A lot of baby boomers put off ownership transition—but shouldn’t. Not only do they need to start thinking about putting their firm in new hands, they need to calculate who would be best to take operations to the next level.
And that person should be a millennial, says Jeffrey Meyers, the 40-year-old CEO of DS Architecture in Ohio. PASSION FOR THE FIRM “That might be biased,” he says, “but in order for someone to really be passionate about a firm, they need to have enough availability in their life timeframe to make it their own.” DS Architecture founder David Sommers started having conversations with Meyers, about potentially leading the firm someday, when Meyers was 27. For those who question whether that age is on the young side, Meyers has this to say: “When is the right time to have a conversation with your kids about sex? It's never too early to plant the seed.” That doesn’t mean the process is quick. It took a decade for Meyers to fully take over the reins. He took on small projects, then medium-sized projects, with Sommers continuing to offer challenges and encouragement along the way. “He would say, ‘Is your plate full?’ and I would say, ‘Yeah,’” Meyers recalls. “And he’d go, ‘Great, let’s make it a little bigger.’” Millennials need both structure and freedom, and what Meyers calls “safe autonomy,” which he describes as the permission to navigate challenges, fail, and try again. KEY INSIGHTS What else should current principals and CEOs know about millennials? Meyers, who has brought DS Architecture from six to more than 30 employees since becoming a principal in 2010, offers these insights: • Money isn't the most important factor when making a decision. “It's important, but if you pay us enough and give us a vision, we're going to work really hard for you.” • People matter more than architecture and engineering. An effective work-life balance is critical. • Millennials want to learn and improve. DS Architecture rotates younger staff among multiple principal studio directors to give them experience on different projects and keep them engaged. For Generation Xers who may feel left out of the equation, conversations about ownership transition can be difficult. DS Architecture invited all employees to a meeting. Says Meyers: “We painted a vision and said, ‘You all have a choice now. You can decide to go with us, and if we're not the right fit, you can decide to leave.’ ” The turnover rate was about 35 percent—a figure that firms must accept and try to manage, he adds. As far as the mechanics of ownership transition, millennials know where to turn for information. Meyers attended seminars and PSMJ training programs, but says common sense plays a large role. “As architects and engineers, the thing we have in spades over other professions is that we are trained to critically think,” he says. “And if you apply the ability to critically think to anything, you're going to come up with better solutions.”