From founder-led to purpose-led

Aug 01, 2021

Making incremental changes to pay attention to what’s important to your people and rallying your team behind a common goal could lead to astonishing results.

In 2012, Neumann Monson Architects began prioritizing employee engagement. Like many architecture firms, we had long operated on a founder-led model. Our team was divided into six separate studios, each led by a principal architect. Although we received steady work, our traditional model no longer seemed sustainable with the way our firm was growing. Our six studios rarely interacted, and the staff was detached from client interactions and day-to-day decision-making, which was overseen by the principals. Meanwhile, our firm was attracting younger talent. More than half of our employees were millennials, and their generation desired opportunities to learn and solve challenging problems. We needed a new organizational model that would engage our staff, but the path to change was not clear.

Starting on the path to change. That summer, we hosted a firm-wide retreat that sparked a grassroots effort to envision a successful future. With the help of a facilitator, staff volunteers sent an anonymous employee survey. The results reflected a desire to shift our focus to design excellence. Client relationships and fiscal solvency were largely vacant from the input we received. For the principals, this response pointed to the opacity of our organization. Although design excellence was important, the staff did not understand the full scope of the business. A history of not engaging the staff left our team with a limited perspective.

In the wake of the retreat, the staff was energized and engaged, but unfortunately, change did not occur immediately. Projects and clients became the principals’ priority and the results of the retreat were placed on the backburner. Employee engagement was low once again, and as one team member put in his notice, he said five words I will never forget: “You aren’t capable of change.”

Never changing? So how did we change? After meeting with the principals, we decided to set aside time to focus on internal culture, and I volunteered to lessen my project load to fill this role. Incrementally, we implemented changes that took our firm in a new direction, starting with simple fixes to illustrate our agility as larger changes developed. We removed physical barriers in our Iowa City office, creating an open, collaborative environment. The principals, who sat at the edge of the office, moved to the center, signaling to the staff that we were there to help them. Additionally, we circulated books throughout the office to create a shared language to articulate what we were doing wrong and right. The principals stopped defending the status quo and started listening. We led weekly focus groups where we could receive ongoing feedback from the staff and provided progress reports.

Fostering agility and empathy. Incremental change led to an overhaul of our traditional management structure. Instead of siloed teams led by principals, we embraced resource planning software to build our teams around projects. Gradually, we established a layer of self-managed teams that engage the staff in our firm’s leadership. These teams focus on design quality, client experience, quality assurance, and sustainability. Most of the staff is engaged in at least one of these teams, and their overlap with our project teams creates a cross-weave of communication, interdependency, and accountability.

As our non-hierarchal model developed, we embraced a culture of feedback. Starting with anonymous reviews of the directors, we implemented a 360-review system where everyone receives feedback from the directors and a cross-section of their peers. The success of our internal reviews encouraged us to adopt a similar system with our clients. We began using the Client Feedback Tool to track stakeholder expectations throughout a project’s lifecycle. In 2017, we made client experience our top strategic priority. Less than a decade ago, client experience was in the hands of the principals. Today, it is the overarching goal that guides the entire team’s work.

Driving positive change. Since transitioning to a purpose-led model in 2012, our firm has witnessed many measurable successes. Our design quality initiatives have increased our recognitions with the American Institute of Architects. Since 2013, we have received 34 AIA Iowa recognitions, 22 AIA Central States Region recognitions, an AIA Knowledge Community design recognition, and a COTE Top Ten Award. We have also increased our level of employee engagement. In addition to our recognition from Zweig Group as a Best Firm To Work For, AIA Central States has recognized us as an Emerging Professionals Friendly Firm with an “outstanding” recognition in 2018 and 2019. Perhaps most importantly, we have rallied our team behind a common goal: Client experience. In the last decade, we have received CXps awards for Client Experience, Satisfaction, and Connectedness; our Net Promoter score is in the top 1 percent of 300 firms worldwide. Client experience is built on employee experience. Our path to increasing employee engagement was not easy, but as our story demonstrates, incremental change can lead to astonishing results.

Tim Schroeder, AIA CDT LEED AP is president with Neumann Monson Architects. Contact him at

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