business advice | Apr 9, 2024 |
How do I ease the internal transition at my firm when an employee gives notice?

Dear Sean,

My employee announced plans to go out on their own. They’ve been fairly generous with notice—three months—but it’s still bad timing for my business, given our current project load. I want to be generous in my support of their choice to take this next step, but I’m struggling to get it right or hide my frustration. How do I support them in their journey while shoring up the resources I need for my firm?

Perturbed Principal

Dear Perturbed Principal,

First, I commend you for being supportive of those who seek to make their own way as designers. We all know what being an entrepreneur means—the grit it requires and the unbelievable highs and lows that await. It’s certainly not a path for the faint of heart. For those who dare, like your employee, knowing that you are in their corner is the true definition of mentorship and, ultimately, reverence for the industry you have chosen to make your life’s work.

Notwithstanding the above, neither the industry nor your firm needs a martyr. The thing about martyrs is that they only become saints when they are dead. You have employees to provide the leverage you need to transform your clients’ lives. Your willingness to prioritize an employee’s needs over the firm and its mission cannot abide. Why would you ever let it be so?

The answer to your dilemma is simply to ask what is best for you and your firm. If it is for your employee to leave much earlier so that you can dedicate your efforts to replacing them in the short-, medium- and long-term, then that is the right path, even if it is painful to your employee. Likewise, if you need extra time for projects to reach a stage when your employee’s involvement can wind down more easily, then choose that path instead. Regardless, being hostage to time is of your own making.

The larger point is to identify a certain weakness in your firm, which is not knowing what kind of business you are running—a pseudo-brokerage or a cohesive design firm? A brokerage is what you think it is: Individuals exist under an umbrella but essentially run their own businesses. A cohesive design firm, by contrast, brings individual elements together to serve the whole. Even if you are the principal designer, you can have a brokerage firm if it is truly up to a lead designer to take charge and get the project done. Similarly, you can have a cohesive design firm if it is clear that the lead designer is as much a coach as a player, responsible for creating certain elements but simply coordinating others.

If your firm will flounder because an employee is leaving to start their own firm, then you are a brokerage for sure, whether that’s what you want to be or not. Let this moment be a wake-up call for you to gain clarity on what kind of company you’re running and decide if it is the right way for you. Either path can work, and each has its benefits and disadvantages.

If you enjoy nurturing the next generation, you will continue to face this issue. Perhaps an answer would be to allow these employees to create a firm within a firm, if you will. Incubation is well-known in technology and finance circles; why not in design? You can create a more fluid scenario where an employee stays in a state of overlap until they are ready to go on their own, not only with your blessing but maybe even your investment and ongoing support.

But if you decide the strain of turnover is too much, then it is time to revamp your process and the way various elements of your firm touch a project so that clients understand that no single team member is dispositive. It is less about removing indispensability and more about integration, communicating to a client that the entire firm exists to serve them as a series of specialists.

The freedom to take a different path is always a choice. Avoid the martyr trap and let this moment be your opportunity to make the fundamental change that I am sure is long overdue.


Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

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