Flat Hierarchy In a Design Firm: Where are all the principals? – Board & Vellum

Firm Culture

Where Are All the Principals?

By Jeff Pelletier
May 15, 2018

We’re a medium-sized design firm with one principal. Basically, we’re a design firm unicorn.

A good rule of thumb, is that most design firms have eight to twelve staff per principal. By that rule of thumb, we should easily have three to four people functioning as principals here at Board & Vellum. Instead, we are a case of (mostly) flat hierarchy in a design firm. We get lots of questions about how this works and how we structure ourselves. Clients want to ensure (for good reasons) that they and thier project are taken care of. If a principal isn’t working on their project, will they get the attention they need? And, will their point person be able to answer all of the hard questions, or resolve problems if they come up? (Short Answer: At Board & Vellum, yes, you will be taken care of.)

We’ve written before about our intentional lack of hierarchy, but as we’ve grown, things require a little more explanation since we do look quite different from other firms.

In general, we’re a firm that expects a lot from our employees. They’re trained in our way of doing things, and are expected to act as ambassadors for Board & Vellum in the greater community. It is why around 70% of us have referred work back to the office. We feel ownership and pride in what we do. A normal firm structure generally limits it to principals who can bring in work. We realized, all of our staff have the skill to clearly communicate why they like working where they do, and that is the best sales tool. So, a lack of titles means everyone is on an equal playing field, and staff feel empowered when talking to potential or existing clients and therefore can speak more confidently. It also means that all staff are encouraged to learn all aspects of what we do. Of course, not everyone wants to do it all (or is good at everything) but exposure to all aspects of what we do here ensures that staff have enough knowledge about what we do that they can always point clients in the right direction all while ensuring they are growing professionally.

The other big distinction we make is that there is a clear difference between titles and roles. Titles are something that denotes experience and recognition for a job that you have done. Roles describe the job that you are doing. While we all have the same titles (except for me, more on that in a minute), we all have different roles. The roles, though, can change and evolve, which is unlike how a title functions. Someone may be running our residential studio but that may change in a few years if their interests change. To be a nimble firm, we’ve found it helpful to work in an environment where our roles are presented to our clients and not just our titles. This also allows for experience to play a factor. Just because we have the same tittle doesn't mean that we have the same skill set. On any project we assign experienced staff to form the behind the scenes foundation of a project. This "quality and assurance team" ensures that you get the value of years of experience. They ensure that designs are vetted and critiqued by discerning eyes, drawings are reviewed for quality, and project management lessons are passed on to your project.

How does our lack of hierarchy impact your experience working with us?

Quite frankly, the associate assigned to your project is the “principal” in charge of your project. They’re supported by an experienced team of people in a system that creates numerous checks on quality and process. In the end, however, the buck stops with them.

If there’s a problem, I’ll happily meet with them to discuss their ideas for solving the problem but in the end, the call is theirs to make. We train everyone here in the Board & Vellum “way” and part of that is the ability to problem-solve and make informed and client-specific decisions. We try to get in your head to understand the situation, and we frame every decision in the context of, “What would the client be thinking?” No matter who you are working with, we want you to feel directly taken care of, and not feel like you’re talking to someone who doesn’t have the full authority to make a call.

Where does this leave us?

Well, we’re in a transition period, to be frank. I expect everyone working here to own our process and act as proud ambassadors of what we do. Pride in our work and our design excellence is key. But the reality is, I can’t keep expecting everyone to own everything if they don’t, you know, literally own it. So, I’ve made a commitment to move to an employee-owned model over the next three years. I will likely change my title to Founder and have everyone else who has ownership in the firm have their title changed to Owner. Of course, this is years away as the process is complicated, so what the title actually is may change a dozen times.

The intent in the future, however, is the same as how we function now. Everyone here owns their process and owns their client experience. When you talk to any of us know that you’re always talking to the right person.

Would you like to read more from the team?

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