Management Style: What Kind of Employees Are You Grooming?

Daniel Emberley, July 2004

For the American Institute of Architects, Washington, D.C. Chapter 

Itís difficult to make any business grow without employees.  As design professionals, we need to attract educated, creative people, who are willing to work hard for us, at a price we can afford.  Managing other people well is one of the hardest things we have to do, and something we fear doing badly. 

Two extreme theories of personnel management follow.   

The McDonaldís Kitchen 

Every employee is essentially interchangeable: set up the work in your office so that any new kid out of architecture school can take it over.  Work them until they quit in frustration, then replace with a fresh crew.   

This brutal way of thinking was popular in business schools in the 1980ís.  In some businesses, it makes sense: once the rules are in place, managers can sit back and deal with issues other than the employees, like creativity in your work and your own career.  Architects seduced into this way of thinking create a sweatshop operation where there is rapid turnover, work designed to the lowest level, and clients see little continuity between projects.   

The Guild

Architecture is a sacred profession, and each employee should be mentored one-on-one in the skills that make employees into architects.  Each employee develops a special relationship with clients, who they look on as their, not the firmís, customers.  The uniqueness of each staff person is recognized, and catered to with individual hours, benefits, and work space. 

This is an idyllic recipe for disaster.  Employees become complacent, rather than happy, and content, rather than challenged.  Minimal staff turnover means that the firmís work becomes predictable and safe.  The positive value to architects of mentoring new people is lost, along with accompanying challenge to their own ideas.  It can be difficult to share work between staff, and management is a prisoner of past commitments made to employees. 

The Management Issue

No design firm would continue long following either of the above theories; but many architectural principals have picked up habits from them, or have been made to think these are appropriate paradigms for running our firms.  Management of creative professionals is difficult.  If weíd wanted to manage people, weíd have gone to business school, rather than studying architecture.  If we donít manage our staffs, however, they are unhappy, lack direction, and leave.   

Management Tools

    - Listen to your staff: both what they say, and more importantly, what they donít.  Many of us turned to architecture because structures seemed easier to deal with than emotions.  Itís important to hear the boredom in an employee chatting with friends during work hours, the frustration in someone who has been handed an assignment they consider too difficult or too much like the last five projects theyíve gotten.  Everyone wants to feel valued, and to grow in their work.  You canít offer the ideal, but you can at least be conscious of when youíre not measuring up, acknowledge it to the person, and let them know you are aware of their situation.  Often, frustration expressed will have nothing to do with the task at hand, but may be the only way an employee feels comfortable signaling that there is an issue in another aspect of the office.  Listen for the emotion, speak with the person expressing it as soon as practical, and be prepared for a surprise at what is really preventing someone from doing the great job you know they can do.


    - Reward your staff: Benefits and salary are important, but are difficult to change, and tend to be taken for granted by employees relatively quickly.  More important is to acknowledge good work done, as soon as you see it, directly to the people responsible.  Itís amazing how much we appreciate attention from someone, especially a person higher than us in an organization.  That attention does not cut into our budgets as managers, but is a way of rewarding ourselves, too, by putting us in the role of satisfied mentor.  When a major milestone is reached, gather the staff together, acknowledge the contributions of everyone who helped, and pick up lunch to encourage others to share their good words with the people responsible.  Do it immediately, within a day, at most, of achievement.  Itís easy, inexpensive, and fun.


    - Watch your staff: Every person on your payroll is going to test the bounds you set for them.  Express your expectations when assigning work.  Watch for employees who do not meet the expectations.  When you see problems, tell the offending person immediately.  This lets staff know you are watching and you care.  It also is a great way to learn about problems with your own expectations, or the assignment you gave.  The sooner you catch the disconnect, the lower the frustration level for everyone.  A good manager will rarely have to go through formal termination procedures; she will develop good staff out of those who want to work, and be able to encourage those who cannot fit the firmís culture to leave before too much damage is done.


Creative Turnover

What management model would incorporate those tools to provide the support and involvement that staff need, but also buy the freedom and time for a principal to design creatively? 

You want to hire creative people who will contribute to your firm.  To get the continuity you want from people with those skills, you need to give them room to grow professionally and personally.  Professionally, you provide that by increasing each personís responsibilities on projects.  Personally, you need to use the tools: listening, rewarding, and monitoring.  When staff outgrow the mentoring and opportunities you can offer, you should encourage and reward their moving on.  This will allow employees to grow within your firm, with managers mentoring staff, keeping turnover at a manageable rate so that clients see active handovers of their projects. 

Most workers quickly adapt to the office you have created.  It is important to look with open eyes at how your employees act in and feel about your office.  If your vision for your office doesnít match their feelings, you need to change your management to get the staff you want. 


Daniel Emberley is the founder of Emberley Streamlined Office Systems, providing office management services by the hour to growing firms.  He can be contacted at


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