A practice that wants to evolve and outlive its founders must both arrange succession and maintain core values. For best results, start long before you think you need to
How does an architecture practice evolve, especially in times of uncertainty and disruption? Is evolution a strategic journey or a big opportunistic adventure? In this series we discover how taking full advantage of each threshold met along the way can help to set a practice’s trajectory towards the next. Our first two articles looked at how practices emerge, and then how they stay relevant as they mature. This piece explores what happens as practices evolve further and new generations of leadership join – or even replace – the founders. Can that original spirit and energy be preserved even when the names on the letterhead change?
Practice identity and brand are usually wrapped up very closely with the personality of the founders, particularly in eponymous practices. As a result identity is one of the first things that come into question when the leadership line-up shifts. Reputation has a very long memory, and it can take many years to realign external perception around a new practice name or personality.
The practices that achieve this shift in perception most smoothly are almost always those that prepare for it well in advance, giving airtime – in the form of project publicity, conference speaking and exposure to key contacts – to the newest generation while ensuring there is continuity with the existing leaders, all the while delivering the same high standard of work. All these internal shifts need to be defined and embedded before any kind of renaming or rebranding happens, otherwise this new wrapping will seem unconvincing and inauthentic.
At Buckley Gray Yeoman, existing directors and next-generation leaders worked together to define the practice’s values and intent as they restructured as an employee-owned trust (EOT). Reclaiming a stronger, more consistent practice voice reinforced their energy and purpose, but also gave the inherited values renewed relevance.
Succession is not a moment, it’s a continuous evolution, so setting the tone early on – even in the early years, when the founders are always the focus – can help enormously as new generations inherit a practice’s leadership. When Sir George Grenfell Baines established BDP in 1961, he had the not insignificant ambition that the practice should be ’trying to plan as if we’ll be around for ever’. On his retirement in 1994, he was still urging the practice to ‘keep going, getting better’.
Ego and collective input
The relationship between the ego and the collective is important. While founders need to be charismatic, the best also allow other voices to be heard. Kirsten Lees of Grimshaw told us that founder Nick Grimshaw, who stepped down as chair in 2019, acknowledges that the firm he established in 1980 has evolved beyond him, underpinned by the same spirit but benefitting from the collective expertise of its people. The current leaders’ buy-in to his personal values of trust and architectural freedom has kept the practice’s identity and reputation intact.
Jo Wright, director of architecture at Arup, puts the practice’s longevity down to a strong culture of learning and development supported by the values set out in Ove Arup’s Key Speech. These are firmly embedded in the business and are still used as a framework for decision making. Drawing from his statement that ‘no man is an island’, the idea of collective is absolutely fundamental. ‘Arup may have been about one person, but only in the name,’ says Jo Wright. ‘When we were planning the move to a new building, someone suggested we put in our own front door, but we decided no. We’re Arup, we’re collaborative, we’ll share it.’ It’s worth noting that Ove delivered the speech in 1970, as the leaders of the various independent practices within Arup began to retire, his aim even then being to prevent the firm’s ethos becoming diluted as new generations took the helm.
Lance Routh, director at Stiff+Trevillion, talked about the delicacy of sharing leadership with the practice’s founders when they are still very much in the picture, and the value of learning from them. ‘They are rightly protective – it’s their lifetime’s work – and often the exact nature of what they bring only comes to light when they are not there.’ By bringing the next generation through early, the expertise of the founders can be passed on and evolved before the practice becomes stale. Ewan Graham, an associate director at Hawkins\Brown, likens this type of organic succession to the birth of children or grandchildren, with founders enjoying rather than resenting the successes of their work family.
Many well-established practices turn to corporate mechanics – in the form of employee benefit trusts (EBTs) or, more recently, EOTs – as a way of sustaining the spirit of the organisation and resolving the financial aspects of succession before it becomes a necessity. Sharing ownership among the employees is an increasing trend in architecture, with practices such as Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM), Apt and others joining Buckley Gray Yeoman in adopting the EOT model in recent years. However, there are also earlier examples of practices who chose this instead of more traditional partnership structures. Jestico+Whiles, for example, became an EBT in 2001, in a move that aimed to ensure that the right baton was passed as new leaders came up through the company. ‘We wanted succession on the basis of ideas, of who was most appropriate, rather than the buying and selling of shares. That just wasn’t a sustainable model for the practice,’ says Heinz Richardson.
Embedded knowledge and fresh blood
Several practices we spoke to talked about the benefit of staff churn, noting that in firms with traditional hierarchies there’s a danger of growing a stale yet comfy ‘middle band’ of staff whose loyalties are more about safe career prospects than alignment with the founders’ entrepreneurial spirit. Arup’s Wright suggests that to avoid this there’s a necessary balance between ‘lifers’ in an established practice and newcomers. ‘Every organisation needs stability through embedded knowledge,’ she says, ‘but this has to be balanced by fresh blood. We’re creating teams that can grow organically.’ Interestingly, some of the most successful and sustainable organisations are those who – like AHMM – actively mentor staff who decide to move on and set up on their own, staying in close touch and sharing work and collaborations with their diaspora.
When we spoke to clients about how they identify the practices they want to work with, they – not surprisingly – told us that it’s the architecture that speaks. Sustaining a fresh approach in the work over the longer term is not easy for an established practice, although some of those we interviewed acknowledged that the security of a bigger firm can give more architectural freedom. Grimshaw talked of how, having taken time to establish the values and meaning of the practice as a mature player, it now has renewed confidence and strength of belief in its work. ‘We now know what we want to safeguard, and how we’re building on that. We’re defined by the projects we do.’
Of course, to keep things fresh as a more established practice you need the right kind of work opportunities, those that offer more scope than just a ‘safe pair of hands’. And this means maintaining a dynamic network. It’s not just about decades-old relationships with the founders’ oldest clients; it’s also about building up relationships between the next-generation leaders on either side of the table, because these are potentially more important to a practice’s longevity than the existing ones.
The practices who navigate succession best are those who don’t leave it too late. They treat it as part of an evolutionary process rather than a single moment of change, using it as a means to define and strengthen the reputation of a practice as a collective over time, rather than expressing it through a sudden change of guard and a rebrand. They set the tone early for voices other than the founders to be heard, selecting the right people to take the baton, and giving new generations the space and support to succeed. As Jestico+Whiles’ Richardson says, ‘You can’t inherit reputation.’