DesignIntelligence Media Group

Anticipate the Future: Executing a Successful Leadership Transition (Part 2)

September 13, 2017 | Carl Roehling and Troy Thompson

Editor’s Note: Leadership transition/succession is one of the most important issues facing firms today. This article is the second of a two-part series on succession planning. Part 1 was featured in the 2Q 2017 edition of DesignIntelligence Quarterly.

SmithGroupJJR recently completed a successful transition of the firm’s senior leadership. Two key participants in that process continue the story, addressing the details of moving forward into the implementation phase and some lessons learned along the way.


The following three step succession process was outlined in Part 1. Below is an explanation of how each step was executed and an explanation of the long-term impact on how the firm is now led.

Evaluate and define future corporate officer roles. The succession committee identified six influences on our future: our culture, growth, workforce trends, the changing nature of practice, evolving client values, and data and performance-driven design. Some influences were considered existential threats to our profes-sions. They could undermine the basic business model of how professional services are delivered. The six influences jelled into three organizing themes for the future leadership model.

  • • The erosion of our professional role. An immediate threat to our value in the design and construction industry is the encroachment into our traditional role by contractors, clients, technology, social media and an eroding public respect for the value of any professional or expert.
  • • Changing client values and needs. The trends impacting our clients’ needs are the same forces challenging our value to our clients and affecting the processes that define our work.
  • • Build on our past success in the future. SmithGroupJJR has been around since 1853 and we have developed some very positive characteristics: solid business operations, fiscal responsibility, strong risk management, and a reputation for balancing good design with impeccable service. We need to evolve these traits to support a different future. The impulse was to create a chief marketing officer and a chief practice officer to supplement the president/CEO and COO; but titles began to get in the way of solutions. The search for nimbleness, innovation, more risk-taking and broader leadership participation was being hindered by the titles that were being considered and the hierarchy they implied. We dropped the titles and focused on arranging the leadership team to meet the challenges above.

Document criteria for all corporate officer positions. The new roles didn’t align with the previous roles of the president/CEO, COO and their teams. Most importantly, the new roles were equal and shared the same title. How does a team at this level work as a group and succeed individually? They start with shared overall goals combined with individual responsibilities related to their missions and perspectives:

Shared goals:
  • Set and lead the firm’s strategic goals and priorities
Shared metrics:
  • Shareholder equity and profitability
  • Client and employee satisfaction
  • Achievement of firm-wide strategic goals

Given the collaborative nature of the model, the key success attributes for the candidates were the ability to work together for the good of the firm and the willingness to share a vision. We couldn’t have three visions offered to staff. Individual success attributes were then developed for each managing partner based on their respective responsibilities.

The committee limited the role of president and chairman to their descriptions in the bylaws; no longer are these formal executive titles but rather a list of things to be done. These “roles” could be executed by any of the managing partners or their designee(s) depending upon future leadership needs.

Identify candidates for newly defined positions. Despite a defined set of criteria for new leaders, the selection of the final candidates was based on their individual skill sets, their experience and their likely synergy with the other leaders. It was assumed that strengths would be different for each member of a leadership team and individual weaknesses must be complemented by the other leaders’ strengths. In the end, the consensus of the selection committee on a “team” drove the decision, and then the actual responsibilities were tested and confirmed.


Individualize the transitions, but the terms must be consistent. Compensation, benefits and titles matter to everyone! We found that as long as all of the partners had the same terms, they agreed to the transition changes. For example, every senior partner dropped their salaries to the same amount after they left office. All senior partners agreed to become principals in title and leave their VP and other corporate titles behind.

Establish a formal shadowing process. Define it and stick to it to ensure the details are not lost. Talk honestly about how it is going during the process. Outgoing leaders don’t want to meddle but feel that they have helpful advice. Incoming leaders need to become comfortable in their new roles, but can still benefit from constructive feedback.

Let former leaders go through a “grieving period.” They will still feel that they have responsibility for the firm. Shadowing is a great way to transition their mindset to a mentoring role and to ensure nothing falls through the cracks early in the transition.

Review the performance of the new leaders. The firm should have an objective outsider gather feedback for senior leaders about their growth and performance as individuals and as a team. Newly formed leadership teams will not get candid and blunt feedback directly from those around them.

Do not let expectations form. Avoid creating expectations about who might be your successor and what the successor roles may be. These expectations will hinder exploration of a future different from the present.

Be patient, change takes time. Succession planning, execution and follow-on efforts all take time. Two years later, the education of the staff on the new structure continues.

Clean up your own messes. In a succession, everyone is leaving one job for a new job. We each owe it to our successors to clean up any lingering issues.

Over-communicate! You can’t communicate enough with everyone involved, from top to bottom. A comprehensive internal communications plan is critical. Different audiences need different messages and level of detail. It’s also important to determine the sequence of how you share this information. You want your staff to hear news like this from the right person at the right time.

Remember, succession planning isn’t over when the new leaders are named. That isn’t the end of the process. Over the past two years, there have been dozens of additional leadership changes that were part of the trickle-down effect.

The decision to initiate a leadership transition process and to design and implement a thoughtful, strategic plan were important steps for our firm to help ensure our future value to our clients and to the legacy of our 160-year old firm.

Carl Roehling, FAIA, is the former president/CEO of SmithGroupJJR.

Troy Thompson, AIA, is managing partner of SmithGroupJJR.