Author Anna

The use of modelling and design software among architecture firms continues to grow, bringing added accuracy, flexibility and efficiency to the design process. But underlying all of the benefits that these tools have to offer, there has been a growing unease among some industry veterans.

It could be argued that advances in computer aided design cheapen the knowledge and experience of architecture professionals- making a significant part of their training irrelevant and even obsolete. Yet, I believe this is really just the tip of the iceberg. The real threat to architects and to the profession as a whole is Artificial Intelligence (AI).

 

Why AI is Such a Big Deal

AI refers to the “intelligence” of computers and software. Three decades ago, computers were hailed for their ability to access, manipulate, and analyse vast amounts of data that they could then use to reach probable solutions or assumptions. Today, when a computer or a collection of code is called “intelligent,” it means the system is adaptive, inquisitive, borderline intuitive and ultimately able learn from past experience. In other words, it has the ability to get smarter over time.

Of interest to architects in particular is the fact that AI is even making its way into uncharted territory: non-technical, creative tasks, such as writing and art. As computers get better at manipulating and analysing data, images, and 3-dimensional spaces, and as advances in speech recognition coupled with virtual and augmented reality blur the separation between man and machine, self-generating design solutions are no doubt on the horizon.

This leads to an intriguing question: Could an intelligent machine or piece of software navigate the complex needs, desires, ambitions and ideas surrounding a given project and come up with a viable, even likable, design solution?

We are definitely edging closer.

But, there is an even bigger picture over here. AI has the potential to influence the design and build process at every stage– from site research to the realisation and operation of the finished structure. This comes as the increasing complexity of design, engineering and construction meet up with economic pressures demanding that architects provide even more service for less money.

In this brave new world, architects could be replaced by algorithms and big data, and an architecture “technician” working in a construction or engineering firm could theoretically be put in charge of the kind of complex projects that require several human teams today.

 

Finding the Hidden Opportunities

The idea that a computer or a piece of software could be smart enough one day to do almost all the work of a trained architect may not be so comforting to those already in the profession. But for the industry to survive the worst thing professionals and the firms they work for can do is stick their heads in the sand.

AI isn’t going away… and while these technologies may not entirely replace the architect, it promises to dramatically transform the architect’s role in the scope of a project as well as how he or she is trained.

That said, here are three areas where AI may bring the biggest disruption to architecture. But at the same time these very areas offer the biggest opportunities. Discerning and courageous architecture studios can (and should) start experimenting with some of this technologytoday. By doing so, it gives them the best chances of maintaining their place in the design and build process:

 

  1. Automation. With automation, routine, transaction-based and analytical tasks, such as preparing schedules, measuring, calculating, and even evaluating safety concerns and zoning compliance, are performed by algorithms that can not only tap into big data sources, but both upgrade and improve itself over time. With the need for human-input into these areas eliminated, architects are then free to direct their attention to the overall quality and suitability of the design.

 

  1. Site and social research. The first stage of any project is collecting and analysing information about the project location as well as the people who will be interacting with the finished space and then matching this data up with the project goals. Today, much of that data is available online. Some forward-thinking BIM programs, such as Google SketchUp, are already starting to tap into these data pools in order to create a surprisingly accurate simulation of a site. This means architects can instantly conduct environmental and construction analysis without having to visit the location.

Moreover, for projects that will be used be a large group of people, AI can reference socioeconomic data to predict how various aspects of the space will be used and automatically draft plans that best represent and suit all those involved.

 

  1. Design autonomy. Perhaps one of the most threatening areas of disruption to architects is the loss of autonomy in the design process, since giving design autonomy to a machine would be synonymous with the loss of their artistic expression.

While this is certainly a valid point, creativity need not be lost; rather there would have to be a change to the way it is expressed. In this setup, the computer would become a partner, rather than a competitor, in the design process. The architect would “plug in” various project variables and goals, and then let the system suggest a range of plans which fulfill these parameters. This means architects would be less focused on the actual design process. In its place, attention would be given to deciding which variables, factors, and goals to emphasise over others in order to reach a certain outcome. The value (and talent) that future architects would bring would thus lie in their ability to arrive at a creative intention that stems from their very human understanding of the space and the people who will use it.

