Too good to stay

May 13, 2019

When your best junior associate ‘unexpectedly’ leaves, the decision was probably in the works for a long time, you just never saw it coming.

One of the hidden reasons talented designers leave firms where they seem relatively happy – and where they are doing a great job – is work satisfaction. When you become so good at something that it’s the only thing you do, burnout and lack of advancement could set in.

With the ever-expanding technology sector, senior designers will often lean on the best young talent or technology specialist to help them out with things they don’t have time to learn. These talented women and men are great at it. They take to the ever-changing projects and the adjustments of day-to-day activities as a new adventure. This is exactly what they wanted from their exciting new career.

As the relationship between the senior and junior designer grows, the elder knows that they can count on them to do exactly what they need, and at any time they need it. They become the right hand. As the junior designer starts to mature, they gain a deeper appreciation of what it takes to create a project. Unfortunately, they are still drifting from project to project, helping their superiors plug in the widgets. They have no commitment, and nothing vested in the programs that come across their desk. They know nothing of the details even if they can tell you the name of every past, present, and future project in the office. Proposals, budgets, and fees are left to the project managers.

This is a small thing at first, but as their “lesser” peers start to become vetted in a project, they continue to float around. While respected by most people in the office for their technical prowess, no one, unfortunately, would consider talking to them about project help. No questions about material connections, sizes or shapes crosses their desk. The feeling of disrespect begins to grow until they decide that the only way for them to get ahead and to advance is to leave.

Do they have a disagreement with the firm? No, not really, but they do feel it’s time to grow professionally. From their point of view, however, they cannot do it where they are. Shockingly to the senior designer, they give their two or three week notice, pack up their desk, and move on. Another firm picks up all those years of hard work, time, and commitment.

So, here’s the big question: How do you prevent this?

Well, first off, you can’t prevent all of it. The nature of the design business is that people are going to leave. That’s just the price of doing business. That being said, there are a few things you can do to minimize the rate of turnover:

  • Work diversification. To be the best, you have to work with the best. That being said, make sure people are working with everyone in the office. Working with the same person every day, day after day, creates bad habits and limits creativity.
  • Make them buy in. It’s harder to leave something that you feel a part of. Whether it’s a small project, or helping as part of a larger project, having ownership of something prevents the “this is just a job” mentality from setting in.
  • Keep the conversation open and listen. Talk with your coworkers. Ask if they like what they are doing. If they mention the idea of wanting to try something else, let them try it. Offices have to be efficient, but training new personnel takes time, too. Allowing people to explore is easier than finding a new person all together. Plus, you never know, one day you might find the best spec writer you’ve ever known.

When a person you have worked with and trusted for a long time decides to leave, it’s hard on everyone involved, and it’s probably a decision that did not come easily – especially if they have spent over three years with the company. If someone does decide to leave, make sure it’s not due to boredom or an insurmountable feeling of stagnation. Talented people are hard to find. Do your best to keep the talent you have!

Hank Thomas is a landscape architect at SWA Group. He can be reached at

About Zweig Group

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.