Stall-Out: What's a mid-sized firm to do?

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

Marketing Post 4.8

While the giant firms rage on with momentum, excellent marketing staff and budget, and small firms use their acumen and agility to gain a market foothold, what does the average, mid-sized professional firm do to make the leap, not necessarily up to big firm levels but certainly to greater success and market share?

Interviews reveal that as firms grow, the founding principals get very busy doing what they do best, design and delivery of projects.  Time that used to be able to be carved out for marketing, business development, firm management and sales succumbs to the simple need to get the work out the door.  Principals wrestle with hiring in fear of future layoffs, and burnout leads to stall-out and the loss of their innate creative edge and intensity of management.

Here are three important steps to help you break this cycle:

  1. Stop and take a break.  Do some honest introspection as to what you are actually doing.  Remember, you are not what you think you are, but rather you are what you do day to day.  As business volume grew, did you back off your participation in marketing and BD activities just to control the projects?   Do you feel like you have earned your wings and shouldn't have to do that any longer?  After all, can't the younger guys do that now?  Analyze how you have been spending your time as principal.  Remember that the culture of change goes from the top, down.
  2. Analyze the recent past. Note the changes, study your projects and profitability and understand YOUR market share.  Did you take work because of the opportunity or because it fit your business plan?  As your firm grew, did you adequately hire staff between you and everyone else.  Are you a "flat" organization or an efficient "pyramid" of operational delegation.  Most principals and managers can handle about 10-12 staff before a second manager is needed to effectively take care of business.  Do you have adequate administrative support?
  3. Create a map to the mine.  Likely you know where the gold lies but you've been distracted and your energy diffused.  Bring a consultant / facilitator on board to ask the hard questions and direct the activity.  Bring in your management to add their observations to the mix and understand what they are experiencing. A third party can often read between the lines of frustration and stall out to help your team with creative solutions.  Create a annual plan of action, keeping what works and dumping the marginal work and unnecessary distractions. Re-focus your energy on the plan and what you and only you as principal can do.  Begin a process of delegation to the next level of management. Engage everyone.

For some, the task of following 1, 2, & 3 above can be daunting, especially if your head is underwater. An annual business plan puts your team in a position of strength and will serve as the ray of sunshine that lifts the fog.  Take time to do a mid-year course check, monitor progress, be nimble and adjust on the fly. Next year at this time you will be smiling and looking up.

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.