How to Build A Successful Professional Career

The 10 Most Important Strategies for Success

Image of the author (far left) with one of the DIALOG project teams

This article is an updated version of an article that was originally published by Archipreneur as “The 10 Most Important Lessons Learned in 25 Years of Architecture Practice.”

#1 — Have A Clear Vision of What You Want To Accomplish

Before starting your own business, you need to be very clear about what you are trying to accomplish. You have to honestly and carefully answer the question “Why am I doing this?”. Why am I starting a practice? What do I hope to accomplish? What is my mission? What does success look like? The answer to the fundamental question of “Why” will become your mission. And having a clear mission will allow you to cast a compelling vision of the future you want, a vision that will draw you forward in the world. This vision will be the source of the energy and determination you will need to meet the difficult challenges you will necessarily face.

How do you do this? First of all, I would suggest that you start by reading Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why. It’s an inspiring book that makes a very effective case for the necessity of having a purpose in order to be successful in both life and business.

Second, I would suggest you read Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’ book Designing Your Life, which explains how to use design thinking and prototyping to design a successful career. (I am actually using it right now to design the next decade of my career.)

One of the things that Burnett and Evans show you how to do is ask the right questions so you can solve the right problems. The last thing you want to do is start a business that is smart as a business idea, but does not succeed in helping you develop the career that will be most fulfilling to you, and that you will be most successful in.

#2 — Aim to Make a Difference

One of the most important things you need to do in order to be successful is to have a clear idea of how what you are doing can make a difference in the world, and that this is part your leading a meaningful, purposeful life — that is, a life that provides you with a powerful and meaningful raison d’etre for what you do. As part of designing your life you will be thinking a lot about this. You don’t want to get into late middle age and wonder what the hell you have done with your life!

Life is short and needs to be lived with passion and intent. Having the goal of making money, or winning design awards, as your life’s purpose is a good recipe for a mid-life crisis. Of course you have to make money to succeed, and winning design awards will also help you succeed, but they should be understood only as a means to an end.

And that end is something you need think very carefully about. Purposes that you might consider include: increasing the wellbeing of your community; providing your clients with consulting that makes a real difference to their success; doing work that reduces environmental harm; and creating things that increase the quality of life for the people who will use them.

#3 — Develop a 20-Year Plan

Whenever I tell young interns this, they seem incredulous, and typically tell me that they are having a hard-enough time figuring out what they want to do over the next five years, let alone the next twenty years! But there is a very good reason for having a 20-year plan. A 20-year plan is really the length of a well-thought-out career, and therefore, if you are looking to plan a meaningful career, you will need to think about it in a 20-year time frame.

This is in no way at odds with the fact that most professionals change jobs or positions on average every five years. A job is not a career. A job is simply a place of employment with defined roles and responsibilities. In designing a career, you should be looking at it as a life’s project, and it having a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning of your career provides you with the knowledge and expertise you will need to be successful in your mid-career. And mid-career experience provides you with the foundations to build your legacy in your late career.

The objection I hear most often to creating a 20-year plan is that “I might change my mind about my career direction as I go along.” Yes, you will most likely change your mind as you go along, and you should make a point of taking stock each year about whether or not your 20-year plan still makes sense. But the planning process is still very useful and important.

One of the most important things about a 20-year plan is that it primes your unconscious brain with a map of what is important, and once your brain has this map, everything in the environment that in any way relates to your plan will be picked up by your primed brain and brought quickly into focus so you can act on it. In other words, it is a way for your brain to cut through the clutter and noise of everyday life to make sense of what is important to you and what is not.

#4 — Develop Your Business Skills

Most professional schools do not provide you with a good grounding in the business aspects of professional practice. So, before you quit your day-job to start your own practice, it’s probably worth taking a continuing-end course at your local college or university on how to start and run a small business. It will teach you the basics of sales, marketing, bookkeeping, and managing your team.

I would also recommend taking a course in negotiation. For some reason, most professionals are typically terrible negotiators, especially in negotiations for fair compensation for their services! Of the many books on negotiation I have read, the most useful has been Chris Voss’s book, Never Split the Difference. Voss is former FBI hostage negotiator and his methods are based on current research in neuroscience.

And you will also want to start building yourself a library of go-to business books. One of the best books you can read on how to lead, manage, and develop business for a professional service firm is David Maister’s book, Managing the Professional Service Firm. This is certainly my go-to bible for understanding how to successfully lead and manage a professional practice. I don’t think there is any better advice out there then Maister’s wise and insightful guidance.

#5 — Read, Read, Read

I think that one of the most important ingredients for success is to be constantly at the intersections of culture, science and technology, and business, and to do so you will need to be constantly reading — reading books, blogs, newspapers, and journals of all sorts. You need to read both broadly and deeply. You need to understand the bigger world around you; but you also need to maintain your expertise in whatever your specialty niche is (and you will want to have at least a couple of specialty niches!).

So, what is on my current reading list this month? In addition to the standard journals and mags, I am reading: Before Happiness, by Shawn Achor; Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit; Designing Your Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans; Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them by Julian Cribb; The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, by Kevin Kelly; and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson.

#6 — Find a Blue Ocean

This is a reference to W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne’s book, Blue Ocean Strategy, that suggests that entrepreneurs look for business opportunities in uncontested waters — blue oceans — rather than competitive, bloody waters — red oceans. This is good advice if you can find your own blue ocean.

