A partner from SOM shares lessons from a storied and prolific career

My role as partner in SOM ends this month. I joined the firm in 1972 as an entry-level design architect and was elected partner in 1987. In our agreement among partners, each of us must depart the firm no later than the fiscal year-end during which we reach the age of 65. I have reached that milestone.

At university, my educational focus was structured around total design integration and computer aided design as a tool for problem solving. I received degrees in architecture and architectural engineering and worked on funded research projects developing software to simulate design solutions to complex problems traditionally executed by hand. I did not seek to follow a “guru.” I sought to find many experts to help shape my path. And, as a teaching assistant, I taught. Total integrated design and its process became my passion.

There was no question in my mind when I left university that SOM was to be my career platform of practice. The firm at its formation had an ethos not a style. It was established as a collaborative. Team was more important than the individual. It took on design problems of many types and scales. Owings, Bunshaft, Graham, Khan, Goldsmith and Bassett presented design as a process to invent the new for their clients benefit and often took on challenges beyond the scope traditionally thought to be that of an architect or engineer. They and their teams would consistently work to evolve and invent. Every assignment was an opportunity. There were no a priori notations of form, surface or pattern making. Their process was one of collaborative exploration with planners, interior designers, engineers, artists, scientists, universities and private laboratories, and contractors and other “makers” to form new solutions for their clients that sought an inherent simplicity of expression. Together, they and their teams were an unparalleled force that transformed the profession and the international design landscape at a time of great cultural and social transformation. Their solutions sought a total integration of all design disciplines to high performance, simplicity, economy and a quality of craft. They attracted the best and the brightest.

This legacy continues. The firm is designed for succession of leadership. I am in a class that could be considered the third or fourth generation of partners. My personal mentor was  Bruce Graham. However, countless other SOM partners, leaders, team members, specialists, collaborators inside and outside the firm as well as clients and those in the contracting community also helped shape my career. I was given enormous opportunity and exposure early on. It was a privilege to be given the responsibility to lead multidisciplinary design teams for some of the largest and complex projects of the time and to be surrounded by the diversity of expertise that I needed to succeed. This was the beginning of my experience and my mentorship.

A career at SOM is part of a personal professional journey. One has the opportunity to choose along the way to focus on that which one is absolutely the best, and allow others to do the same. My passion for the design process and my experience led me to focus on the design management of large and very large complicated assignments requiring clear strategy, organization and process design. These type of assignments are some of those for which the firm is best known. They require the creation of collaborative teams with multiple and diverse design leads utilizing all of the firm’s expertise and that of many other speciality practices. They often have clients with many voices and require engagement with many external constituencies. These assignments are and will continue to be the nature of the challenges of our times. They require strong experienced creative design management leadership. These are uniquely SOM assignments.

Today, there are new global social and cultural transformations. With the unprecedented expansion of world markets, transformation of global population to cities and disruptive technological advancements affecting all aspects of business and life. There has evolved a fierce competition. Cities are competing globally with each other as best places to live and work. Companies are competing globally for talent as the best places to work. Products and services are radically transforming at an ever-increasing speed to be the best, most efficient and seamless. So, what role does design play in this context? What is the intersection where entrepreneurialism, sustainability, city design, architecture, engineering, interior design and product and service design intersect to impact this future? Our next generation of leaders is faced with this exciting design opportunity. SOM and its new leaders must take on this challenge.

Mentorship for transition is not a process for replacement or substitution. It’s about shaping and influencing — through practice — many future leaders to take the firm forward in their way for their clients and their time. Some of those leaders will become partners. Many others will be essential in creating, innovating and crafting the great and lasting environments of the future. As I depart, I can only hope that along the way I have made sufficient impact on those that will lead the firm as others did for me to address the challenges of today and in the future.

A few principles come to mind that have guided me through my practice that I hope have had influence on others. Some refer to them as my “rules.” No matter. I have been encouraged to share this selection with a sufficient degree of lightheartedness.

Operate as a team always.

A master with acolytes is not a sustainable practice and ultimately not transformational.

Collaborate or leave.

There can’t be any silos.
This should not be about you.

If there is no chaos to manage there is no problem to solve.

There is no recipe for innovation.
Design a process unique to the situation.

Create simplicity from complexity.

The design process is about multiple and parallel simultaneous explorations. It is complex and many times messy. Drive simplicity. In the end there can be clarity and elegance.

Create a plan. Then, execute the plan.

A well conceived plan is a sheet of music.
Conduct it beautifully.

Control is not leadership.

Control keeps you on path.
Leadership creates new paths.

Leadership can be quiet.

It is sometimes better seen than heard.

Inspire new leaders and seek inspiration.

You don’t have all of the answers. Seeking your inspiration encourages others to seek theirs not to just follow yours.

Clear the way for innovators.

Otherwise they will leave.

If it’s needed and it doesn’t exist, create it.

Isn’t this innovation?

If you lead the communication, you can lead the process toward innovation.

Organized face-to-face and voice-to-voice, that is.

Assigning your dirty work is not mentorship.

It’s arrogance.

A project isn’t architecture until it’s built. Otherwise it’s just an idea.

A rendering is only a painting and a model is only a sculpture. You haven’t innovated until it is executed.

Don’t allow design get in the way of innovation.

Great achievements don’t start with great design. They end with it.

Do not repeat you last success. Create your next success.

Practice is about evolution.
It is called practice for a reason.

Be strategic or be extinct.

The danger is irrelevance.

There is absolutely no excuse for bad taste.

Really? We are a design profession.
We are to be role models.
We create lasting legacies.
Up your game.

If you talk like an urbanist and practice like an urbanist, you better live like an urbanist.

It’s your credibility.

Never own a car.

I never have. Now finally a generation emerges with the technology to shape an economy with on demand shared mobility options. Take the leap.

Never go anywhere that you can’t get to or from by taxi cab or public transportation.

It is not about limits.
It is about connectivity.
And, it is about quality of life.

Design everything.

Someone has to.

Don’t get old.

There are too much to discover and too many problems to solve.

Always imagine and plan for the day you will not be here.

Everyday create a better place on which others can improve.

Never be cash negative.

Do I need to explain?

Have fun and carry with you a robust and enthusiastic sense of humor.

As a managing partner at SOM, Richard F. Tomlinson II has built his practice on helping clients develop visionary solutions to complex challenges. He engages directly with senior client leaders to conceptualize strategic and innovative approaches to large-scale projects, and then orchestrates the resources and multidisciplinary teams needed to bring the vision to reality. – See more at: http://www.som.com/about/leadership/richard_f_tomlinson_ii#sthash.L10WkZnJ.dpuf