How to balance operations and sustainability in a multi-city firm
A growing number of firms are combining two major responsibilities into one role: chief operating officer and sustainability director.
It’s a lot to juggle in a small firm, let alone a quickly growing one spread across multiple cities.
But Allen Schaffer, COO and Director of Sustainability at Moody Nolan, has handled the two roles for almost two years.
He shared his insights on how the roles overlap and diverge, how Moody Nolan has managed growth, and why success comes down to clear planning and communication.
Find the overlap between operations and sustainability
While two big responsibilities, operations and sustainability do have things in common that require a similar approach.
“One of the big keys of sustainability is reducing,” Allen said. “Where we're trying to reduce impact, reduce energy, water use—that's what operations is, too.”
In operations, it’s more about making sure things don’t get out of control in terms of scope and cost.
“You're trying to provide the best value to the client with a reasonable fee,” Allen said. “And we're in business, we're trying to make money.”
The other overlap between the two is that they’re both about people.
“On the operation side, it's really about our staff and serving our client,” he said. “And then the sustainability side to me, it's about we want to have a place for our children and their children and their children that they can enjoy being.”
Those places aren’t just the natural environment, but the built environment, too.
Juggle the difference between two roles
There are also distinct differences between the two roles that mean having to approach tasks with very different lenses.
For example, sustainability is often about generating solutions on a project-by-project basis.
“You're trying to create solutions that are addressing client goals and the solution is not always the same,” Allen said.
You can’t follow the trends of sustainability because they may not be the right thing for individual projects. You have to challenge yourself to find the best solution for each one.
Operations is a totally different approach. It requires consistency.
“We need consistent, but flexible processes and procedures, so that people, especially across multiple offices, multiple studios, are being consistent,” Allen said.
If you’re creating new processes often, you waste a lot of time.
Hire internally to retain core firm values
When looking to build your operations and sustainability teams, often the best hires are internal ones.
Especially when it comes to operations, there are advantages to having someone who already knows how the company runs.
“One thing about operations is even if you want to change things, if you're in business, you're doing something good,” Allen said. “You can't lose those. And the people you have internally understand that.”
Internal candidates understand the value of what’s already working and won’t scrap them just to change things up.
“Even though you may want to tweak certain things, you're not necessarily looking to change everything,” he said. “If you're bringing somebody in from the outside, their first instinct may be everything's broken, we’ve got to change it all.”
There has to be a balance between the two and having someone who understands the culture can bring that into the role.
Strive for structured growth
Moody Nolan has grown a lot over the past year, from 220 people to 260. But the firm is not looking to grow unchecked.
The goal is to move into markets where they can make positive changes to the community.
“I think the two big things that we're working on at a macro level is structured growth,” Allen said.
“We've been growing every year for the last five years pretty steadily, and we're looking to continue to grow. But we want it to be structured.”
They want their growth to come along with community-centered projects, not just be growth for growth’s sake.
Much of Moody Nolan’s recent growth has come out of pro bono projects they did in New York City to provide safe spaces for work and study during COVID.
With all projects, the goal is to provide clients with solutions that are meaningful and valuable.
Lean into diversity
Part of that structured growth strategy is also a push for diversity in a broad sense.
“What we mean by diversity is not just diversity of gender or race, it's a diversity of project typology,” Allen said. “It's a diversity of thought.”
Moody Nolan wants to work with different types of consultants that will challenge them and allow them to challenge back.
They also want to have a diversity of clients with different goals to create steady growth.
“That diversity of client and market allows us to grow and to be a little bit more steady,” he said. “So when one market is down, there's usually another one up.”
The final piece of diversity is of their people.
They want to work with people of different backgrounds and education types so that they can bring fresh perspectives to projects.
Monitor, adjust, and communicate to stay on budget
When working with a client on a project, you need to manage financial controls from two different standpoints: the client’s costs and the firm’s.
“Clients are looking to us to help them understand and control construction budgets,” Allen said. “So how do we, as the architectural team and our whole design team, help them understand financial controls that they need to have in order to meet their budgets?”
Internally, budgeting is about executing the work plan and contract while staying within certain boundaries.
“It's about us understanding our contract, what we're hired to do,” Allen said. “Setting a work plan that allows us to do the work, but within the fee structure that we have.”
It doesn't matter how good of a work plan you have, things will always change. You need to know how to adjust things when necessary.
At Moody Nolan, they have data sets that they track that help them see when to make changes.
“Where's that hill coming to say we've gotta ramp up? Or, what are we going to do if we're not able to secure enough work to get to this point where there's a cliff?” he said. “That assurance has to come through watching these datasets, in getting the data into the systems that we use to begin with.”
Communication becomes crucial in this process. Team members need to be on the same page so that leaders can be brought in and decisions can be made.
Create strategic plans for sustainability
The sustainability efforts you bring to your client projects and those you bring to your firm are also different.
When it comes to both scope and timeline, you need to be strategic when implementing those for your firm.
If in doubt, refer to guides such as those offered by Just and AIA. AIA’s guide isn’t publicly available yet, but offers firms a way to define their goals and create a road map to get there.
“It kind of says is this something that's important to you as a firm?” Allen said. “Yes. Okay. If you're just doing it, here's what you're doing. If you want to be on the high side of high-level achievement, these are the things that you would need to be doing.”
A specialized approach to sustainability goals is important. Each firm’s goals, and the path to reach them, will be different.
Just like with operations, a strategic plan, an eye for improvement, and clear communication will take you far.
Join us for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Allen Schaffer of Moody Nolan about how to design sustainable operations.
As COO, Allen partners with firm leadership and staff to create operational efficiencies that allow Moody Nolan to deliver project excellence and high value to clients. He is responsible for implementing established day-to-day operations strategy, veracity of project financial controls and assures positive results from firm operations. In his role as Chief Sustainability Officer, Allen brings more than 20 years of experience in addressing the impact of integrated design solutions on environmental, social and financial aspects of projects. His background encompasses a diverse portfolio including sports, higher education, corporate office, civic and healthcare on a national and international level.