Firm operations —€” A career path for project managers

February 2012 » Columns » OPERATIONS MANAGEMENT
Stephen C. Evans, AIA, NCARB

I grew up as a project manager in an organization whose culture supported project management, design, and the technical part of architecture. As a project manager for the HOK Sports Facilities Group (currently Populous), I was involved in fabulous projects, met incredible people along the way, and have eye-catching photos on my walls of iconic stadiums in the United States.

Good fortune gave me the opportunity to be involved in office and firm-wide operations at Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Inc., which was a challenging but natural progression of a career that could have easily started and ended as a project manager —€” there would have been no problem with that at all. It would have been virtually impossible to be considered in the operations role without the foundation of project management in my system. Operations people rely and depend on good project management in their firms. From an operations perspective, one will not succeed without good, fundamental project management practices in place. Consequently, project management is a good place to launch a career in operations.

Team is a good thing, a very good thing in my mind. Although there are more and more firms that have stretched beyond traditional services into development, real estate, and business ventures selling furniture to clients for their projects, THE PROJECT remains how the buck is still made. And delivery of THE PROJECT is now more than ever a team effort, with perhaps a "star" or stars leading the way to the honor award or just good, functional solutions for clients. Even though the organizational structures vary considerably from firm to firm, at the end of the day the organization must support and focus on the fundamental aspect of our work —€” THE PROJECT.

You must keep score of market sectors, disciplines, regions, and locations in terms of financial performance and key metrics. Okay, do that regularly and make the expectations clear to leadership folks. Also, and most important, have the means to identify projects that need help as the projects evolve, not at the end when the best you can do is identify lessons learned. Project managers have to be team leaders, understand the project and its essential elements, and know instinctively when it's not going well. Then they must respond.

Operations people in firms need strong leadership skills for a start. This includes the ability to promote firm management, project management, design, and technical groups in the organization and form supportive project teams. Knowledge of the legal and risk management aspects of practice, the project planning so critical to execution, construction administration policies and procedures, sustainability, the world of design software and building information modeling (BIM), and really doing QA/QC on projects are essential areas that require a strong foundation in project delivery. The best place to get all this is from the project management role.

Stephen C. Evans AIA, NCARB, is operations consultant for ZweigWhite. He has 30 years of experience, including as senior project manager with Populous, director of risk management for HOK Corporate, director of operations for HOK North Central Region, and director of operations for Treanor Architects. He can be contacted at

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