"Market power is critical to the future of design firms. There is neither time nor the resources for design firms to know all they need to by themselves. Who do they look to? They look to Kerry Harding for support, thoughtful ideas, useful advice, and coaching...he offers a complete tool kit of ideas for professionals."

James P. Cramer, Hon AIA, Hon IIDA
Chairman & CEO
The Greenway Group
Norcross, GA

Building a Design Firm Dream Team

May 1, 2002
by Kerry Harding

Standing across the street from The White House recently on an unseasonably warm spring day, DI asked 100 people passing by two questions. The first was, “Can you name a famous architect?” Of the 51 people who could answer that question, 37 responded with “Frank Lloyd Wright,” six said “Michael Graves,” three said “Frank Gehry,” two said “I.M Pei,” with one each for Phillip Johnson, Eero Saarinen and “Artie Cahill” which, after additional questioning, I finally determined to mean “RTKL.” The second question asked was, “Name a famous basketball player.” Out of the same 100 people, 87 said, without any hesitation whatsoever, “Michael Jordan.” Eighty-seven! This led us to ponder a third question:

Why aren’t there more superstars in design firms? As we have discussed this issue with our peers and other leaders in the design professions, one thing is clear. Unlike the world of professional sports, no system currently exists to identify and track the most talented students as they travel along their career trajectories.

A simple Internet search reveals that Albert Pujois of the St. Louis Cardinals was Baseball’s 2001Rookie of the Year, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan was the NBA Rookie of the Year and Atlanta’s Michael Vick was the NFL’s Number One Draft Pick. Stats like this are available back to the early 1950s. Yet, who were the top ten graduates from each design school in the country last year? Five years ago? Ten years ago? Where did they start their careers? Where are they now? Compiling this information would take hundreds of hours— if privacy laws even made it available.

What does the world of professional sports have that the design professions don’t which institutionalizes this type of knowledge? Several things. Let’s look at a few of them.

The Scout. Each year, a couple thousand design graduates enter the profession from a wide variety of educational backgrounds. In each of their respective schools, there is a handful of people deemed by their professors and/or their peers as “the rising stars.” In some cases, they are easily identifiable, winning student chapter awards, making the Dean’s List, participating in national student design competitions or winning top academic and leadership honors at graduation. In other cases, however, those with the perfect 4.0 gradepoints, haven’t obtained the necessary leadership and communication skills to be able to function well in the collaborative environment of private sector firms.

No regional or national repository exists for those involved in design firm recruiting to tap into each year to review the credential of emerging young talent. In pro sports, this is the function of the Scout who travels around from city to city, watching people in action, talking with their coaches, etc. The opportunity exists for the student chapters of professional societies such as AIAS, ASID, ASLA and NSPE to take a leadership role here, as well as for larger, multi-office firms to hire either not-yet registered professionals or those nearing retirement to visit with and observe at design schools to begin building a database of “ones to watch.”

The Draft. In the sports world, a formal process exists for bringing top talent together with top firms in an objective, organized way. The benefit there is that everyone involved in the process knows who all the candidates are in the pool from the beginning and has the chance to compare and contrast credentials. Yet, no such process even remotely exists that links design firms with opportunities to the new national pool of design talent that emerges each year at graduation. True, some schools have established job bank programs to allow their own students and alumni to interact, yet most fall woefully short of the potential that exists or simply serves the geographic region immediately surrounding the institution.

The Rookie. Once a student makes the transformation from campus to company, their progress gets lost in the system. AIA’s Young Architect Award, and Architecture’s PA Award are just two ways that talented people, early in their career, remain visible. However, since one of the qualifying criteria is to be “under 40” that provides a window of nearly two decades off the radar screen.

The Farm Team. Successful sports franchises have a system in place that ensures a consistent supply of talent for years to come. Young talent is identified and sent to smaller, regional entities for additional training and practice, to ensure they acquire the skill set necessary to compete in the upper echelons. For some, playing at this level will be as far as they progress, while, after time, a few will clearly emerge as ready for the majors. In design firms, this could manifest itself in several ways—the market sector studio, the discipline team or the branch office. Providing young professionals the chance to rotate through a variety of both project roles and participate in various project types will reveal to both the individual and the firm where the person’s passion lies.

Sports teams know that people need to identify where they function best and then refine the specific skills to excel at those. Unfortunately, too often in design firms, a person who is best suited to be designing projects gets promoted into project management or principal-level positions. Being a good center doesn’t mean someone will be a good quarterback.