If you are starting a traditional practice, you will be up against dozens, often hundreds of competitors who will have much deeper portfolios and much broader client networks than your new business will have. So you will need to offer something that really differentiates you from your competitors. Whatever you plan to do, you need to develop a “secret sauce” that makes your services more desirable that your competitors will find difficult or impossible to copy.

When I started my own practice, just as the Internet was emerging, I positioned myself as a “virtual architect” and used the Internet to pull together consultants from all over North America to do projects — mostly buddies from grad school. But it sounded cool, and got me some good speaking gigs at conferences, and conferred a degree of uniqueness and expertise on my practice that got me noticed.

#7 — Build and Support Your Network

I have not met any successful entrepreneurs who do not have a deep network of people they trust and can rely on. Networks are for support; networks are for leads; networks are for advice; networks are for collaboration. Networks are the important bonds that allow you to see and realize potential opportunities. One of the best guides to developing your network is Harvey Mackay’s book, Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty. And one of the most important lessons in Mackay’s book is that networks are not to be exploited, but rather supported.

You build a network of people whom you will try to support, and care about, and they will in turn do the same for you. I can’t say enough about how important building a good network is. Without a good network success will be virtually impossible. And make sure your network is made up of smart, decent, and honest people, because as John Rohn once said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

#8 — Build Great Teams

Part of building a good network will be spotting great talent for your team. Unless you plan to work as a sole practitioner, you will need to build a great team to be successful. Volumes have been written on how to recruit, manage, and inspire great teams, and you will need to familiarize yourself with the field of management and leadership if you are to be successful. From my experience of leading both small and large practices, there are three important aspects of building and leading great teams that you will want to focus on.

The first is talent spotting, long-term networking, and relationship building with future potential team members. The second is selecting and hiring the right team members. And the third is leading, inspiring, and nurturing your team. For the long-term growth of your practice, talent spotting will be one of your most important tasks — and one not often talked about in management and leadership literature. How do you spot great future team members? You always need to be looking!

When you are at industry conferences; when you are giving public presentations; when you are at professional industry events of any kind, you should be constantly on the lookout for great future talent. And when do you spot bright, able, ambitious, innovative people, make a point of connecting with them and building a relationship. Make them an important part of your network. At some point in the future the stars may align and you may be able to invite them to be part of your team. Talent is a long game!

#9 — Take Care of Yourself

You will not be able to succeed in any new venture unless you are physically and mentally up to the challenge — and can maintain your physical and mental stamina over the long haul. You will be pulled in a thousand different directions when you start your practice, and your private life will just as importantly continue to have its own demands and stresses.

So, you will need to learn how to take care of yourself to manage your energy, and your physical and mental health. There are two very important things you should be doing, even when things are crazy busy — in fact especially when things are crazy busy: First, you should set aside a minimum of one hour at least three to four times per week for exercise — some combination of cardio and resistance weight training.

Second, learn how to meditate and do so each day. If you are new to meditation try a meditation app like Headspace on your iPhone or Android. Most of the entrepreneurs I know say they could not function without exercise and meditation, and most accounts of successful entrepreneurs I have read have said the same.

#10 — Be a Rational Optimist

Of the list of ten lessons learned, this lesson may be the most important. My personal experience over the past 25 years of practice has taught me to make every possible effort to see failures and setbacks as doors to new insights and opportunities that one would not have otherwise been able to see.

As a personal coach I know often asks, when one of her clients runs into a particularly difficult setback: “What is the gift provided by this situation that you would not have otherwise had access to without the setback?” This is a powerful re-framing question because it cleverly redirects your brain away from the negative emotions associated with the setback, and forces it to start exploring new opportunities that may exposed by what you might otherwise simply see as a failure. This turn of mind is what I like to call rational optimism — an optimism founded on the realities of a difficult set of circumstances, where you are willing to explore the positive opportunities that may be inherent in those circumstances. So, as you face significant challenges and even failures, keep asking yourself: “What’s the gift?” Business, like life, is one challenge after another. Do your best to look at these challenges as opportunities to learn and grow, and when you are faced with a tough challenge, or a failure, always ask yourself: “What’s the gift?”

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Clearly “success” is something that you must define for yourself, but however you define it, the above ten success strategies will serve you well in achieving it. Defining your mission, casting a vision, figuring out how to make a difference, finding your own blue ocean, and developing a twenty-year plan are all good strategies to help you launch your business.

As you proceed, you will need to continue to hone your business skills and keep abreast of what is happening around you by reading both broadly and deeply. But you will also need help to be successful, so developing an effective support network, and building a great team will be crucial strategies for accomplishing your mission.

And while it will be absolutely necessary to invest significant amounts of time and energy in building your business, it’s critical to make sure you also invest the necessary time and energy to take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. You are going to be in this for the long-haul, so your continued health will be paramount to your future success.

And finally, you will encounter many obstacles and challenges along the way so you will be well served to develop at attitude of rational optimism, for every threat, every challenge, is also a potential opportunity. Crafting a rich and meaningful career is a worthwhile thing to do with a life. If you use these ten success strategies, you will have a much better chance of succeeding.

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Craig is an award-winning Toronto architect and a passionate designer who believes in the power of built form to meaningfully improve the wellbeing of communities and the environment they are part of. In addition to his professional practice responsibilities, Craig writes and speaks about his research and design explorations at conferences and workshops internationally and hosts the Twenty First Century Imperative Podcast.

Architect, urban designer, biologist and host of the Twenty First Century Imperative Podcast TFCIpodcast.com