Orchestrating Leadership Transitions

Think of leadership not as a single person but as a team of individuals, each with his or her own strength and talent.

For years I’ve watched firms struggle with leadership transition, particularly firms started by one or more principals with engaging personalities and a certain design flair. Who can ever replace the “name(s) on the door”? These people are known and loved by clients, staff and partners cultivated over the years. Can anyone ever walk in their shoes? Can those legacy relationships be successfully transferred?

The architectural and engineering professions are rife with stories of leadership transition failure. Successes are few and far between, requiring finesse and careful planning.

Many firms going through transition opt for acquisition or merger, transferring leadership to and adopting the culture of the acquiring, or stronger firm. Culture invariably enters the conversation – whether a new leader or group of leaders succeeds the previous generation or the firm is acquired or merged. Stakeholders ask, “What will this business be like going forward? Will I fit in? Will I be well served?”

Leadership transition isn’t always wholesale. If a firm is led by a team of leaders who share common values and who are facile enough to step into another’s role when there is a vacancy, there’s a greater chance of seamless and successful transition. It’s like a runner in a relay handing off the baton. I’ve seen more successes when a well-balanced leadership team is able to integrate one new leader at a time into the team.

Which raises the question, “Is a firm best led by a single leader, supported by a leadership support team, or should the leadership team be co-equals, as in a partnership”? I look at the design professions as needing several discrete talents to round out what it takes for a firm to be successful:

  • Creativity. Whether in architecture or engineering, someone drives innovation, usually a conceptual person less driven by detail or business acumen. The most successful are those who have deep respect for the other talents and individuals required to offer a well-rounded and balanced approach to what clients need.
  • Salesmanship. No firm can survive without selling work. I’ve seen far too many creatives who believe they could do their best work – if only the client didn’t keep getting in the way. A salesman is constantly focused on the client’s needs. That person is attuned to what it will take to make the client’s business perform better
  • Management. Firms led by a strong creative are often lacking in tight management support and controls, migrating toward a successor who will maintain the status quo or simply manage things a little better. Some folks have a strong desire to create order and are more prone to doing things right than doing the right things – i.e., a manager vs. a creative. But to be successful, both are needed, and each must honor and respect what the other brings.
  • Business acumen. Some people are just better at knowing how to make money. I almost think it’s genetic, although in the nature vs. nurture argument, I usually find there’s something in a person’s background that has given them the insights and motivation to negotiate a favorable contract, manage the scope and work undertaken to fit the fee achieved, and maintain a close relationship with the client such that bills are paid on time. They tend also to be prudent about spending money, assuring the firm has the resources in facilities, tools and equipment to provide great service without gold-plating it.

I’ve never seen a single individual who embodies all of these talents in a balanced and effective fashion. In fact, the most successful models encourage creative conflict between them. Each person advocates strongly for his or her point of view, but each accepts that the other’s focus and point of view is necessary. They challenge each other until they achieve a balanced approach to everything they do.

As you approach leadership transition in your own firm, think of leadership not as a single person but as a team of individuals, each with his or her own strength and talent. Most importantly, these individuals must have a deep respect for each of the points of view necessary to experience leadership harmony and achieve excellence in our professions.

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One Response to Orchestrating Leadership Transitions

  1. Thomas Ward Thomas Ward says:

    There is a pretty large gulf between the firms with a solid, well functioning transition program and those who think they have a solid, well functioning transition program. The latter includes firms like Add Inc, Callison, SHW, RTKL, Hillier, Chong Partners, Granary, and so on.

    I have numerous clients who are at least 1/4 a generation off (most being 1/2 a generation or more off: where a generation = 20 years) of where they need to be to move the firm to the next generation. So many firms with 60-something owners dying to cash out, but scared silly to give the keys to the next generation, or give up the ego trip of being “the guy”.

    So we sell whole groups of people and change their culture, for better or worse. Most times, it seems from the screams and post merger dispersion of talent, for the worse.

    We’ll see a revolution of design firms, but not for about a decade. Most of the retiring firm owners should be cashed out by then, and a bright and capable younger generation will tire of being part of a large firms that value billable hours and salary-to-profitability ratios above all else. Hopefully they run their firms better than their forefathers.

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