The Major Leagues. Within any given sport during any given year there are always the top performers who deliver excellent results in spite of who wins their respective national championships. This is equally true with design firms. While there are some large firms whose fortunes ebb and flow like the tide, there are others such as Gensler, Leo A Daly, NBBJ, SOM and Ewing Cole—who experience steady growth and maintain adequate backlog and acceptable profitability as well as image integrity. Having been involved in design firm management for nearly 20 years, I believe that, in addition to being well-managed teams, these firms are always involved in recruiting strategic hires not just for the next year but for the next generation. They are always looking for the optimal combination of talent and cultural fit.

The Dream Team. Eventually, through time and careful planning, any firm can either become, assemble or acquire a Dream Team for a particular market sector—where all of the positions are covered by people considered among the best in their profession. Leo Daly has it for aviation, Ewing Cole has it for pharmaceutical laboratories. Payette has it for academic science buildings. Shepley Bullfinch has it for libraries. Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer has it for theaters.

Sometimes, the dream team isn’t built—it’s acquired, the way Hillier did with its interiors practice in Washington, CUH2A did with its federal R&D practice in Atlanta and SmithGroup did with its healthcare practice in Reston. In other cases, through assembling a cadre of talented generalists, a firm assembles its own dream team for a specific geographic area—HLKB in Des Moines, The Estopinal Group outside Louisville, or Jova Daniels Busby in Atlanta.

According to Lou Adler, author of the forthcoming book, How to Build A Talent-Driven Culture, if you’d like to begin building your own Dream Team, there are several key things to begin doing right now.

Offer career opportunities, not jobs. Most jobs advertised on the major boards such as e-architect.com and interiordesignjobs.com describe skills, duties and responsibilities-not exciting career challenges. This precludes the best from even applying. Define top performance for every job in a clear statement of what the person must do to be successful. By clarifying performance expectations you’ll attract more top people and more accurately assess their competency. Use this profile to manage, reward and motivate your new team.

Figure out today who you need to hire over the next four to six months. The hiring process needs to be forward-looking. This gives you the time to find the best candidates available, and not lower your standards to succumb to business pressures.

Go after those who are looking for a better job, not those who need a job. Everyone knows that the best people are not found on job boards, which represented only about 10% of all hires last year. You’ll find more top candidates through a formalized employee-referral program. Use a multipronged method to upgrade your sourcing programs to target the best.

Set up a professional interviewing and recruiting process, including practical training. Research shows that for most line managers, the typical interview is only 7% more accurate than flipping a coin. If hiring managers haven’t been thoroughly trained, you’ll wind up with similar results. Top candidates view a new job as a strategic decision based on growth opportunities. They need more information than just compensation, benefits and job duties to make a decision—they also want a challenging interview.

Tie compensation to value to the firm, not salary structures. In the sports world, when pro teams want to attract such super-athletes as Michael Jordan, Mike Mussina or Randy Moss, their managers don’t say “Well, everybody else with ten year’s experience makes eighty thousand dollars a year, so, as much as we’d like you to join our firm, to avoid causing internal problems, that’s all we can offer you.” No! They know that exceptional talent merits above-market compensation. Yet most design firm managers still haven’t learned this.

Show me the money. In speaking with search consultants from across the country, they routinely share their frustrations that deals between their clients and the best candidates frequently unravel over a salary difference of $10,000-$15,000—especially where there’s a dramatic difference in the cost of living. In another case, a firm lost a top candidate to a major competitor because it refused to spring for the $500 airfare to fly him in for an interview. In another situation, the deal breaker was simply an extra week’s vacation.

Especially in hot target markets such as sports, laboratories, healthcare, justice, museums and aviation, where the number of credible experts in the country can be counted on two hands, the difference between closing and blowing the deal is the fee for just one small job. Design firms need to step “out of the box” to identify the top talent in their target or geographic markets, and craft creative compensation programs that effectively combine salary and incentive bonuses.

In one situation, a prominent firm recently lost a nationally-renown market sector leader because it implemented firm-wide financial austerity measures with no raises, no bonuses and a 10% across-the-board pay cut for all principals, even though the studio of the person in question had posted record earnings for the period in question. Why? Another firm, already in the top five but vying for the number one slot, saw an opportunity and they seized it.

Design firm success hinges largely on the synergy of individual talent with market opportunities. Attracting superstars to your firm and supporting them with a strong bench representing the design, technical and operations functions, will ensure that, when it comes to winning work, your firm will always get to the playoffs and may even make it to the championship.