As firms try to more methodically plan for growth and change, there are many issues to factor into the decision making process.

All design firms, whatever their size, location, or market focus, have one thing in common: they are made up entirely of people. Like instruments in an orchestra, it is the people who determine the substance and tone of your organization. People being people, they come in all sizes and shapes, with different backgrounds, training and talent, and different opinions about what’s really important. Try this experiment: pull five people aside at random and ask them each to describe your firm in a few sentences. Chances are you’ll get five very different answers. Since not only your firm, but all the organizations your firm deals with, including clients, contractors and consultants, are also made up of people, it pays to understand the overlooked but powerful role that demographics plays in shaping any organization.

If you understand your demographics, you’ll know how many staff you have by age, sex, educational background, number of years with the firm, compensation level, work experience, and so forth. With this knowledge, you’ll be able to track the stages of professional growth that all of them will encounter in the course of their careers. Understanding this will help you deal with the behavioral aspects of managing your firm successfully, and most especially in how you put together project teams.

In general, there are four stages of professional growth: learning, doing, leading, and teaching. The learners are the young turks who can’t wait to change the world. They are enthusiastic and passionate, curious and inquisitive, and what they lack in knowledge or experience is made up by youthful energy. The really smart learners quickly discover that there’s a lot they don’t know. They may be the lowest on the totem pole, but they have the most potential because their future has not yet been determined.

It usually takes about three to five years to pass through the learner stage to the “doer” stage. By this time, a person realizes that the “real world” is infinitely more complex than the ivory tower–real clients have real budgets and schedules and have to contend with dozens of complex issues (only some of which are aesthetic) in the course of producing a project. Things aren’t so black and white now, and the passionate learner is tempered by the political reality of getting things done in a team setting. During the doer stage, the employee usually concentrates on developing a specific skill set–is he or she best suited to design, management, production, marketing, or perhaps construction administration? This is a critical stage because the path that is chosen will shape longer term career development.

The doers who successfully demonstrate their competence will become leaders–of teams, of projects, and eventually, of firms. By this time, they have learned how to parlay their specific skills, which may in fact be quite limited or specialized, into much broader influence. Their judgement matures, they are seen as problem solvers, and they understand the difference between strategy and tactics. Emerging leaders also understand the power of leverage–they realize that they cannot do everything themselves, and that they need the right kind of help to accomplish a larger goal. The willingness to seek and accept help is one of the hallmarks of a good leader. The leadership phase can last for many years–and some people actually stop growing when they have assumed a position of authority, mistakenly thinking that they have “arrived.” However, the truly wise do not stop there. Understanding the difference between control and influence, they realize that the greatest power of all is the power to shape the next generation. This is when they become teachers.

Good teachers don’t stop learning, doing, or leading. Even while in a position of authority, they are concerned about developing the next generation. They consciously seek out promising younger talent, often becoming mentors. If they are smart, they always hire people who are smarter. Being both clever and wise, they realize that their success absolutely depends upon the next generation. The influence of a good teacher extends throughout the entire organization from top to bottom, and the values that are transmitted are long-lasting. It only takes one or two good teachers to make a tremendous difference.

To better understand your demographics, try charting some basic statistics. Take a look at the number of staff by chronological age, years of experience with the firm, compensation level, and phase of professional development. You’ll quickly see what patterns emerge and where the gaps are. When you add staff, the demographic profile will help you hire strategically–you’ll be able to match the strength of the candidate to the true needs of the organization. The charts will also help with managing your professional development. All this information can be put on a single piece of paper and updated periodically. It will not only help you with management, it will help your staff understand their individual roles in the organization and what the potential for growth is. Do you have too many designers, or not enough? Do the numbers show that you have too much turnover, or too little? Are you paying too much or too little for talent and experience? Has the time come to consider adding new partners? These are only a few of the issues that demographic analysis will raise. How you address them will determine your success.