Changing of the Guard

Futures Ramblings # 73

By Laurie Aznavoorian


It is an interesting time for Australians, following the election this weekend we have a new Prime Minister. The result will be a different middle aged white man plodding around Kirribilli House and The Lodge in Canberra in their bathrobe and Ugg boots. For most of us, a new political party at the helm signals little real, or rapid change; however, for the poor folks who service the Prime Minister it could be another story all together. 

Consider the coffee guy at Kirribilli house. You’ve finally perfected KRudds double strength, no fat, soy latte and suddenly you are responsible for producing decaffeinated soy cappuccinos with low fat chocolate sprinkles on top. It could be hair splittingly tense with great potential for disappointment. There is significant possibility it might end in tears, as is so often the case when leadership changes.

The website ‘AskMen’ targeted to the ‘better man’ with the by-line Power & Money, offers tips for people like the coffee guy who not only need to ensure they are on the ball when times change, but also have a plan for making first impressions on a new boss. The suggestions are:

  • Don’t choose sides.
  • Wait till the storm has cleared.
  • Resist brown nosing.
  • Volunteer for small tasks, because it takes time to build trust.
  • Don’t be a know it all.
  • Use the opportunity to rebuild your professional image.


As designers it is not unusual to be in this same unpleasant predicament. Not because leadership in our company has changed, but in our client’s. The experience can be quite traumatic, for example take Arthur Andersen. Although it’s not technically a changing of the guard, more a spontaneous combustion, the mere mention of those words in our office still has the ability to ashen faces. At the end of the day the result was the same; an amazing design up in smoke along with Enron and Andersen – sati style.

The last time I dealt with a client’s leadership transition the impact was amazingly painless. It occurred on the Telecom New Zealand project when Theresa Gattung announced her departure and handed over the reins to Dr Paul Reynolds from BT. The shift could have spelled disaster for us, but the work we did in building our accommodation and property strategy on business principles and clearly articulating our recommendations and the reasons for them, gave the strategy sticking power that lasted well after Theresa left.

We are not always so lucky. Take the saga of the CEO with strong opinions who was very involved in defining every element of the space we were designing from its look and feel down to the policies for behaviours in the new environment. When he left his successor sent us back to the drawing board. Compounding the pain of the redesign was a sneaky gut feeling the changes would result in dissolution of policies and a half measure implementation because the agreed solutions didn’t necessarily resonate with the new leader.

But let’s not focus on sad stories, there are plenty of positive anecdotes where the relationship we have with our client has helped soften the pain of the changing of the guard. One of these is Westpac; we have been working with the organisation since the mid nineties and undergone three leadership changes. I asked Peter McCamley, who has worked with them for nearly two decades what it was that held the integrity of our designs together through leadership change.

The catalyst of our success he says, comes from doing what we do; not only in a design capacity, but in our insatiable quest to dig deep and gain real understanding of the client’s business. In doing this we become the custodian of their business knowledge. For some clients, we may be their only link to history when their own people move on. We become a key part of the succession plan, the transferrers of knowledge, and the only ones who know the story of why the workplace is the way it is.  

Our success also comes from a willingness to accept there will be change with a new leader, not to mention the natural and logical evolution as the organisation responds to the times. As designers we must have a preparedness to evolve our thinking to align with a new leader’s intentions and ideas.

With Westpac we have not only weathered multiple leadership changes, but have also stood by them through the acquisition of new companies. When this occurs the organisation evolves by virtue of the influence each entity has on the other, which can also impact the work we do and the relations we have with them.

Organisations like Westpac recognise the role designers play and have accepted our offers to induct their new leaders. We communicated project time lines, explained why things are the way they are, and apprised them of the drivers for their accommodation solutions. They gained a greater understanding of the property portfolio and could then avoid making subjective judgements. Their credibility was reinforced due to a stronger connection to company history.

Often of greater impact to us is a change in the property team, particularly when we wear the organisation’s badge and play the role of chief historian. Property people have a tendency to move on when projects complete, frequently leaving us to communicate the project rationale to their successor. On the upside, together we collectively develop process, policy, standards and an approach to the effective execution of a project and that is highly transferable.

The most challenging situations can result from an intermediary shift; this is often more difficult because they are anxious to prove their own value and sometimes demonstrate that by putting us to the test, or returning the job to the market. The strength of our relationship with the client is often stronger, never the less; intermediaries are often in a position to make judgement calls on the value we bring. Since their measurements deal with cost, as opposed to adding value through effectiveness and efficiency, we frequently find our status in jeopardy. 

So what advice do we have for keeping our client relationships alive and strong enough to endure a changing of the guards? First, develop multi layered relationships within the business that extend beyond the top leaders. Hopefully some people will remain through a transition and think highly enough of us to step forward to sing our praises to the new boss. Having an insider attest to our passion, determination and value carries much more weight than self-pontificating.

We must also remember relationships are not about projects, but clients. We live and breathe them, and through our relationships, establish a very deep understanding of what makes them tick. You could say, ‘nobody’s going to love you the way we do’. On the flip side it is critical to continually demonstrate freshness by exposing our long standing clients to new ideas that might be important to them and to other projects we are working on.

It’s very dangerous to assume a client knows everything about us.  I am repeatedly flabbergasted when I chat with clients we have worked with for a long time who say “I didn’t know Geyer did strategy, or worked in tertiary education or had the capacity to do change management. Worse is when they learn this after they have given a project to someone else because they didn’t know we could help them.

Real risks to our relationships come from doing more of the same, assuming our clients are comfortable with the status quo. There is always the danger of projects gaining such momentum that we focus on the technical aspects of doing a job, rather than adding value. To remedy this we need to establish dialogues outside of the project to create a vehicle for the flow of information about what is happening in world of design and in their industry.

Similarly, we need to spice up life for our own people by considering succession. Designers get bored when they’re forced to repeat the same exercise over and over, it causes them to drink heavily and spend too much time shopping on line for shoes and skin care products that fight the advanced signs of ageing.

Try as we might, there is often little we can do once a decision has been made to throw out the baby with the bathwater. This is why we can’t wait to establish the right perceptions with a new leader. Going back to Kirribilli House, the new Prime Minister doesn’t know the coffee guy from a bar of soap. He is unaware of his ability to make a mean mocha or chai latte and may have prejudged him as a pedestrian latte flogger.

It is therefore up to Mr. Coffee to demonstrate his capability. In addition, every now and again, for good measure, he should pull out whatever the sexy lingerie equivalent is to coffee service, and surprise the PM with something new: a slice of banana bread, a chocolate raspberry muffin. Otherwise he may get passed over with the PM believing his only claim to fame is decaf latte.


Hui, Samuel; Dealing With a New Boss;

McCamley Peter, an enlightening conversation about the history of Geyer and Westpac.

Montague, Ty; If Your Leader Departs, Preserve the Company’s Story First; HBR Blog; August 7, 2013

Taylor, Bill; Are You Learning as Fast as the World Is Changing?; HBR Blog; January 26, 2012


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