In short, when it comes to the issue of AI in architecture, it isn’t a matter of if; it’s a matter of when. While this technology may not entirely make the architect’s role obsolete, it will, for better or for worse, fundamentally transform it, and architects need to be ready when that happens.

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In the first part of this series we took a look at who Millennials are. In this article we will look at what Millennials in the field of architecture want and need in order to thrive at work.

Bridging the Gaps

As Millennials continue to fill the ranks in the workplace, the senior leaders at many of the top architecture practices have been trying to figure out how to best hire them, motivate them, and hold on to them. But for all of their effort, pesky issues, such as high turnover, low job satisfaction and poor performance continue to persist.

At my executive recruiting firm we are constantly fielding requests for assistance from architecture firms big and small that are struggling to attract, retain, and motivate talented young candidates. Even the biggest names in the industry can’t seem to keep their potential top performers, let alone encourage them to do their best.

Leaders are often at a complete loss for what to do. Should they change their compensation package? Promise future equity? Attract talent with cutting edge design technology? Hire a more diverse workforce?

The truth is the challenge that Millennials bring to the architecture industry has little to do with things like compensation, cutting edge design tools, or the promise of future equity. There are basically two great divides driving the friction between young architecture professionals and the firms that employ them, and both of these divides are equally important and equally influential.

The first one is a clash between the attitudes and work preferences of Baby Boomers versus that of Millennials. As I mentioned in the first article of this series, the transition that is happening today is not just a mere passing of the leadership torch from one big generation to the next. Instead, senior leaders are handing over the reigns to a whole new way of doing business, communication, and management that seems (on the surface, anyway) totally foreign to what they have always known.

It’s the change itself that is threatening.

The second great divide has to do with what firms say they want to do versus what they actually end up doing. But, more on that in the next article…

What Millennials Need on the Job

If senior leadership is serious about catering to their future leaders, then they need to bring about nothing short of a cultural shift. They are being forced to rethink the way projects get done and talent is developed not just to stay competitive, but stay relevant.

That said, here are three of the most important key points today’s senior leaders should know and act on when it comes to their Millennial hires:

1. Millennials want career development through self-actualisation and experiences. It’s important for senior leaders to understand that their Millennial employees have personal and professional goals that are totally different to theirs. Millennials expect their employers to help them succeed through individualised support and experiential learning. A firm can’t just provide money or a standard path to career development; it has to deliver self-actualisation. In return, Millennials are ready and willing to passionately invest their time and energy towards the advancement of the firm.

An interesting example of this in action is Pepsico. The popular food, snack and beverage corporation recently launched a career and leadership building initiative that focuses on what it calls “critical experiences.” These are hands-on experiences that develop key life skills in addition to leadership and functional skills by placing candidates in new environments and roles. Assignments could include turning around a failing department, pioneering a new product or vision, or taking part in a firm sponsored community service initiative. Through learning-by-doing and stepping out of their comfort-zones, young professionals are exposed to different people and fresh perspectives. All of this helps them to expand their understanding and ultimately think differently.

Modern architecture reflects the increasing complexity of the world we live in, and as such, there are many, often shifting, factors that can influence the outcome of a project. It is practically impossible for young professionals to deliver optimum results if they are confined to their desks and pigeon-holed into a specific role. It doesn’t matter how talented or motivated they are, nor how many design tools you throw at them.

2. Millennials want “sensible” flexibility and freedoms. Many senior leaders today bemoan the fact that Millennials seem unfocused at work and have little regard for authority or standard procedure.

Here is where a little understanding is in order. Millennials need some measure of autonomy to perform their best on the job. They may need to take “mental breaks” throughout the day, get a change of scenery, or work flexible hours. They may need to keep their phones in front of them at times. But at the end of the day, they will get their work done.

When it comes to communication and collaboration, Millennials loathe constraints. The ability to reach key people at key times is extremely important to them, and the opportunity to have their opinions heard is energising.

The culture within the architecture workplace needs to adapt to the way Millennials approach focus, discipline and communication. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t ever be a hierarchy, or limits or constructive performance feedback, but forcing strict conformity will only backfire. Such a move will continue to bring about the very things leadership is trying to avoid: high turnover, low job satisfaction and poor performance.

