Concurrents: Succession is Not Just a TV Show

Erika Moody

By Erika Moody, FIIDA, president, Helix Architecture + Design 

Future planning has become a critical skill for businesses and clients of all kinds. Designers, product developers, real estate brokers, managers, researchers, executives, entrepreneurs, manufacturers, dealers, and sales teams can all benefit from adopting a strategic, future-focused mindset and methodology as it’s an important capability in every business intent on navigating a rapidly evolving future. 

At NeoCon 2024, I was able to connect with IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. FIIDA, on the topic of forecasting for the future, and to hear more about IIDA’s new Certified Design Futurist program — a first-in-class educational opportunity that will teach designers how to practice strategic foresight, a rigorous and systematic approach to identifying plausible futures to ensure resilience in an evolving business and cultural landscape. “Designers behave like futurists every day,” said Durst. “They anticipate client needs and create spaces that serve humanity not just today, but for years ahead.” 

And it got me thinking… As much as we must always be looking ahead when it comes to the artistry and storytelling of design as architects, designers and manufacturers, we must also be strategically thinking about the future of the business of design — and that includes succession planning for firms big and small. A succession plan identifies future staffing needs and the people with the skills and potential to perform in these future roles. And it goes without saying that it’s impossible to identify and develop these potential leaders without strategically considering what lies ahead, and taking action to adapt to what’s on the horizon.  

My personal succession story is a solid example — and in my humble opinion, a successful one. After serving as a principal at a large, international firm (360 Architecture), I left to start my own design studio in Kansas City, Mo., in 2013 (Blackbird Design Studio), which later merged with Helix Architecture + Design in 2016. Years later, with the gift of hindsight, I had the opportunity to ask a partner at 360 who blazed my succession path, “Why me?” I wanted to know how he knew that I was partner material. His answer was simpler than I anticipated at the time: “I looked at you and saw someone with the drive and confidence to one day go off and start their own firm.” Turns out he was right. I did. Three years later I went on to co-pilot a substantial merger of two firms. And in 2021, as part of Helix’s own ongoing succession plan, I was appointed President.  

What I’ve learned across my 30-year career journey thus far, and my first piece of advice for anyone in this industry seeking to equip and empower the next generation, is to look to the people with the grit and determination to not only succeed but to weather change, those nimble enough to adapt without skipping a beat. My second piece of advice is to look both inside and outside of your firm when searching for future leadership candidates — and be OK with kissing some frogs. You have to try people in different seats. I’ve seen it play out more than a few times where leadership will opt to promote from within for sentimental reasons, unintentionally forcing teammates into roles that they were never suited for or never wanted. For example, if being less hands-on — less in the design trenches, less creative — won’t make that team member happy in the long run, then that’s a factor worthy of your foresight. Because once you are a principal at a larger practice with money on the line, managing finances is a big part of the job.  

My third tip for successful succession planning is to start early. Depending on the size of your firm, it could take up to 10 or 15 years from planning and preparation to transition. During this time, it’s important to maintain a healthy firm for value, buy-in and longevity. Be careful not to have an inflated sense of value, and remember that value extends beyond profitability to culture (the alignment of people), including growth opportunities for all. And should you want to leave the door open to a merger or buyout, bottom-line profitability is key. A healthy firm needs to be nurturing client relationships and have a steady stream of new projects coming in. A merger, for example, can be fraught with potential setbacks like overpaying or failing to integrate the companies well. Maintaining a robust firm during any type of transition is the best buffer. 

The 2022 IIDA Demographic Survey found that the commercial interior design industry is poised for a wave of leadership change, and that wave is starting to surge. Just two years ago, 40 percent of those with 25 years or more of industry experience were holding principal-level roles. Today, those high-level designers are now beginning to retire or shift roles. If your firm falls into this demo and progression planning is top of mind, my last piece of advice is to be considerate of the humanity of transition. As humans, we tend to tie some of our self-worth to what we do and how well we do it. By making compassion and communication the backbone of your succession plan, the older guard will be ready and excited to transition into their next chapter when the time comes — and willing to pick up the phone and provide their guidance when you need it the most. 

Erika Moody, FIIDA, is President of Helix Architecture + Design, a nationally recognized architecture and interior design firm with offices in Kansas City and Denver. Under Erika’s leadership, Helix has amassed a diverse portfolio of sophisticated projects and became a majority women-owned firm. Her commitments to IIDA include previously serving as IIDA Mid-America Chapter President, IIDA International Vice President, and elevation to Fellowship in 2022. In June, Erika was inaugurated into her new role at IIDA, 2024-2025 International Board President.