Old dogs / New Tricks: Sustaining the practice.

"No one....not a soul.  I can count on one hand the likely candidates who might possess leadership skills AND a solid business sense to run my business". 

Founding Principals looking forward to sharing or transitioning leadership frequently and painfully observe that few staff think and behave like them.  Often as those entrepreneurial principals begin to grow their support staff, they hire excellent, skilled staff but not typically entrepreneurial.  The founding principals provide the drive, the relationships, the energy to propel the firm and they look for staff that can run projects and deliver the goods.  As life moves on, firms can find themselves very well supported as the firm becomes a virtual machine with excellence in project design and delivery.  Its a winning formula except for one thing.

How businesses move themselves forward is really not a mystery.  Working for large corporations like Lloyd's Register, GE, JPMChase, Diamond Shamrock and others,  I noticed a common thread.  My division or headquarters contact, sometimes during our project, would be reassigned from one role to another, sometimes in a different city but certainly in a different division or operating unit.  When I asked the inevitable question, the answer, without hesitation, was that they were being groomed for a larger role but had to bring deep, across the organization experience, up the ladder with them to insure future corporate success.  Rotating experiences, cross-division or departmental knowledge creates richer, better balanced leadership with sensitivities to the entire business.  Even my law firm clients rotate principals as Managing Principal to grow a team with a strong understanding of how things work.  It's a leadership track. This is business sustainability - with intent.  

But what does this mean to a 10 or 20 person service firm?  Or, even more dramatically, a larger 30-50 person service firm with 20 years under their belt?

  • Small practices may have a single service - Warehouses, or Civic Buildings, or Interior Architecture like my specialty has been.  In these firms cross-training would include Practice Management, Marketing, Design and Project Management.  Even with a single design focus you can see there is a lot for a younger staff practitioner to learn if they are ever to co-manage or take over your practice.
  • Medium to large firms should consider horizontal movement from practice area to practice area as a requisite for young staff practitioners to gain sensitivities to drivers, markets, project design and delivery and clients in all the firms specialties.  This should be blended with mentoring in critical Practice Management areas including Marketing.  What an immensely valuable person you would be developing as a future principal or leader.

Younger practices might forecast a solid 20 years out while mature firms may see some type of horizon around 5-10 years.  Regardless, the measure of the plan is whether it meets the needs of the firm and contains a strategy for attaining the desired results. A successful plan is much more about the people you hire than the type of practice you have created.  As my version of the Chinese proverb goes, "the best time to plant that tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is today."

It's complicated.  And, while it may seem that the easy path is just to keep working, if you end up happy with the results, luck was on your side.  But I am a believer that we make our own luck by setting forth with intent.  There is a reason the big boys do it the way they do.  Lesson learned.  If you are thinking about planting that tree, give me a call.  I'll buy the beer and bring a shovel.

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 Burwell Consulting a Firm Marketing and Management Consulting firm, to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years. Bill writes articles sharing his experience in four keystone practice areas: Marketing, Design, Project Management and Practice Management. He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence. Check him out at www.burwell-consulting.com