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Nuts + Bolts #8: Best Friends Don't Make the Best Partners

For the successful partnership, it's all a matter of balance.

By Michael M. Samuelian, AIA, AICP
February 7, 2014

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



In popular culture (and at most architecture schools) the architect is often portrayed as a lone figure, from Howard Rourke in Ayn Rand’s seminal work, The Fountainhead, to Frank Lloyd Wright, to Frank Gehry. Most people perceive architects to be creators working alone in the dark.


Contrary to popular belief, it takes more than a single artist to make a great building. Most architects know that. What’s less obvious is that, in reality, most successful architectural practices are not sole practitioners but partnerships.


There is a long, storied history of successful partnerships in the architecture profession. For example, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), one of the largest architectural firms in the world, was founded in 1936 by Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings, with John O. Merrill joining as third partner in 1939. Decades later, it’s still going strong; the firm now has 20 partners worldwide.


Finding the right partner will help your firm succeed more quickly and more painlessly than if you go at it alone. Unlike law firm partnerships, in which each partner works independently, partners at architecture firms must work closely together to ensure success. A lawyer can practice and argue (and win) a case on his or her own, but even the simplest buildings require architects to collaborate with others, from the client to the contractor.


So what should you look for in a partner? First, you should realize that a good friend probably may not make a good partner. Understanding and appreciating the distinction between a good partner and good friend is fundamentally important to planning a successful practice. In friendships, we tend to gravitate toward those with shared interests and strengths. But too much similarity in outlook and aptitude is not the basis for a successful partnership. When choosing a partner, fight the tendency to find comfort in the familiar.


Instead, focus on finding someone who complements you. Balance is the key element for a solid partnership. Almost no other practice on the planet is a better example of a successful, balanced partnership than Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF). Founded in 1976 by Gene Kohn, Bill Pedersen, and Shelly Fox, the firm has grown in a relatively short time from a small collection of individuals to a global powerhouse.


Bill Pedersen explained to me how balance has always been an essential building block of KPF’s practice. “I have always described our bond as similar to the fundamental parts of a sailboat: the keel, the hull, and the sails,” he says. “Without the interaction of these components a sailboat does not move. So it was with Gene, Shelly, and myself. Alone we would have made no progress, together we couldn’t be stopped.”


As much as different strengths balance a partnership, so too do different perspectives. Not only should you find partners who offer different points of view, but each partner must be open to considering the others’ opinions.


As David Childs, chairman emeritus and long-time design partner at SOM, points out, “A specialty in one of the disciplines – be it design, management, technical, or other sector – is naturally expected, but it is the ability to see each project in a different way that brings value to a group practice.” In other words, the best partner isn’t the person who you like the most, or have the most in common with, but the person who sees differently, argues with you, and pushes you to defend your point of view.


Childs and Pedersen agree that a partner with complementary skills and sensibilities is more important to the development of a successful practice than anything else. Look for someone who does something better (or differently) than you. For example, if you are a shy introvert who stands in a corner at parties, look for an outgoing extrovert who commands center stage. If you don’t have a mind for details, look for a technically-minded classmate, colleague, or friend. Your ideal partner will have a personality, range, and skill-set that balances yours.


Ultimately, choosing the right partner will lay the foundation for the success of your firm. When you are confident in your partnership, you will be able to effectively navigate any difficulties and easily travel the road to growth.



Michael M. Samuelian, AIA, AICP, is an architect and urban planner. He is a vice president at Related Companies, where his work is focused on the development of Hudson Yards, a 17 million-square-foot mixed-use development on Manhattan's West Side. Michael is also a visiting associate professor at Cooper Union, where he teaches Professional Practice in the school of architecture. 


Also see:


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Nuts + Bolts #5: Why Mid-Sized Design Firms Should Hire a Director of Operations
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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.

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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.
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Nuts + Bolts #2: You Can't SELL If You Can't TELL
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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.
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(click on pictures to enlarge)

Johnathan Ward