How Do You Know When You’re a Principal?

In working with clients, I’ve often been asked this question, most frequently by a senior person who thinks he or she ought to be made a principal in their firm, or by the firm’s leadership team when they’re considering elevating a person. Most often, though, the question is posed after a person has been named a principal, and the leaders are struggling with how to define the new principal’s role or job description. Just because a person is made a principal, it doesn’t mean they automatically know how to act upon the change in their role in the firm. What should they be held accountable for? What behavior should they display?

In defining the role of a principal, we need to take a look at what needs to be done to lead a firm or a team of people to achieve success. Here’s my inventory of the tasks or roles that need careful attention at all times for an enterprise to be successful – for its clients, for the people in the firm, for financial success. In fact, this holds for all stakeholders, including consultants, a jurisdiction’s building and planning departments, bankers, contractors and sub-contractors, vendors and their sales teams, and everyone else who participates with or comes in contact with your team/firm. I suggest firms think of the principal role in this holistic fashion.

Here are some roles for you to consider:

  • Make it the entire team’s responsibility to achieve client satisfaction. Make each team member a part of monitoring how your client feels about the way you are serving them, shaping your services to continually improve that relationship. Measure your success in this role through repeat and referral business from your clients. Continually develop relationships with potential clients and those who can introduce or recommend you to them. Be an active networker in the community. Continually nurture the relationships you’ve established.
  • Create a collaborative working environment for everyone involved in your work, including all internal and external stakeholders. You can treat the building inspector or contractor as your enemy, or as a collaborator in achieving excellence. It’s up to your leadership to create an atmosphere that inspires all participants to be part of achieving excellence.
  • Apply a management style that achieves financial success, for the firm and for your client. As a leader, does your team understand the tasks they’re being charged with and the time/fees they have to accomplish these tasks well? Do they feel that they share the responsibility to do so, or do they resent what you’ve thrown at them?
  • Foster an environment that achieves a positive team esprit, happiness, sense of pride in accomplishment. Encourage on-going professional learning and career development among team members.
  • Develop a design approach that is driven by your client’s needs, budget and schedule, not just by your desire to win design recognition. These are not mutually exclusive goals. In fact if you don’t seek to achieve both objectives, you’re not excelling. Share your design innovation and successes with others in the firm and within the profession and marketplace at large in order to bring visibility to your work and to advance the “state of the art” in the profession.
  • Continually strive for technical innovation and excellence in the quality of your drawings and specifications, through continual learning about how best to communicate with contractors and subcontractors, and through your knowledge of materials and systems and how they perform in the real world.

All of these roles must be executed with skill, energy and commitment, but in the real world, there is no single individual who can or wants to be accountable for high achievement in each of these realms. This is why we, at Gensler, had a “rule of two” (and sometimes three) leaders of a “studio,” our basic business unit. These leaders were driven by and capable of leading in one or more of these areas. Typically, one would be an “outside” person, really good at marketing and communication, listening well to and designing for a client. Another might be more of an “inside” person, focusing on technical excellence, creating a collaborative environment among team members and other stakeholders.

Each leader should develop his or her own set of strengths and interests based on personal passion, ability and energy, always searching for a partner or two with complementary strengths. As you develop your own specific strengths, take ownership of one or more of the roles I’ve described above. Accept responsibility for achieving excellence in that role. Identify your complementary partner(s). This is how the leaders of your firm will come to know that you are ready to become a principal.

If you’re the leadership team, this is how you’ll recognize those who should be promoted and how you’ll define their role as a principal.

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