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Preparation and communication—Keys to successful leadership transition

Whether prompted by the need to expand or contract the size of the partnership in response to firm growth or reduction, or by a change in direction of the practice such as entering a new market, or the desire to hold on to key senior staff, leadership transition is inevitable and healthy for architectural firms wishing to last beyond their founding partners. No firm is identical, and each transition is unique and needs to be treated as such. But there are two common themes to successful leadership transitions: preparation and communication.

Preparation for major transitions, which are critical to the lifeblood of a firm, is ideally initiated years in advance of the change. A well-managed firm will have a strategic plan that outlines the firm’s mission, vision and goals, as well as a succession plan that frames the rate of change among owners. Often a firm develops written criteria defining the requirements to achieve leadership as well as ownership positions within the firm.  Criteria may include professionalism, values and ethics; attitude toward risk; ability to attract and retain clients; strategic thinking; project management skills; and design ability. These attributes will reflect both the current reality of the firm as well as the long-term goals and allow new leadership candidates to be evaluated thoroughly and fairly. This process requires consensus within the partnership, a vital component to preparations for leadership change.
When a potential candidate is identified internally and early, a firm can take a structured approach to providing the mentoring and professional development the individual often needs and surely deserves. This cultivation will allow the prospect to eventually be considered for partnership. Searching externally for an appropriate fit and interested candidate takes time, and also benefits from the guidance of a strategic plan and partnership criteria.

Whether the leadership transition involves promotions, new hires or even mergers and acquisitions, to be successful, it must be well conceived and well communicated. Bringing up new leaders—or importing them from outside the firm—can affect a firm in myriad ways, from the functioning of the partnership group to the chemistry in the studio. With the understanding that change is inevitable and can be healthy, and with the appropriate preparations, the change can have a dynamic effect on the practice, staff morale, the quality of the work and the reputation of the firm.

To maximize the benefits of the change, the same thoughtful approach should apply to communicating the transition. Just as the principals should begin mentoring and selecting their successors years before they will become partners, the preparations for the transition should begin in marketing well before the announcement of new partners. Positioning the candidates identified for promotion as experts within their field takes time. They need to develop their market or define their expertise, identify their client base and establish their own profiles within the firm and the industry. Often the “senior partners” need to share some of the limelight to allow the next generation to be recognized. Orchestrating this outreach effort during the years preceding the big moment lays the groundwork for the announcement of the promotion. Done well, it helps staff and the broader community to understand why an individual was selected for a new leadership position, the value this person brings to the firm and his or her accomplishments. The announcement of the promotion should build on this, articulating how the promotion fits within the vision of the firm and clarifying the benefits the individual’s new role will bring to the practice and its clients.

The internal communications plan deserves as much attention as its external counterpart.  Formal announcements of the change to consultants, clients, and the press are essential, but a great deal of a firm’s reputation is gained through more casual connections with those within the firm. If a client asks the project manager or if a consultant calls and asks the receptionist about the recent change, and that person cannot communicate it clearly, that would carry more weight than the well-crafted website announcement. To ensure that the message is conveyed consistently, appropriately and sufficiently by everyone at the firm, the message needs to be shared with the staff in a variety of formats; depending on the size and culture of the firm, this can be done through an office meeting, an all-staff email, or the firm’s intranet, or all three. Communication to the staff can be completed within the weeks leading up to the formal announcement, so that any questions can be answered and any concerns vetted before the news goes public. The media releases and announcements to clients can be shared with the staff as well, as they are distributed externally. This allows the staff to help carry the message for the firm.

Oh, and, as soon as you think you are done with the transition, it will be time to start on the next round.

Kirsten A. Sibilia Assoc. AIA, LEED AP has spent 15 years helping architectural firms with marketing, public relations, communications and strategic planning. She is Dattner Architects’ chief marketing officer and previously was marketing principal at FXFOWLE Architects and chief marketing officer at JCJ Architecture. Kirsten serves as the director of publications for the AIA New York chapter and wrote the “Public Relations” chapter for The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice for AIA National. She coauthored an SMPS National white paper, Fast Forward: Marketing Through Leadership Change.