How to Turn Architecture Firm Principals Into Thought Leaders

When a prospective client is considering which architecture firm to hire – or even to invite to respond to an RFP – they consider many different factors. One of the most important is whether there are architects at the firm who are thought leaders, or authorities on the kind of issues the client is looking to solve.

Even if the firm is well-known and has a long history of completed projects, it may lose a project to a smaller or less well-known firm whose principals demonstrate a deep understanding of their field of architecture.

Building up your firm’s principals as thought leaders requires time, but the resulting increase in project opportunities is worth it. Here’s how to do it.

Identify the Right Subject Matter Area for Each Principal

Start by setting up a short meeting with each principal. If they’ve already shown a clear passion for a particular subject, approach, technology, etc., confirm that that’s the thing for which they’d like to be known. Otherwise, ask them what they’d like to be considered a subject matter expert in – and come with ideas to present them.

It’s vital that their desired area of thought leadership be something your architecture firm does or wants to do. For example, take a principal who says their passion is biophilic design. If your firm has already decided not to pursue that work, establishing them as a leader in biophilic design does nothing for the firm except encourage project inquiries that you don’t want. It’s okay if their area of expertise is aspirational to the firm, as long as it’s not outright something you would never want to do.

Principals should not be competing with each other for the same topic. If four of your principals want to be viewed as thought leaders in affordable housing, create four unique niches: accessibility in affordable housing, environmentally conscious or passive house affordable housing, large-scale affordable housing, affordable housing within a multi-use setting. This may require drilling down with each principal about their specific interests in a particular field.

Finding the Right Channels for Each Principal

Architects are people too. Some will be more comfortable speaking, some will be more comfortable writing. It will be easier to establish thought leadership if the principals don’t hate what they have to do, so find out what they enjoy – and what they don’t.

Note: It’s important not to assume that someone enjoys something just because they’re good at it. I have worked with many firm leaders who have developed excellent public speaking skills out of necessity, but they hate it with a passion and don’t want to take on more of it.

There are a variety of channels available based on the preferences of each architect:

  • Articles posted on the firm’s blog
  • Personal blogs
  • LinkedIn posts
  • LinkedIn Publisher posts (longer articles that don’t disappear over time)
  • Conference presentations
  • Podcasts (as a guest or a host)
  • Panels and roundtables
  • Adjunct faculty roles
  • Competition judges
  • Personal social media
  • Letters to the editor of major publications: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Architectural Record

Each of these channels can present different content:

  • Walkthrough of firm projects, from the perspective of their area of expertise
  • Explanations of different architectural concepts related to their subject
  • Commentary on or explanation of current events through the lens of their architectural expertise (for example, how the impact of forest fires informs the design of museums in at-risk areas)
  • Opining on or explaining new rules, regulations, or legislation (for example, is there anything in the UK’s Future Building Standards Act that should be adopted in the US?)
  • Reviews of books about architecture or other fields related to the area of expertise
  • Ideation of hypothetical projects (for example, what does an ideal office building look like in 2050?)
  • Tying together architecture and another field (for example, how can what we know about auditory processing disorders be used to inform the design of healthcare facilities)

Setting the Principal Up for Success

The attempt to build up an architecture firm principal as a thought leader is only going to be successful with consistent effort. Principals have other concerns they will prioritize, like client work and firm operations, so they can’t simply be told to write some content and left alone.

Ask them how they want to work

Before any content is planned, ask each principal these questions:

  • Do they want to create content themselves from scratch, or would they prefer to be presented with an outline or a rough draft?
  • How much time per month can they realistically commit to this work?
  • How involved do they want to be in reviews and final edits? Do they want the final say before something goes out the door?
  • How long do they need to review content?
  • In what format do they want to see the content (printed out and left on their desk, emailed to them as a Word Doc, uploaded as an editable PDF to the firm Slack channel, etc.)?

Provide help if needed

Based on the architects’ answers to these questions, identify ways that support staff, designers, and junior architects can be helpful. This could be anything from an assistant sending reminders to other architects flagging news items for content ideas to hiring an outside writer to create outlines and initial drafts.

Success will be more likely if there’s agreement in advance about how each architect will be reminded of deadlines. Some principals will welcome – and expect – frequent “nagging,” and others will prefer to be left alone unless the deadline is substantially overdue.

Develop a plan to promote the content

All of the work toward thought leadership recognition only matters if someone outside the firm sees it. Incorporate promotion of the new content in your firm’s social media plan. If you have a firm newsletter, include links to anywhere the content is featured or promoted – especially if the source is external to your firm. Consider sending links and announcements to the alumni offices of schools the architects attended, and, depending on the newsworthiness of the content, to press outlets.

Not only will this increase the number of people who will come to see the architects as thought leaders, but it will also provide positive reinforcement to the principals that the work they’re putting in is paying off.

Patience Jones