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Common Traits of Successful Firms
By David C. Baker. Originally published by Recourses, Inc.

Ever since March of 1994 we have worked intimately with 50 different, new firms each year. These firms have been spread throughout every major metropolitan area in North America, ranging in size from 1 to 135 people.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what personality traits are common to the principals of those firms that are successful? Thanks for asking!

But first, let’s define success. Making lots of money is the easy answer, maybe because it happens to be more measurable. But we would also define success by what time you go home at night, how little you worry because you have a steady stream of clients, how much time you take off every year, and how sustainable your current pace is.

After identifying the firms that are successful, here are three common traits that surface repeatedly.

First, successful principals are confident (that’s not the same as arrogant, which might indicate a lack of confidence). They are not limited by common client objections. They are not afraid of their employees. They aren’t destroyed by criticism. They set prices higher than employees would. They are not afraid to think in new paradigms. They view themselves as unstoppable bulldozers that are moving inexorably over obstacles to get somewhere.

Second, successful principals are focused. They actually get things done. They aren’t so distracted by “doing” that the big picture planning languishes. The marketing plan might not be thorough, but something is done consistently. Employee reviews don’t get put off. They are organized. They take initiative.

Third, successful principals have some degree of sales outlook. They might not be sales-driven, but they are comfortable networking and then persuading prospects of the merits of their firm. They don’t anguish about how the entire selling/marketing process can be delegated. They see this function as ultimately their responsibility no matter how many employees are tasked with supporting the effort.

If a particular firm has more than one principal, each trait should be present in at least one of them. In fact, the most dependent (and thus healthy) partnerships are firms in which only one principal has the third characteristic.

Except for internal, non-commercial use, no part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic or mechanical, without the prior written permission of ReCourses, Inc. �Copyright 1998 by ReCourses, Inc. All rights reserved.

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ARCHIVE ID 1988 FILED UNDER Business Articles (Admin use only)
PUBLISHED ON Jun.18.2004 BY Speak Up
celia’s comment is:

May I ask what are some of the companies and principals that embody these characteristcs you outline? Or is it all threory?

On Jul.11.2004 at 02:18 PM
Brent H’s comment is:

I agree that only one principal should have the third characteristic, because if both prinicipals are out gallivanting with prospective clients then who's back at the office holding down the fort?

On Aug.24.2004 at 08:30 PM
Valon’s comment is:

I believe that one individual can hold on to all three traits. Perhaps, one individual could not be the best at all the three, however one can make an effort to practice these traits at least one at a time and focus on getting better at the other. I know it sounds like fiction, but I think everything is possible if you have the second trait ~ successful principals are focused.

On Aug.25.2004 at 01:22 PM
Ross Ciaramitaro’s comment is:

Thanks for the advice and insight, but like celia said, who are these so-called companies of the elite...the priciples you list are somewhat vague and could true describing anything...

On Oct.27.2004 at 04:08 PM
sockmunki’s comment is:

It seems like some of the biggest challenges i have seen principals go through are when to delegate tasks fully, partially, and then also knowing which things to completely let go of. I've witnessed principals who are extremely intelligent and hardworking, and their enthusiastic hands-on approach doesn't allow others the freedom to 'do their job', plus it causes the principal a ton of stress because their involvement in every facet of business keeps them busy and often burns them out completely. It also makes employees feel like there is a perception that they aren't capable of doing the job well on their own... causing internal problems or frustration.

Conversely, i've seen a principal that didn't do anything but horse around with existing clients and call it biz dev. This person delegated everything and eventually lost complete control (and respect) of the entire company. After they completely let go of all responsibility and tasks at work, they tried to wedge back into processes and it just fell apart.

I would imagine that it would be a difficult task to balance delegating and hands on. You would have to have a very capable staff that you trust fully to do tasks as well as you can - so that you can concentrate on the big picture and the future... but you also have to stay interested and involved in the processes.

On Feb.17.2005 at 03:08 PM
sockmunki’s comment is:

celia: I would think that companies like Landor, Methodologie, Pentagram, etc obviously have leaders with these traits. You have to have great people at the helm to run such powerful and respected companies. No doubt they have someone at the top that fills each of these archtypes, or clients and designers alike wouldn't flock to them as beacons of knowledge and leadership.

These super-principals are probably the same design leaders that contribute to books like

Looking Closer, who sit on the board of AIGA, and speak at conferences.

These are the people who embody the traits heart and soul, and successful smaller firms will definately share some of these same traits on some level.

On Feb.17.2005 at 03:18 PM
Tan’s comment is:

ahem...sockmunki.. I think your grouping of firms is a bit off.

And trust me, bigger does not mean better or more worthy of respect. Sometimes it's blind luck and screwing people that gets you notoriety and power, not great leadership.

I speak from experience, as I've worked for two out of those three firms you've named.

On Feb.18.2005 at 09:05 PM
Von Glitschka’s comment is:

Landor: Verizon Logo...nuff said.

On Jun.21.2005 at 07:01 PM
Alfagreyus’s comment is:

Without taking into account the issue of establishing a stone by God, which he won't be able to pick up, how do you think, may be something in this world, what can God never see?

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