny thing, visiting with staff in annual reviews or on more frequent occasions,   younger staff want things defined, written down, they want to avoid confusion and enjoy seeing a clear path.  Actually most employers do as well.  One question that seems to pop up in my staff reviews regards professional growth.  There is keen interest in how one gets from point A to point B and typically it's the smaller firms that simply haven't thought that far along.  It's a fair question and one that deserves a studied answer.  Here is how I boiled the subject down to 4 keys for professional growth and my attitude towards each, taken directly from my Manifesto of Operations:

Individual Professional Growth – 

In the normal course of our individual professional growth experience, many times we find we need to change firms to broaden our experience and depth of knowledge.  Sometimes this is just what happens and if it does, it does.  However, I want each of us in this firm to experience the best training and professional growth possible within the discipline that we practice.  I would like that education to include not only the design practice, but other aspects such as project management, firm management, accounting, marketing and business principals as well.  In this way I want to continue to grow very well rounded individuals who build value for the firm and all our members.
  1. Work Process – My idea is simple.  If I treat you like a professional you will behave like a professional and you will grow into one much faster.  However, while I want your positions here to be challenging, I never want nor intend to put you in a position of failure.  For this to be win-win, it requires good cross communication.  You need clear instructions and guidance, and I will need feedback on areas that you need help with to complete your assignments.  Ask questions.  Questions do not make you look incompetent, they make you look intelligent.  It is important to know what you don’t know.

  2. Do someone else’s job – In this office the most valuable person is one who works upwards on the experience chain and begins performing at a higher level.  Example:  If I, as principal, spend the day filing, typing and keeping things organized - then I am working at a clerk or intern level.  The potential income from my position is eroded.  If on the other hand, a clerk or intern learns to anticipate what the person on the next experience level needs such as transmittals, plotting orders, prints, copies or self examines their work before issuing – then they begin to work at a much higher level, leveraging their position into one of substantially greater value to the firm.  This is the key to an individual’s growth in position and salary.  If all this is true, then what, might you ask is the principal’s job.  The answer is the same, I need to do the job of the client and protect his dollars and project to the benefit of his company.  This is what is going to elevate me to his level.

  3. Expect perfection – Do not tolerate mediocrity.  Deliver with accuracy.  Spelling, math, grammar, form, style and substance should all be as perfect as humanly possibly.  Our image and our professionalism is only as good as our weakest link or performance.  Use spell check.  No excuses.  Type and print all communiqués.  Write and re-read all emails thoroughly before sending.  If you must use hand writing, letter clearly and precisely.  Please understand that other professionals notice.  Our clients notice and judge our performance accordingly.  They suffer no fools.

  4. Licensing and Registration – Each of us owes it to ourselves to complete our personal growth from our education into licensing and registration.  I believe that this is your individual responsibility.  I expect each of you to be working towards this goal.  It is not too much for an employer to ask.  We provide professional services to our clients and my intent is that each of us will become a licensed professional in our individual capacities of Architecture, Interior Design or both.  At some point, the firm may choose to support certain fees, or memberships in professional organizations, but attaining the goal is an individual responsibility.


Sometimes it can seem odd to discuss the banalities of work ethic, responsibility, quality of work, and professionalism but honestly these topics are typically taken for granted and writing down a few rules of the road might be just what the your staff needs to see.  It provides a clear path and one that can be looked at annually to evaluate progress.  Now, maybe there should be another checklist for becoming partner, but that is a story for another day.


William M. Burwell  is a retired Architect and Interior Designer whose career focused on corporate interior architecture in sole proprietorships, and partnerships from 9 to 120 staff.  Bill retired in 2014 and began a Small Firm Marketing and Management Consulting firm to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years.   He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence.