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By Rena M. Klein, FAIA

In the January 2013 edition of the CRAN Chronicle, I covered the importance of setting up systems and processes for routine work. In this article, I am switching gears from operations to leadership and the subject of job satisfaction, one of the critical elements in determining the success of a small firm.

In organizations populated by creative professionals, there is a strong reinforcing relationship between job satisfaction and the bottom line. Improving morale and engagement can do more toward motivating people to do their best than any financial reward. Excellence and enthusiasm are nurtured by creating a firm culture built on the wellbeing of staff and owners alike. Firms that achieve a culture of mutuality, where people work hard because they care about one another, are the most resilient over time. For example, some owners might fear that if they provide professional development support to an employee, it will become a loss if that person leaves the firm. However, providing professional development support is more likely to generate loyalty and voluntary commitment, especially if a path to advancement in the firm is evident.


Sociologist Judith Blau, in her landmark book, Architects and Firms: A Sociological Perspective of Architectural Practices, describes the types of things that give architects job satisfaction and influence overall career contentment. This is important because in the midst of everyday practice, many of us forget how to bring meaning and satisfaction to our work. Yet to make a firm sustainable, few things are more important.

Based on Blau’s work and other sources, factors that promote satisfaction include:

    • Opportunities to design interesting projects

    • Autonomy, meaning control over one’s own work

    • Recognition by peers and public

    • Optimal variety

    • Challenge and learning opportunities

    • Alignment of values and goals with that of leadership, co-workers, and clients

    • Feeling respected and well-liked by co-workers, consultants, and clients

One of the jobs of firm leadership to create an environment where people feel that their satisfaction is important and that this concern includes all firm members. This doesn’t mean that everyone always gets what they want or that a firm must be run by consensus. However, if a firm is to grow, active engagement and creative input from an intelligent and talented staff is a great asset.


Self-awareness as a firm leader begins with an understanding of your personal comfort zone when it comes to empowering others. How much trust are you comfortable extending and how much control do you need to feel secure? Your preference is likely to be to a function of your personality and experiences, and is a hard thing to change. Figure 1 shows a continuum of leadership styles ranging from leaders who are comfortable empowering others to make most decisions to leaders who prefer to make most decisions on their own.

Many small firm founders like being completely in charge, which is not a bad thing as long as they are aware of that preference. If you are among these, you will likely be happiest with a firm of seven people or less, the number most principals can manage alone.

If you want to grow your firm beyond six or seven, you will have to become comfortable with trusting others to be responsible and authorized to make some decisions. Knowing where you fall on this leadership preference continuum will help you make good decisions about the size firm that you aspire to develop.

Figure 1: Where are you on this leadership style continuum?


No matter where you are on this continuum, employees will imitate your behaviors. What is important to partners and principals becomes important to everyone at the firm. How firm leaders behave will be how everyone behaves. When leaders “walk their talk,” their values will permeate the entire organization. When they do not, their lack of integrity will also be imitated. Whether aware or not, leaders of small firms determine their firm’s culture and set the tone through modeling behavior consistent with their values, vision, and purpose.

Research in neuroscience has discovered the brain chemistry behind how leaders influence the feelings and actions of their followers. As reported in the article, Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership, scientists have identified cells known as mirror neurons, which are found throughout the brain. “This previously unknown class of brain cells operates as neural Wi-Fi, allowing us to navigate our social world. When we consciously or unconsciously detect someone else’s emotions through their actions, our mirror neurons reproduce those emotions. Collectively, these neurons create an instant sense of shared experience.”

The importance of this discovery to small firm leaders is the recognition that you must be very aware of what you are doing and what subtle messages you are sending. If staff members continually behave in ways that displease you, either the staff doesn’t understand what is expected and needs some coaching, or the staff is mirroring your unintended or unconscious attitudes or behaviors.

For example, the research shows that the tone of delivery in giving feedback is actually more important that the content of the feedback, and that those leaders who are positive, in a good-mood, and quick to smile are more likely to be more effective. As explained in the article cited above, “If leaders hope to get the best out of their people, they should continue to be demanding but in ways that foster a positive mood in their teams. The old carrot-and-stick approach alone doesn’t make neural sense; traditional incentive systems are simply not enough to get the best performance from followers.”

Whether it is the result of brain chemistry or some other ways to influence, firm leaders can use their ability to model values, vision, and ethics as a management tool. Robert Haas, former CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., calls these “conceptual controls.” It is the ideas of a business that are controlling, not some manager with authority.

That said, it becomes even more important for firm leaders to be self-reflective—to mean what they say and say what they mean. Consider these suggestions to become a better leader for your firm:

    Know yourself : be aware of your habits, tendencies, and leadership style

    Know your values: think about what is really important to you, what would make you feel like your firm is successful

    Know your purpose: examine why you are practicing, and what the most satisfying aspects of your work are. Are the people you work with part of that?

    Encourage knowledge sharing and continuing education: create a learning organization where everyone participates in acquiring new knowledge and teaching one another

    Spend time coaching, teaching and mentoring: use frequent design pin-ups of ongoing projects as educational and involvement opportunities


Rena M. Klein, FAIA is the author of The Architect's Guide to Small Firm Management (Wiley, 2010) and principal of RM Klein Consulting, specialists in helping you run your firm better.


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