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Nuts + Bolts #19: The Challenges Firms Face when Talented Staff Decide to Leave

Talented staff resignations have become more commonplace, and the challenges of "firm building" are now more about staff retention than recruitment.

By Ralph Steinglass, FAIA, Teambuilders, Inc.
June 28, 2018

Editor’s note: This is the 19th installment of Nuts+Bolts, an exclusive ArchNewsNow series to provide A/E professionals with practical tips for a more successful, profitable practice.



The flip side of Stanley Stark’s poignant article [Nuts + Bolts #17] about how unexpected staff dismissals serve as a painful reminder of the increasingly unsettled state of employment in our profession these days is the equally unsettling departure of promising young architects.


The pressure on firms to “staff up” has exposed a diminished talent pool, and the underlying dissatisfaction of staff who feel undervalued and taken for granted, but have had nowhere to turn. This has created a fluid employment environment, which means that resignations have become more commonplace, and the challenges of “firm building” are now more about staff retention than recruitment.


But “abrupt dismissals” by firms are, in most cases, the end of a series of incomplete conversations, where honest feedback has been lacking or ambiguous, resulting in missed signals and lost opportunities on both sides. Just as the “unexpected and disappointing departures” of talented and promising staff have left holes that are difficult to fill.


Conversations initiated by staff about leaving are sometimes challenging for the employee, fearing the wrath and subsequent rejection of a respected mentor, and, in fairness, are even more difficult for the employer to hear. Such conversations typically occur after the employee has already accepted another job offer, or made decisions about a lifestyle change, or enrolled in a graduate degree program in another field. When the reasons for leaving are more personal and have been brewing for awhile, rooted in disappointment, resentment and a deep sense of under-appreciation, conversations may happen without ceremony, advance warning, and probably not over lunch.


The announced reason for leaving may disguise an underlying issue, which only a few close friends may know, but the cover story sounds believable, perfectly understandable, and yet somehow deeply discouraging and incomplete:


I’m leaving because:


·        “I’ve received an offer that’s just too good to turn down!“ (really may mean, “I’m taking a job where my contributions will be more highly valued”).

·        “I’m being offered a lot more money in an allied profession” (an offer that you can’t come close to matching because your business model is based on low-fee jobs, made financially possible by underpaying young, talented staff).

·        “I have an opportunity to work with like-minded young people and to have a voice in growing a new firm” (instead of a top-down, often well-established firm that suffers from a culture that is dismissive and uncommunicative, and isn’t interested in engaging staff in plans for the future or in supporting their growth, creating an environment that underutilizes staff talent and pigeon holes them in roles with limited opportunities to take on new skills and develop as project managers or firm leaders).

·        ”I’m taking a job where my need for a more flexible schedule is recognized, and I don’t feel diminished or marginalized for asking.”


So, as disappointing as receiving this news is, the fact is that we saw signs and often heard rumblings, but took no proactive steps to alleviate the conditions, or worse, to even acknowledge them. The resulting “talent drain” (make no mistake about it – those who leave are almost always the more entrepreneurial and motivated, in addition to being talented and very smart), and high cost of recruiting and retraining new staff disrupts a firm’s rhythm and increases the burden on the remaining staff to carry the load.


But it doesn’t have to be this way! Firm principals can become more proactive and learn to be observant, to recognize the signs of frustration and disappointment, and to initiate conversations where their role is to actively listen and try to understand. Embrace the notion that it’s a good thing to be the kind of firm where talented and ambitious staff believe that they have the opportunity to grow and be appreciated, and are encouraged and supported in learning new skills.


Sometimes, however, there are limits to a firm’s growth, if its principals want to maintain the personal contact with staff and projects that have inspired them and made the firm successful. For firms with two or three principals and 20-30 people, unless there is a culture that encourages staff to grow, but is also honest about the limitations, staff will inevitably leave after six or seven years – or sooner for millennials who may be less patient.


Some firms overcome this “seven year itch” by providing a less hierarchal structure that provides more opportunities for individuals to take on new responsibilities and flourish in a more collaborative and open creative process. But, alas, this will not satisfy those who are entrepreneurial. To hold on to these future leaders, the only option will be to promote them to higher positions and, by necessity, expand the firm. There is the risk that such growth will change the firm’s culture and make it less desirable to its founders and like-minded staff.


That said, it is also often a good thing for talented staff to feel they can leave without offending their bosses, without burning bridges. It is also healthy for firms to acknowledge and even plan for such turnover. Because without it, bottlenecks are created and internal growth is stymied.



Ralph Steinglass, FAIA, is the founding principal of Teambuilders, Inc., an organizational development consulting firm that helps architecture and design firms to clarify roles and responsibilities, and deal with strategic growth issues and succession planning. In the process, it helps principals and staff address differences by actively listening to each other and having more direct and mutually respectful conversations.


See also:


Nuts + Bolts #18: More Than Meets the Eye: The Value of Architectural Photography

When you have a great project with equally great photography, the possibilities - and the pay-offs - can be endless.

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Nuts + Bolts #17: The Dismissal Lunch (or Breakfast)

If your boss asks you to join him or her for breakfast or lunch during a period of uncertainty and there is no specific agenda, beware. Something is afoot. He or she may want to drop the boom and do the deed in a controlled setting away from the prying eyes of the office staff.

By Stanley Stark, FAIA, LEED AP


Nuts + Bolts #16: What's in a Name?

Branding can be a bit of a foreign concept to established (and even to newer) architecture firms. Here are some central takeaways from a firm rebranding itself after 40 years in practice.



Nuts + Bolts #15: From Adversary to Partner: Managing Relationships in Construction Projects 
Three core practices to help keep the peace while keeping a project moving forward.
By Lisa Anders, LEED AP / McKissack & McKissack


Nuts + Bolts #14: Start Me Up: Taking Cultural Cues From Our Tech Sector Clients 
Why can't the rules (or lack thereof) of start-up culture apply to an AEC firm?
By Christian D. Giordano / Mancini Duffy


Nuts + Bolts #13: Safe Harbors: A Case Study on End-game Strategies

A new way of dealing with ownership transition that can benefit some principals who face difficulties in achieving successful exits.

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Nuts + Bolts #12: Hiring Interns for the Summer? What You Need to Know 
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Nuts + Bolts #11: CAPitalizing on Culture Change 
How candor, authenticity, and provocation (CAP) can create a firm culture that drives thoughtful, positive, and creative change.
By James Crispino, AIA, NCARB


Nuts + Bolts #10: Charting a Course from Career Bewilderment to Career Betterment 
Be curious, be adventurous and, when necessary, be assertive.
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Nuts + Bolts #9: The 80/20 Architect: How to Spend Wisely by Investing in Your Clients

Focusing on your top clients can increase your confidence, stability, and profitability.

By Steve Whitehorn


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


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 


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 
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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