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Steady at the Helm

By Michael Thomas

As the design industry continues to change, leadership will play a vital role in the future of the interiors profession.

Two to three years ago, economic challenges began hitting the interior design community square in the face. Since then, the only constant in the design profession has been change. One doesn't have to look far to find principals of firms who have reorganized their companies to align with a new set of client expectations and values. Many have made tough decisions to let go of devoted staff to reduce the cost of operations. These same challenges have also forced many to fundamentally rethink their business model in order to sustain their practice.

Yet despite all of this change, there remains an enduring element that can play a vital role in the future of the interiors profession. That element is leadership.

Leadership (and leaders) can come in many forms. Leaders can provide the vision for a company to ensure the organization is on the proper path to achieve its strategic objectives. Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, once said, "Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision and relentlessly drive it to completion."

An effective leader of design can assemble the stakeholders, guide them in the development of a project and then create a consensus that, without such agreements, might delay implementation. In a design leadership role, one can be the teacher, educating and informing the client during critical decision-making steps, thereby shaping the outcome of a project. A design leader can also act as a role model, both mentoring and inspiring those who will be asked to take the pencil and draw their own plans for the future.

But no matter the specific roles of a leader, there are common attributes that define their effectiveness. One is communication. Possessing great communication skills creates the working relationships needed to collaborate on projects. A leader must be able to communicate clearly and passionately (as passion is contagious), especially when advocating for an element of a design project that is key to its success. Communication fosters a higher measure of confidence especially in team projects. And when it becomes necessary to make hard choices, an effective leader accepts the role and communicates with authority.

Another attribute is integrity. A leader with a high measure of integrity will be seen as being the same on the outside as on the inside. Those that follow the leader know instinctively whom they can trust because his or her core values don't shift with the direction of the wind. Clients also need to have that sense of unwavering trust in their design leader, especially so in these times of constant change. According to a study by the Hay Group, a global management consultancy, trust in leadership was the single most reliable predictor of satisfaction by the staff in an organization.

All leaders at one time or another are faced with a dilemma or situation where they have to trust their instinct. Whether one is facing unreasonable demands from a client or needs to settle conflicts with contractors, having a good sense of judgment is a vital attribute.

Peter Drucker made it clear when he said, "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." By realizing that any decision will have consequences at multiple levels, leaders must be able to see what is equitable for all the parties involved in a project.

Finally, design associations play an important role in leading the interior design profession. Each has an obligation to grow the profession through education, to advocate for the rights to practice through expanded legislation and to provide opportunities for members to develop the business skills necessary to compete in this "new normal."

Design associations need only to gaze out to the horizon and envision what may lie ahead. Since the future does not rest solely with current leaders but also with those who follow, these organizations have an inherent obligation to engage emerging professionals, to deliver a legacy, provide wisdom and share our passion. It is not an option. It is a responsibility and another enduring attribute of what defines leadership.

ASID President Michael A. Thomas, FASID is the president of the Design Collective Group, a multi-faceted business located Phoenix, Ariz. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or, and on the web at