3. Millennials want the best technological support for collaboration. While many architecture firms are busy updating their design technology, Millennials are bent on collaboration applications that are easy to use and allow for flexible, seamless communication, just like they have for their personal use.

One recent survey reported that just over 71 percent of Millennials face challenges using the collaboration tools provided by their firm. In general, Millennials prefer the real-time communication on chat applications, online meeting software, and texting versus email, which is slow in comparison. They also prefer cloud-based document management solutions so that they can access files and information anytime, from anywhere.

To sum up… architecture firms need to rethink the way they approach benefits and career development, by moving away from the old job seniority-based hierarchy model and embracing the skills and experience model. They need to create opportunities for autonomy and give them the space to do their work

But to do this, they need to build a bridge between the old way of doing business with the realities of today, to respect the past while showing a distinct interest in the current disruption that is redefining the architecture industry and many other industries like it.

I’ll offer some practical tips on how architecture firms can do that in the final article of this series.

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As Millennials continue to come of age and a new wave of architects settles into the workforce, there has been a lot of discussion about what this generation means for the profession of architecture. The work ethic, attitudes, skills, and career aspirations of these up-and-coming young professionals are starting to change the way architecture firms operate, communicate, and reward good performance- whether these studios like it or not.

Millennials, themselves, are a kind of disruption to the industry’s status quo- a disruption that has left many of today’s senior leaders baffled and unsure about how to proceed. But as Millennials become the largest generation in the workforce, it’s an issue that needs to be figured out, and fast.

While Millennials are certainly leaving their mark when it comes to the trends in design and architecture, in this series, we’ll focus more on who Millennials are, how they are changing the systems that support the design and build process, as well as consider some concrete ways firms can (and should) respond to it all.

 

A Millennial is Born

Before we can explain how Millennials are redefining and reshaping the architecture industry, we first need a little background.

The Millennial generation are those born between 1980–2000, give or take a few years. Though the generation spans two decades, those in this cohort share many distinct characteristics, even across cultural and geographical lines. Millennials have come of age during a period of tremendous technological, political, economic and social disruption. In it’s wake, emerged a generation of young adults who have grown accustomed to change and of challenging the status quo. As one author put it, “They are the most threatening and exciting generation since the baby boomers brought about social revolution, not because they’re trying to take over the Establishment but because they’re growing up without one.”

Part of this has to do with the fact that they are “digital natives.” Millennials are the first generation to have grown up with the Internet and personal computers as well as a whole host of mobile devices, apps, and social platforms. It’s not just that they are comfortable with technology. It’s that their cell phones and other connected devices are their instinctive, go-to portal for acquiring information and conducting some of the most basic daily transactions, such as making purchases, setting an appointment, or sending someone money… and, this technology enables them to do the vast majority of these things in an instant.

If you have been paying attention, most of the articles written about Millennials over the past few years are quick to highlight a range of the negative stereotypes, such as:

●     They struggle with face-to-face social interactions

●     They are narcissistic and have a hard time handling failure

●     They lack basic life and workplace skills

●     They are easily distracted

But, there are many positive stereotypes, too:

●     They are confident, connected, and open to change

●     They actively seek feedback to help them improve performance

●     They are curious and passionate learners, excited to acquire new skills and experiences

●     They are open to collaboration in order to work smarter, not harder

Obviously, these are broad stereotypes, and not every Millennial will fit in. That’s not the point. These qualities are backed by a tremendous amount of research, subjective and objective assessments- even from Millennials themselves. To simply ignore them is the equivalent of putting your head in the sand, and all that’s likely to do is give you a headache.

Passing the Torch

Leaders in architecture, and throughout the working world, need to not only figure out this unique, transient, often contradictory cohort, but come to terms with the fact that change in the workplace is necessary, and some of that change may not be so easy.

As Baby Boomers reach retirement, it’s not just that the largest generation to ever be in the workforce is being replaced, it’s that the entire practice of doing business is evolving into something totally new and different. Many senior leaders in architecture and most other industries have been struggling to come to terms with this uncharted territory. But instead of fearing it or fighting it, this transition can be an exciting opportunity for renewal and for redefining the role of the architect in the built world.

