Steinglass says the most common strategy for small-firm succession is to put trusted employees in the operational loop, often by making them associates. Ask them to participate in policy discussions and strategic planning; although they might not be making the final decisions, treat them as if they were owners. “Give them significant roles, and compensate them for it.” Steinglass says. For example, a talented designer can be made design director and oversee the firm's design work. Someone who understands the nuts and bolts of construction could be the technical director, in charge of developing quality standards. “Those are very high-profile kinds of assignments,” says Steinglass. “If you just gave them a raise without a role in the firm, it wouldn't be as meaningful.”

Many architects at the helm of successful practices discourage staff from bringing in clients. They don't want to dilute the portfolio with clients who may be attracted to the firm's lesser talents. While that's a legitimate issue at many firms, other seasoned architects simply resist sharing the limelight. That's why one award-winning designer left a West Coast firm a few years ago. “I reached a point where the next step was to establish my own practice, and the fact that there was no partnership track encouraged me to do that,” he says, asking that his name not be revealed. “When someone has grown to become more of a directing person in the firm and there's no possibility for having a managerial stake in the practice, then there's really no choice for that person but to move on.”

This architect notes that law offices rarely resist making people associates and partners. Yet it happens in architecture, partly because the founder's star power must be preserved. “The confusing thing about my experience was that the practice had developed to a point where there wasn't a singular designer, yet that was the perception,” he says.

Attorney David Pfeffer, a partner at LePatner & Associates, New York City, who advises architecture firms, says it's rare to see firms last through the generations, because they don't plan for sustaining top talent. “What all these managing partners tell me is that it's about the money, but it's not about the money,” he says. Their best employees “want the money, the title, and the responsibility.”

Fair compensation is part of any retention strategy, agrees Steinglass. The classic way to keep people is to pay them very well; he's seen examples of valued staff earning more than the principals in a given year. “Often in small firms, when times are tough, principals' draws are reduced but salaried employees don't have to suffer that way,” he says. The reason partners need to be generous, he adds, is to ensure there are associate-level employees who care about improving profits and design quality. Performance-based bonuses are a less risky way to encourage people to stay. Raising a salary is permanent, Steinglass notes, whereas bonuses may be given out in good years and omitted in bad ones.

A title can simply convey status or can promise things to come. The term associate sometimes applies only to people who are being mentored to be a principal, Steinglass says. Others use it as a reward for longtime employees who are never going to make it to the top. In that case, the diminished meaning can be offset by the authority the person is given, but the expectations must be clear. “The title becomes problematic if nothing comes with it,” Steinglass says.

stepping stones

Two longtime employees of a noted Washington, D.C.–area firm of seven will soon be made non-equity principals. The owner, who wants to remain anonymous because the paperwork isn't finalized, takes a three-pronged approach to a healthy practice: to give employees titles appropriate to their responsibilities, to give them public credit for projects they've done, and to pay them as much as he can, including a substantial profit-sharing and retirement plan.

For Stephen Muse, FAIA, another Washington, D.C., architect, a healthy firm with long-term prospects begins with hiring the right people. It takes Muse Architects a month to hire a new person, making sure a candidate has the same values and sense of purpose. “We critique their portfolio and see if they get involved with us in a conversation,” Muse says. “If they get defensive, or roll over and play dead, we know they won't work out.”

Muse likes to hire people right out of school or with one or two years' experience, so he can train them. Staff architects occupy the first rung on the ladder, working with a project architect on a team. The next two rungs are for project architects and project managers, who oversee multiple jobs. “When I see a staff architect who is not able to step up to project architect after a couple of years, I say, ‘Because you're not willing to take that kind of control, you may be better off working in a bigger firm where you can be part of a team,'” Muse says. “Usually they look around and end up leaving.”

Project architects perform other tasks, too. One works with Muse on awards programs, tracking deadlines and putting entries together. Another person maintains the library. Someone else controls the computer systems. “I strongly believe if people are doing something besides working on projects, they'll feel a great sense of ownership in the firm,” he says.

At age 54, Muse's retirement clock is ticking. He has three associates and is getting ready to make one of them a second principal. “I've always said the best things about working here are that we get very good commissions and that the staff is an incredible group of people who like each other,” Muse says. Those are qualities that any architect can aspire to as a way of keeping top talent, regardless of the exit plan.

Cheryl Weber is a contributing writer in Severna Park, Md.