Contributed by Marvin Kemp
In a musing about leading meetings, I wrote that "I'm an architect by education and licensure. I'm a project manager by definition of my firm." Since a recent strategic planning exercise our firm went through, I've been thinking about what it means to be an architect and a project manager. The architect part is easy, legally speaking: you've earned a first professional degree in architecture from an accredited university, completed the Intern Development Program (now known as Architectural Experience Program AXP), passed the Architects Registration Exam (ARE) and have applied for and been granted a license to practice architecture in the State where you reside. Okay, so maybe its not that easy, but it is a straightforward and linear process.
The philosophical notion of what it means to be an architect is much more complicated and probably meant for a different blog post or maybe even several blog posts! But, from the beginning of my career, I had the goal of becoming an architect. I accomplished that in 2001, just shy of seven years after I graduated from college. I also had the goal of being a project manager and eventually a partner or principal in a firm. Project manager may seem a strange goal for someone educated as an architect. I was never the strongest design student in school. At first, I wasn't mature enough to understand or focus on the studio curriculum. That set me back in terms of my design maturation. I probably could have caught up but let my ego and confrontations with several professors get in the way. I graduated with a respectable GPA north of 3.0, but had many C's in design studios, though I did manage a B on my thesis project.
When I took my first job out of school, it was with a small firm that did good work, but not great design work. Generally, the two partners were the designers and with our clientele there was little opportunity for more than basic design solutions. I got my shot at some basic planning and elevations studies, but rarely had the budget to do much more from a design standpoint. At the same time, one of my bosses and first mentors, began taking me to client meetings. I found I really liked being out of the office, meeting with our clients and getting to know more about that end of the practice of architecture. It seemed more real to me.
I also had four solid examples, other than the two partners, of what good project managers do in that office. My first desk was in a studio with three of them! What a treat to work with them, interact with them and listen to their phone conversations on a daily basis. It was in those early experiences that I decided I wanted to be the hot shot project manager, not the hot shot designer.
Nearly 21 years later, what does it mean to be the "hot shot project manager?" Here are some notions.
1. You Manage Your Clients
This is something that many architects struggle with. There seems to be two prevailing notions about clients in our profession. The first is, much like in retail, the client is always right. Do whatever it takes to keep the client happy, even if it is outside of your scope of services and outside of your fee proposal. The second notion is the polar opposite: this is my building and you will merely pay for it and not second guess a single decision I make. I'm sure we all know architects that fit into each of those categories. They are both equally dangerous and for different reasons.
I try to assume the middle ground. Yes, my clients are very important to me and yes, I should do everything I can do to keep them happy. However, I negotiated a fee in good faith based on a scope of work. When that scope of work changes, I deserve to be compensated for the changes. Fair is fair. I work almost exclusively in higher education, so most of my clients are in the business of educating people. They are not necessarily in the business of making money. However, not understanding that I am running a business is no excuse for bad behavior or unfair play.
The beautiful buildings we design are equally important. However, when the job is built and the owner moves in, I'm on to the next project. My client, however, has to live with my decisions. My favorite clients have hired our firm to build a beautiful building, but one that is also functional, operational and reasonably priced. Those are the best clients to work with because you truly work with them, not for them and certainly they do not work for you.
2. You Lead Your Teams
I mentioned at the end of a different post the difference between being a manager and a leader. The "hot shot project managers" are also visionary leaders. The line I used was "we can see the forest and the trees." As important as it is to nurture our clients, it is equally important to nurture our staff. And not just the architects and designers; we must also mentor the administrative staff, the specifiers, everyone. Managing is not easy, but leading is incredibly difficult. It requires the focus and discipline that I lacked when taking design studios in college. While I'm not the greatest leader, I work at it and think about it every single day.
Your team also includes your consultants. Most of my projects have large teams; sometimes as many as ten different firms! As project manager, I try to have a personal and professional connection with the lead of each firm on my team: their project manager, their principal-in-charge, whomever is closely working on my project. I try to be a clear communicator as it relates to schedule, design goals, and anything else related to the project. If no one knows what is going on, you are not effectively leading.
3. You Manage the Finances
We are in the business of designing buildings but we are also in the business of making money. Sometimes those are at odds with each other, but not typically. My firm has software that we use to manage our time sheets, expense sheets, invoicing and other financial items. It can very powerfully present up-to-date information on the financial health of our projects. However, if you use it to find out there is a problem, you've already lost money.
Managing the finances must be proactive, not reactive. When we kick off a project, I let our internal team know what our fee is, how much we're going to spend in each phase and what that means in terms of hours each week of individual effort on their part. I follow up with the team at regular intervals to make sure they are progressing as necessary to complete the work profitably. Setting and communicating expectations to your teams lets them know you care about them but also about the financial profitability of the firm.
4. You Mentor Your Staff
Part of being a strong manager and strong leader is recognizing that you need to find and develop your replacement. The architecture industry is riddled with firms whose owners never planned for ownership transition. At some point, the sole practitioner or partnership pair realized they were old, tired and needed to transition ownership, only to find that they had run off all the bright, entrepreneurial minded architects and were left with a group of worker bees. Or, worse yet, they so over value the worth of the firm that their employees cannot afford to purchase the firm.
That ownership transition plan starts at the project team level. If the hot shot project manager aspires to be a firm owner then they need to replace themselves with the next hot shot project manager so that they can move up to firm owner or leader without a drop off in revenue. Its difficult to look over your shoulder, but it is critically important.
These are just four notions that I have on project management. I'm currently working with one of our senior principals at work to do a presentation to our project managers about what we expect from them. Each of these notions is covered in that presentation.
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