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Of all the challenges facing architectural firms today, figuring out how to win more work definitely sits at the top of the list. Yet, I find it interesting that many companies are tragically out of touch with the basic trends shaping how projects are secured in the first place. Nowhere is this break more prevalent than in the project pitches that many architectural firms are presenting to their clients.

Gone are the days when you could just rely on your name and reputation, or even the quality and relevance of your design to secure a project. Today, projects are often won and lost based on the “performance” of the presenters. It’s not just about the ideas they are trying to convey, but how they go about doing it.

The architectural firms that will earn the most business in 2015 and beyond are those that know how to connect to the needs and preferences of their clients. They have a narrative that speaks to their clients in the words that their clients are using.

If your team can learn how to get that narrative right, then chances are you will already be well ahead of the competition.

The Case of the Stumbling Starchitects

Just over two years ago, some of the biggest names in the industry, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Norman Foster, all vied to secure a high-profile project: a new tower for L&L Holding Company on Park Avenue in New York City. This stretch of prime real estate is home to some of the most expensive properties in the United States and a popular enclave of fortune 500 companies as well as the rich and famous.

Norman Foster won the contest with a rather traditional, sensible design: a stack of three glass boxes connected by an exposed steel scaffolding and separated by three landscaped terraces.

Shortly after it was announced that Foster had won the contract, The Guardian ran an article that included video excepts from all four of the pitches. The lessons that can be learned just from watching these architects in action are priceless.

So, why did Foster win? Here are three good reasons:

  1. He knew his audience. Of the four architects, Foster is the only one who didn’t sound like he was talking to a bunch of art directors or architectural aficionados. Good thing because he was speaking to a risk-adverse corporate crowd. These are people who think in terms of measurements, profits, and practical results, and that is exactly what Foster gave them. He showed them that he knew his design intimately, particularly the important numbers, square footage, and rentability – precisely the kind of information needed to reassure his audience.
  1. He presented a clear, focused message. One notable difference between Foster’s presentation and the others is that he chose to avoid the PowerPoint slides in favour of an easel and poster boards. Though the move may have seemed risky given his audience, it ultimately paid off. With less visual “distractions,” the investors were able to focus on both the person behind the idea and on the fact that the details of the project were well-known and thought out- and that is exactly what Foster wanted.
  1. He knew how to tell their story. Most importantly, Foster knew how to craft a compelling story line. But, it wasn’t his story he was telling, and it wasn’t the story of New York City, either. It was his clients’ story- a narration full of solid, no-nonsense facts and figures and a smattering of corporate-speak. In the end, his audience was left with a clear vision- a vision that included them.

While not every architect and his or her team may be gifted orators, however, these are skills that can and should be learned. It could significantly make the difference between a year of wins or a frustrating year of losses.

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Over the past couple of years, a “discounting trend” has been quickly making its way through the architecture industry. In order to win work, some architects are low-balling their competition by offering clients very low fees. This practice has been sparking a collective grumbling among firms that feel crucial contracts are being stolen from them… right under their noses.

But, if your architecture practice has been considering a price discount in order to attract clients, I would urge you to reconsider: Discounting will only attract low paying clients, eat into employee moral, and ultimately gut your firm until there’s nothing left.

I know these are strong words and that some of you may almost instinctively resist them. It’s certainly understandable. After all, some of your competitors may be lowering their rates, and those profit margins are getting harder to maintain. You’ve got employees to keep happy and engaged, key investments to make, and bills to pay.

The issue of low fees is reflected in how you deliver the product; you produce a fast lesser quality outcome that doesn’t represent your firm’s attitude or quality and value. Time that is allocated to the work is directly impacted by the fee, so if it’s low, you may end up with doing the minimum you can to get it done – ultimately driving down the quality of architecture and design. Also how can you return to charging a fair and reasonable fee once you start discounting?

The business world is full of examples that prove discounting your service almost always doesn’t work over the long-run.

Consider the example of Starbucks, Inc.

