The Art of Leading a Design Firm

Nov 04, 2002

The older I get the more convinced I am that being a successful leader in a design firm is every bit as much an art as it is a science. You just can’t teach someone everything they need to know to be a great painter— some of it has to come from within. Similarly, you just can’t teach someone everything they need to know about being a leader— some of that has to come from within as well. What is that “some of that” that determines why some people are effective leaders and others not, even when they all have been equally trained? Early life experiences. If you are like me, when interviewing for entry-level staff you may not be overly concerned about whether or not Johnny or Sally was involved in a lot of clubs or other school activities. But the truth is early life experiences may be great indicators about whether someone is going to end up a leader or follower. Entrepreneurial activities, student council, editorships of the high school paper, or captain of the hockey team are all worthwhile experiences that help future leaders learn how to get things done without running over other people— a valuable leadership trait. Being wide ranging in your social skills. We all know a lot of smart people with technical or design degrees galore. Many also have management or legal training on top of it— MBAs and law degrees are increasingly common for top people in A/E/P or environmental firms. But what really determines success? A lot of people like to say “communication skills.” But it may be even more fundamental than that. It may just be social skills. I have seen some pretty marginal communicators who ended up leading companies in this business because, in addition to having a lot of talent in planning or design or science, they also had great social skills. They made other people like them. They made others feel good about themselves. It’s worth a lot because it’s hard to get to the top without support. Having great instincts about other people. The best leaders I know are fabulous at sizing up the other guy, and fast! They can tell when they are being snowed, they can tell when someone is sincere, and they can very quickly size up others’ motivations. They know what’s important to others. They know how to make other people feel good and how to make other people feel bad. They are careful and use this knowledge sparingly. Knowing when you need to make the decision and when to let others do it. This is so hard, but the best leaders show their mastery of the leadership art regularly right here. Just having the organizational authority is not good enough because no one wants to be run over. Effective leaders can sell their thinking by framing very persuasive arguments. And they also know when not to exert influence— on matters that aren’t that critical or ones where they need to demonstrate their trust in the person who is charged with the responsibility for dealing with the issue or area. Balancing out the recognition of other’s accomplishments vs. touting your own. I just had a client in here who told me his firm’s philosophy on leadership is best described by a quote from a contemporary of Confucius, by the name of Lau-Tzu (604-531? BC): “As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear, and the next, the people hate. When the leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” That makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, if they can all do it themselves, then what do they need you for? That’s an issue a lot of leaders have to grapple with. Being useful while at the same time being expendable. Being valuable because they are being paid a lot (relative to others, at least) while at the same time letting others blossom. If this isn’t art, I don’t know what is! What do you think? While some aspects of leadership can undoubtedly be taught, can all of it be? Originally published 11/04/2002.

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.