By Ed Friedrichs
As architects and engineers, we’re in a long-cycle business. That means we work on long duration assignments, often with extended start/stop cycles— waiting for a public hearing, an EIR to be certified, funding to be secured. Arguably, our greatest value contribution to our clients is the continuity of knowledge and relationships that keep a project on track despite these interruptions. Our clients rely on our ability to work closely with outsiders (planning and building officials, suppliers, public interest groups) with whom we have no contractual relationship, in the best interests of the project. These are relationships that take years to build. We don’t think much about them, but they are at the heart of our value proposition.
A client whose project has been dormant for months expects to be able to pick up the phone and bring us back into active duty without so much as a hiccup. Nothing could have brought this point home more clearly than a recent and unexpected event in my life— I had a minor heart attack requiring double bypass heart surgery immediately. Nothing quite gets one’s attention like a heart attack. And, heart surgery carries a healing and recovery period a bit longer than the common cold or appendicitis.
I’m lucky today. First, I’m alive and the prognosis is for an excellent recovery and return to a reasonably normal lifestyle (if I can accept losing weight, exercising more, and cutting out salt, caffeine, and white bread as normal). Second, none of my work today carries the time sensitivities that my life as a practicing architect entailed. I remember well being driven to Orange County from Los Angeles two days after an emergency appendectomy to present a project to a planning commission. Had to do it; the next meeting was a month away, the project schedule (and financing) were critical, and I was the guy the commission and the neighborhood association had come to know and trust.
This event did make me stop and think. I happened to be at a theater production that weekend when, just before the play began, an announcer let us know that the role of the star performer that evening would be played by ________. The play must go on. The audience has paid for their tickets and expects to see the performance. Not just any performance, but a great one.
In managing a professional services firm, we should be thinking about and working on succession planning on an ongoing basis. Identifying and grooming our successor(s) is an imperative. When it comes time to retire, our projects, many of which span multiple years, are not all going to magically wind down at the same time, allowing us to sail off into the sunset. So we spend time identifying that promising young professional, working with him or her to teach them everything we know, to walk a parallel path with clients so that they are able to establish the same level of respect and trust that we’ve enjoyed and that has made our practice successful.
But, we spend precious little time, as a theater company does, training an understudy. It suddenly dawned on me that I carry this obligation as a professional— to assure my client that, no matter what happens to me, his show will go on. Believe me, I couldn’t have attended the planning commission meeting post-heart surgery as I did post-appendectomy.
So what does training an understudy look like? Remember, this may or may not be your designated or anticipated successor. In fact, it’s probably not. More likely it is a senior professional with the savvy to play the important and nuanced role you undertake, whether it be with a planning commission, the lender, a sophisticated client who hired you for your excellent judgment during critical times in the project, or negotiations with the contractor.
To extend the theatrical analogy, this person can do more than recite your lines; they have the professional skills to deliver an appropriately professional performance. This means they know the client (the audience) and are able to command respect through their actions. They know the rest of their cast (contractor, consultants, building officials) and are able to act with the sophistication and grace you bring to the role. That means you’ve taken the time to make them visible to these parties, just in case they are called upon to step in.
Don’t have someone like that? You need to develop that capacity. It’s what your clients depend on.