Home    Site Search   Contact Us     Subscribe



Nuts + Bolts #7: Leveraging Your Passion

Principals already know what they love to do. It is learning to let go of the other, more mundane tasks that they find difficult.

By Steve Whitehorn
December 12, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the seventh installment in an exclusive ArchNewsNow series to provide A/E professionals with practical tips for a more successful, profitable practice.



I asked a nationally-recognized architect the other day how things were.


Her response: “Not bad – I actually had time to do a drawing today.” (with a smile)


So it goes with principals of architecture and engineering firms. They start out their careers hungry to move up the ladder. But once they get there, they find themselves “stuck in the weeds” of management and operations, rather than doing design work. Many of my clients (who are architects and engineers) find that if they’re lucky, they spend 20% of each day actually doing the things they love to do and 80% of their time doing mundane tasks. To them, this just appears to be the logical progression of a typical career path in the design industry.


It does not have to be this way, however. There is no rule that the beginning of a person’s career is full of excitement and, at its peak, he or she must be mired in a sea of administrative tasks. I speak from experience.


A few years ago I was drowning in paperwork, and it felt like my business was stuck in a perpetual state of chaos in which one more e-mail or phone call might push me over the edge. Then, I began to develop a system that allowed me to meet each opportunity with a clear head because I was doing what I was passionate about. Here are the lessons that I learned, and I truly believe that they apply equally to architecture, engineering, and other professional services firms.


Rediscovering Passion


It is important that principals of A/E/C firms function at a high level so that their firms may also do so. To make this happen they need to first figure out three things: what they are good at, what they like doing, and what makes them money. The answers to these questions should be the focus of the principals’ days – and their employees should be doing everything else.


Principals already know what they love to do. It is learning to let go of the other, more mundane tasks that they find difficult. However, once they get over that challenge, the process becomes much easier.


Setting Guidelines


To pull themselves out of the weeds, principals must create a roadmap that will let their employees accomplish tasks to their firms’ high standards. A set of step-by-step protocols must be put into place for every task in their office (i.e. opening the mail, drafting documents, client visits, etc.).


This step is time-intensive but this time is a good investment – it will pay for itself many-fold in the future. The payoff will come when the principals no longer have to do administrative tasks because they have established an easy-to-follow process that allows their staff to perform these activities with a high level of knowledge, care, skill, and creativity.


There is one thing to note: just as every firm has a unique culture, so does every firm have its own roadmap. It is important that principals think hard about this step and their firms’ particular strengths and needs. Simply adopting another firm’s process could put focus on areas that need little work and neglect other areas that might need more work.


Managing Time


It may be stating the obvious, but principals are not drive-through windows. It seems like they are sometimes, with the seemingly endless stream of employees asking them questions. The truth is, though, that this is not an efficient use of a principal’s time.


Once they have pinpointed their passion and created a roadmap for everything else, principals must establish a robust sense of trust and communication between themselves and their employees. Staff must develop trust in the system in place, as well as their abilities to carry out the tasks required of them. For their part, principals must trust their employees to follow the system.


Once this trust is developed, things will go smoothly. Principals will see the power in taking themselves out of day-to-day operations in order to design, network, and bring in new clients. Put simply, they will have more time and their businesses will be significantly better off for it. Principals must allow themselves time to work on the business while their employees work in it. Principals who get stuck in the day-to-day operations hurt their abilities to leverage new and bigger opportunities.


Establishing Vision


Nothing is going to happen without principals creating a vision for the future of their firms, and engaging people in an effort to achieve those goals. Good leadership is about will – it’s in the heart. Principals must believe without any doubt that the system they’ve put in place can and will create their future. If they believe this, then their employees will believe it as well. The greater the clarity, the more confident everyone becomes.


Working Smarter, Not Harder


This process is really about creating simplicity and clarity, freeing principals from the things that drain their enthusiasm for their work. When the lights ultimately turn on, they will have greater success, they will be free to pursue more and better opportunity, and they will wonder why they didn’t do this years ago.


Now, go out and do a drawing today!



Steve Whitehorn is managing principal of Whitehorn Financial Group, Inc., which provides architects and engineers with strategies maximize profitability, while reducing risk and improving cash flow. The firm created The A/E Empowerment Program®.


Also see:


Nuts + Bolts #6: Changing Habits: The Secret to Successful Time Management
Some practical steps to make time for business development when you've been avoiding it or aren't sure how to fit it into your day-to-day practice.
By Donna Maltzan


Nuts + Bolts #5: Why Mid-Sized Design Firms Should Hire a Director of Operations
Hiring a DOO has the potential to significantly increase revenues while creating an environment where designers design, not manage!
By Michael Bernard, AIA, and Mary Breuer


Nuts + Bolts #4: Spring into Growth Mode: Organize Your Process to Maximize Your Potential
Internal organization, clearly defined workflows, and a focused approach to the things you do best will put you on the right track to long-term growth.

By Steve Whitehorn


Nuts + Bolts #3: Focus on the Future: Keys to Steady Growth in a Slow Recovery
Business forecasts are looking brighter, but steady, measured growth is still your best strategy for success.
By Steve Whitehorn


Nuts + Bolts #2: You Can't SELL If You Can't TELL
You talk all the time but are you communicating clearly? Use your words effectively to build your influence.
By Tami D. Hausman, Ph.D.


Nuts + Bolts #1: Mission Possible: Increase Your Value Without Lowering Your Fees
Fact or fiction: Lowering your fees makes you competitive? You decide.
By Steve Whitehorn


(click on pictures to enlarge)

Johnathan Ward