Hard Changes

Over the last few years, I have had several of my clients ask me about leadership transitions. This is not my area of expertise. Ask me about branding, media relations, content development or even about workplaces or urbanism or healthcare design. But don’t ask me who is going to take over your architectural practice.  

I shouldn’t be surprised. A number of the best clients are my age—that is old enough to retire. At the social security office retirement qualifies as a life-changing event like getting married or losing your spouse. For talented architects and designers who have built successful businesses that change is something they would prefer to delay. Some say architecture is an old man’s game, just look at Frank Gehry still making waves in his 80’s or Philip Johnson, who was active until his mid-90’s.

Still most people don’t want to work forever and for many architects the retirement plan is financially tied to the practice. What’s it worth? Who might purchase it? Will it be the junior partners? A larger firm? With a comfortable future at stake you would think that finding and mentoring the next generation of leaders and building a transferable business would be a priority. So why isn’t it?

Part of the reluctance comes from the real strengths that benefit a small partnership or sole proprietorship in the beginning: self-reliance and a trusted partner. Two- and three-person partnerships often develop communications styles that resemble those of twins and are unintelligible to outsiders. They make decisions together and count on the other in ways can be baffling even to those who work for them or advise them. Sole practitioners, on the other hand, are often really mom and pop shops where the spouse manages the office or does the marketing. The same dynamic is at play in both models, the founders share a dream, they act to realize it and protect it and, in so doing, they make it hard to for others to be a part of it.  

So what might I say to these tight-knit twos to encourage them open up to those who would succeed them? Maybe that it’s not unlike a couple who start a family. With the arrival of each new member the family is changed.  Every addition brings new energy, a different personality and talents but they are all family, a changing, growing team, that eventually, with enough love, support and encouragement will be able to take on adult responsibilities and care for the parents. It’s unlikely that the next generation’s decisions will be exactly what the folks had in mind. Things could turn out badly. But most of the time the kids are all right and they figure out how to help us, the elders, make those hard changes.