How to Acquire and Retain Top Talent in Architecture
How do you achieve successful growth as an architecture firm?
It all comes down to having the right people on your team.
Today, there are small 20-person firms that are making incredible revenue and ranking on lists alongside much larger counterparts.
There are firms that have been acquired by larger firms, only to see their original talent leave.
There is no magic formula for hiring and retaining the best people. But according to Marjanne Pearson, an industry force and the Chief Strategy Officer of Talentstar, there are ways to empower your strategic agenda and fill the roles you need.
Firms of any size can fulfill their talent needs
When it comes to the type of talent that firms need, Marjanne made the important point that no matter what your firm size is, the same leadership needs are ever-present.
She says that there are four basic levels of leadership duties: fiduciary, enterprise, practice, and projects.
At small firms, leadership and employees end up wearing multiple hats to fulfill these core needs.
At large firms, individuals are hired for specific roles.
“There's always the focus on the projects, because the projects are the engines of whatever it is that you're doing. And then there's always the fiduciary responsibility, because whoever is the owner has the responsibility for financial and legal risk,” Marjanne says.
Those two things are always in balance.
As firms grow, they begin to focus on the practice: things like business execution, client revenue mix, value propositions, and talent mix.
Finally, there is typically a shift to focusing on strategy: marketing strategy, financial strategy, and human resources strategy.
“Often that's a leap that happens as the firm grows. You don't necessarily have it when the firm is at a smaller size, because they can't afford it,” Marjanne says.
The interesting thing about the modern landscape is that small firms can seek a variety of outside resources.
These non-traditional talent sources can provide a competitive advantage, allowing small and mid-sized firms to compete on more equal footing to large firms.
Think beyond full-time employees
Sometimes thinking outside the traditional box means changing your hiring mindset.
It’s possible to have an all-star operation with the right team, even if that team consists of consultants and non-traditional employees.
“Withee Malcolm in Los Angeles is a really good example, because they have two ‘overhead people,’ one of whom is the CFO and the other is an administrative manager who also is involved with marketing,” Marjanne says.
Beyond those two people, they have a team of consultants to fill in the gaps for things like
marketing, business development, and graphic design.
In fact, they've done so well under that model that they were just acquired by a larger firm based in the Midwest.
Marjanne says the plan is for the original team to keep operating under the new ownership.
“They are very successful at what they do, even though they aren't full-time people,” she says. “That's an example of how firms can take advantage of talent in ways that doesn't have to be employed in a 40-hour workweek model.”
Perfect the art of the interview
No matter who you’re hiring, you need to ensure that you tap the right person for your firm.
Every serious candidate should go through multiple interviews, complete sample work, and be asked questions about theoretical scenarios and past design decisions.
“I don't understand how people can interview designers and not have a conversation about how they would design something and ask them to sketch something,” Marjanne says.
She recalls a firm operating years ago in the day before websites that interviewed a design director without ever opening his portfolio.
That’s an extreme example, but the point is that you need to do your homework.
“Half of it is objective, half of it is intuitive. It's not transactional, it's a relationship,” says Marjanne. “You have to spend the time to talk with somebody to figure out what their modus operandi is, and to figure out if it's going to work with yours.”
This includes determining if the new hire will fit in with your culture’s core values and method of approach to work.
For instance, it doesn’t always work to hire a designer from a firm whose designs you think are superior to your own.
“If I had $5 for every design director who was hired by a large service-oriented firm and told me that it was going to be fine because they promised him that they really wanted to change the quality of their work, I wouldn't be working today,” Marjanne says.
Hiring requires an honest internal assessment as well as a thorough assessment of any candidates.
Your org chart is not a hierarchy
Clients might be familiar with your firm’s org chart.
They need to know who to call with questions, and they like to know when they are speaking with the head honcho in charge.
But in practice, the internal workings of most firms are not hierarchical. In fact, Marjanne says the best firms operate in more of a “hub and spoke” model.
The term hub and spoke comes from the IT world. It refers to when your firm works more like a bicycle wheel, with each person working in tandem towards a central goal.
“IT people understand this because this is how they support firms: by creating a hub and spoke,” says Marjanne.
Yes, your firm will have a fiduciary level, because that is necessary for corporate governance. You will also have an enterprise-level of business that is focused on where the firm's going to go next.
“That doesn't mean that they live there,” Marjanne says. “They have to at least convene in order to look at strategy and begin to create the future of the firm. But all of their work is done in this kind of a non-hierarchical environment.”
If growing your firm means you need more hires, keep in mind that teams typically grow gradually, not overnight.
For example, Krueck Sexton slowly transitioned from having no marketing to having a director of marketing and a bookkeeper to a financial manager over the period of about three years.
Today, the diagram of Krueck Sexton’s firm is still an evolutionary model that is changing over time.
Manage change effectively
When a firm changes the way they practice or undergoes a change in ownership, the key is to make things as easy as possible and get employee buy-in.
Why? Because if you don’t manage change effectively, you’ll lose key talent.
“Change management is hard. Everyone says nobody likes to change, but that's not true. People go out and buy new lipsticks all the time,” says Marjanne.
“What we don't want is for our lives to become more different. What we do want is to have everything work better. To have the right people to work with, and the right tools to work with, and make it easy to plug and play.”
Challenges can arise when a firm grows dramatically or gets acquired.
When a firm grows, processes can get complicated and the mission can get muddied. If an acquiring firm changes direction, you risk losing employees who feel they can no longer play to their strengths.
“For any firm of any size with closely held ownership, any change is significant change. Because inevitably it involves that person moving towards something, as opposed to doing what they've been doing and what they enjoy. And the only way effective change happens is when people actually want to cross the river,” Marjanne says.
Talking with and listening to people about major firm changes is key.
Successful change is always within reach. Marjanne recalled her work at the firm RMW, which grew by 5x in 5 years. It’s now in its 10th generation of ownership.
When you learn how to distribute work, make great hires, and retain your top talent, new heights of success become possible.
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 Marjanne Pearson, Founder + Chief of Talentstar, Inc. She is an industry pioneer, with the ability to ask the questions that should on the strategic agenda of every design firm. She has experience working within and as an advisor to significant architecture and design firms, as well as teaching in the Executive Education Program of the Harvard GSD. She is an expert at framing specific talent and leadership needs, defining the roles to fulfill them, and connecting clients with the right candidates for their context and culture.
Talentstar is a braintrust that brings a creative, integrated perspective to the business of design with expertise in recruiting and talent development; practice management and leadership development; ownership transition and merger/acquisition strategies. Their clients are a remarkable constellation of signature architects, emergent practices, regional powerhouses, and corporate giants in the USA, Asia, and Europe.