I have seen this same story so many times. The principals of a successful architecture firm push off planning for a transition in leadership and ownership until they are nearing 60. When they do start to make these preparations, their efforts are often too little, too late. They eventually leave a few years later, and the firm is either acquired or simply dissolves.

While the principals at some of the bigger architectural firms are starting to catch on to the fact that they need to develop a succession plan before it gets too late, the reality is that merely having a plan in place is not enough. To be successful the firm has to actually build and cultivate a culture that values renewal and innovation, professional and personal development, and employee advancement and collaboration across departments and rank. This is a fundamental, strategic change that will affect every area of operations, from customer relations to employee recruitment. Sometimes, though, getting an architectural firm to reach that point can be a big jump.

On one hand, principals often have a hard time separating themselves from the business. While this can happen in any industry, for architectural firms in particular, it’s a greater challenge. After all, this line of business is built around custom projects that require architects to invest their unique creative energy and give it expression in the finished product. Client relationships tend to be deeper, stronger, and more personalized than they are in other industries. So, it’s quite understandable that the principals would have a harder time letting go of the business that is an expression of all their unique personal creativity and hard work.

On the other hand, these same principals must come to terms with the fact that they are working with a generation of employees who are accustomed to moving about in search of new experiences and opportunities for professional and personal development. Many of the most talented among them would have no qualms about leaving for another firm or even starting up a competing studio of their own.

These two movements are in total opposition to each other. The only way to bridge the gap is to completely transform the way the firm operates….from the ground up.

The first step in this transformation is to consider the firm as an organic entity with the potential longevity to “outlive” its founding principals. While it may seem a little strange on the surface to align a whole business around the departure of key players, when an architecture firm builds a culture of succession, senior partners know they must identify and groom their successors right from the beginning. It also becomes second nature to develop and cultivate talented employees in areas that lie beyond design and project management, such as marketing, human resources, financial management, and technology.

Not only will this help to develop new leadership, but it can be an excellent tool for recruiting high caliber employees in today’s extremely competitive recruiting environment. As these new recruits develop their talents and skills, they can follow a predictable and carefully laid out career path that eventually leads to positions of ownership and leadership within the firm. Not only can this help to foster employee loyalty, but also it can motivate these individuals to care about and contribute to the firm’s overall success.

Actually creating such a professional development program that encompasses a wide range of quality experiences can take years to develop and fine tune. But, the benefits will far outweigh the costs.

Another key point that is often under-emphasized concerns employee ownership of the firm. Allowing employees to slowly buy in to the firm from the beginning is a powerful human resources tool. Key employees will be more likely to stay on board if they have equity tied up in the company. Moreover, those who have been singled out for leadership and ownership positions are also given time to comfortably build their partnership interest in the firm.

These days, the Principals of an architecture firm simply cannot afford to just rubber stamp a succession plan on to their operations. They must transform their culture, creating an organic process of renewal that will allow the company the live well beyond them.