Architecture as a professional service has existed for many centuries, but the practice of architects serving as business developers is a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to the 1970s, the American Institute of Architects not only looked down upon marketing or any type of business development activity, but it was forbidden based on the bylaws of the organization’s principals of practice. Do good work, design great buildings, and clients will line up to utilize your services was the mantra of the time. Times sure have changed!

Today, architectural firms spend on average 7% to 12% of their total budget on differentiating themselves from the competition and engaging in business development activities designed to win work. They have dedicated staff, and functions and processes to develop business that are all entwined in overall operations. But this change in the last 50 years is far more profound than architects adding marketing departments.

The role of the architect, the skill sets that are most rewarded, and the higher expectations of clients have all dramatically changed as the profession has transitioned from the practice of architecture to the business of architecture.

Today’s most successful architects are those who not only have the technical knowledge and competency to lead the design and production of great buildings, but they also have the client services skills sets that lead to new and repeat business. They are relationship masters, they build trust with clients and within their own teams, they are perceived to understand the true needs of clients, and they can articulate and deliver on a value proposition that resonates with all stakeholders. Today’s architect is not your father’s architect.

We are seeing this more than ever as our architectural firm clients are demanding that client services skills sets (or potential for) be part of the qualifications for any hire at any level. It was a short time ago that it was only principal-level hires who needed to be client builders, but now forward-thinking firms expect that even their early-career hires have the ability to build and foster relationships with clients. The young architect’s communication skills are now as much part of the equation as design and technical capabilities.

Not all architects will be asked to bring in work, but there is a growing realization that all members of the team have an impact on future business. Client perceptions are not cast in stone upon conclusion of the interview, but shaped and reshaped throughout the project with each encounter with a team member.


No longer hard versus soft skills, but hard and soft skills

In Thomas Friedman’s bestselling book That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented, and How We Can Come Back, the author suggests that the era of being “average” and expecting to get ahead is over. Friedman believes that Woody Allen’s longstanding notion that 80% of success is just showing up is no longer valid in a “hyper-flat world” where everyone is connected and interdependent, and routine jobs and tasks can be automated or replaced by technology. Average is falling behind, and only those who bring the “extra” will keep pace or get ahead.

Our experience is that the extra in the architecture profession continues to move dramatically toward soft skills. Gone are the days when an architect could get ahead just relying on his or her technical competencies. It was not long ago that an architect could define his or her value and career strictly on hard skills. Most architects, as we know, chose to get into the profession as young adults because of the appeal of being an architect and not necessarily to utilize the following soft skills that are now deemed by most of our clients as differentiators:

  • Communications—The ability to verbally and in writing convey a message that facilitates action.
  • Leadership—The ability to influence others to accomplish tasks and follow your guidance.
  • Human relations—The capacity to understand the “people” aspects, or human factors and dynamics.
  • Organizational politics—The capacity to understand the operating environment and its influences.
  • Problem solving—The ability to make proper assessments, form strategies, and allocate resources.
  • Strategic thinking—The ability to find and develop unique opportunities to create value. 

At the mid-career level, 80% of our clients’ assessment is based on a candidate’s soft skills; and at the senior and executive level, 100% of the assessment is based on the candidate’s soft skills. It’s assumptive that senior leaders have sufficient hard skills and technical knowledge. What clients always drill into during the courting process is the candidate’s track record in building trusting external and internal relationships. We are finding that the actual resume is becoming less and less relevant and even is taking a backseat to a candidate’s reference list.

When making a senior leadership hire, our clients are most interested in who does the candidate know, who knows the candidate, and, moreover, what will they say about him/her. Is this person a relationship-builder or relationship-eroder? Before we make any contacts, we will often assess a candidate based just on the composition of the reference list. We want to see recent clients and recent senior level direct reports, and, like the resume, we don’t like seeing gaps.


No longer hunter versus harvester, it’s hunter and harvester

Most individuals who bring in work for architectural firms do it one of two ways. The “harvester” is often a project leader who manages a client relationship and relies on a positive relationship and successful project outcome to win additional work. The harvester brings much value to the organization in this capacity, but does not see himself or herself as a “hunter.” Reaching out, developing new relationships, making formal presentations, taking risks, and facing rejection is left up to the hunter.

In the architectural world, the hunter often lacks the depth and breadth of knowledge and industry experience to be the sole relationship holder with the client. In the new world of “what have you done for me lately, what skills have you learned this year, how has your value to our firm and clients gone up,” those architects who want to ascend need to be both harvesters and hunters.


No longer left brain versus right brain, it’s left brain and right brain

We know the stereotypes. Left-brain thinkers tend to lack peripheral vision and business sense. They’re content with crunching numbers and cranking out massive amounts of tedious work—activities that don’t require much creativity. Right-brained people are creative, communicators, problem solvers, and innovators who like developing strategies, managing projects, and leading others.

It would be an oversimplification to suggest that architects who want to remain relevant (or firms that want to remain relevant to their clients) need to become more right brained, but there is a reality that the industry is demanding dual-brained competencies. As Daniel Pink predicts in his book A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, advanced technologies will dramatically threaten left-brain-only thinkers as more and more tasks are automated or outsourced. Those who use both sides of their brain will continue to have opportunities to bring value and ascend in their careers. HCD


Drew Sonier is Managing Director and Senior Partner for the Healthcare Design and Construction Practice at Sanfo
rd Rose Associates
. He can be reached at