In 2009, Harvard Business School published the case study of Buro Happold, a rapidly growing British engineering firm that faced a critical shortage of the management and leadership talent needed to properly support further expansion. In response, leaders at the firm tried bringing in management talent from outside the company. But, the initiative ultimately failed when the newcomers were unable to meld with the firm’s unique culture.

On the heels of this unsuccessful strategy, Buro Happold then started sending its engineers to open-enrolment executive education programs at several leading business schools. But, these course offerings were often wildly out of touch with the realities of the industry and of the firm in particular.

For their third and final attempt, Buro Happold’s senior leaders decided to establish a formal in-house management education and training program, called “Archimedes Academy.” This successful initiative helped them to develop leadership skills in all areas and levels of the organisation tailor-made to their industry and business culture.

Demand for Business Acumen at Architecture and Interior Design Firms is Growing

At our executive search and recruiting firm, we have seen a spike in the demand for Operations Directors, General Managers and Practice Managers within Architecture and Interior Design firms- in short, leaders who possess strong management skills and all-round business experience.

This trend seems to be stemming from an evolution within the industry. Over the past 5 years, design teams have grown in size and complexity, often including members of other firms across national and cultural lines. There has also been a virtual renaissance of new design methods and technologies as well as ever-changing end-user tastes, preferences, and needs.

As firms grow and begin to win multiple, complex projects, they are faced with the challenge of delivering them whilst making a profit. All of this puts pressure on senior leaders in particular to manage their studios effectively. To remain competitive they must ensure that projects are running profitably, adequate physical and human resources are being allocated in the places where they are needed most, and that the firm’s culture is preserved as it goes through various stages of growth and transition.

The Two Methods for Building a Senior Business Leadership Team: Which One is Right for Your Firm?

In a traditional setup, lead architects and designers typically receive promotions in their firms to senior leadership positions based on their seniority and their track record of professional accomplishments. If they are persistent enough, they’ll eventual become the leaders of studios, sectors, operational subunits, or geographic/regional areas. This is how most of the business world works.

But while these architects and designers may have learned a thing or two about management and leadership while heading their project teams, heading a whole operational business requires a much broader, more refined skill set. Senior leaders must possess a solid foundation in business operations, organisation, and financial management as well as business strategy and its implementation. This knowledge and experience is not something that new business leaders can learn on the job because at that point the stakes are too high. The mistakes that will be made during the “learning process” can literally put a firm out of business, or seriously damage culture.

Firm’s therefore need to make a good effort to give upcoming high-potential employees solid business management experience and know-how along the way via executive education programs, mentoring opportunities, and by exposing these people to different roles and responsibilities.

Where such systems are hard to implement due to lack of adequate resources or time (as in the case of a rapidly growing practice), then it is certainly possible for a firm to bring in talented business leaders from the outside. I’ve seen it done many times. But in order for these hires to be successful, the hiring process must be very well thought out and executed. Senior leaders need to be clear about who they are looking for and why; they need to hire for culture; and they need to make sure that there are plenty of checks in place to quickly let go of the people who aren’t performing as hoped. Those firms that are getting these critical hires right, are reaping the rewards of a well-run business and sustainable practice

Bottom line: a practice is only as good as its senior leadership. They are a firm’s key influencers and drivers. So, it’s vitally important to fill those positions with the right people- regardless of whether they are developed from within or on-boarded from another firm.