In 2000, Starbucks tried to penetrate the Australian cafe market. The ubiquitous global coffee chain quickly opened 84 stores, most of them in high-profile locations. Eight years later, they closed 61 of these stores. They simply could not compete with Australia’s small independent cafes and coffee shops, the majority of which continued to focus on the quality of their products and the experience they offer customers instead of engaging in a price war.

But what does coffee, a high-turnover, low profit margin, retail product got to do with the architectural industry which is, after all, a service selling design flair and intellectual capital? It’s a fair point but when it comes to the effects that discounting has on a business, products and services are interchangeable.

In my industry recruiters are notorious for undercutting. It’s a way for new entrants to quickly grab the attention of HR teams who are eager to save costs in any way they can. Invariably however, clients revert back to the service-offering that charges higher fees but offers far more in terms of value for money. How refreshing is it to interview three great candidates as opposed to wading through a dozen average candidates, none of who are right. Clients want to trust you to do a good job and leave it in your hands and come back to them at decision-making time. They don’t want to have to hold your hand and they are willing to pay fair value for that service.

New recruiters try to enter the market and compete on price all the time and they might achieve some early wins but they never last long. It’s the recruiters who know their stuff, deliver a good service and build trust that clients return to again and again.

Three Reasons to Avoid Competing on Price to Win Work

There are three main reasons why your Architecture and Interior Design firm should avoid lowering its fees in order to secure more contracts:

  1. You will attract low paying clients. Once you start lowering your prices, you run the very real risk that future customers will get addicted to the discount and won’t want to pay higher rates. Chasing after low-paying customers can significantly cut into your profit margins and ultimately hurt operations.
  1. You will lose brand equity. Brand equity is just a fancy way of saying the perceived value your prospects and customers have of your company’s services. Many studies have clearly pointed to the fact that higher priced products and services are automatically considered to be more effective, of better quality, and more valuable, than lower priced options. Plus, once you start introducing price cuts, you also can end up coming across as desperate, and desperation is never a good marketing strategy.
  1. You will compromise employee moral. This is a concept that doesn’t get talked about enough, yet it is extremely important. It is certainly discouraging to work with clients who don’t appreciate the value of your efforts and input, and this can quickly affect how your employees view their work as well. The result is that they will be less motivated to give each project their best.

That said, you may be wondering, “OK, Dean, so if we shouldn’t be competing on price, how do we compete and still maintain healthy profits?”

I’ll get to that in my next post… Stay tuned.

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In my last post, Why Architects Should Never Compete on Price, I advocated that firms should never try to compete on price in order to secure work. Not only does price-discounting cut into profits but it can be destructive to the practice as a whole.

That brings up a few very important questions:

  • How can a smaller-sized architecture firm not only survive but thrive in a market where architects are routinely charging very low rates in order to attract clients?
  • How do you set up your business so that you can charge a fair price for the valuable service and expertise that you are offering?
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how do you get high paying clients to come toyou instead of having to chase after them?

This last question really cuts to the core of one of the biggest struggles facing architectural firms today: securing work. It is quite easy (and almost natural) for architects to feel like they are on a big hamster wheel, constantly on the lookout for the next project even before current projects have come to an end. Not only does the constant pressure to find more work make that work less enjoyable but it can cause those in leadership positions to make irrational decisions out of desperation.

That’s not a position you want to be in.

So, how do you go about charging what you are worth, while simultaneously attracting good paying clients? Here are three essential factors that many architectural firms (big and small) surprisingly get wrong:

1. Target the right customers. If you don’t want low-paying clients, then stop chasing after them in the first place! One of the most important steps your architectural firm can take is to develop a clear, detailed picture of your ideal client. Is this client a private individual, a developer, a corporation, or a public works department? What is the scope of this client’s project? The vast majority of your marketing efforts should be focused on securing this one kind of client.

I know this may sound limiting. But, the reality is that unless you’ve got the resources of a big corporate firm, you can’t be everything to everyone. The goal here is to develop a unified message that will attract your most lucrative projects. The more work you get, the more your reputation and your portfolio will grow, and the more diverse your client pool may actually end up being.

2. Know what value buttons to push. I mentioned earlier in Architecture’s Forgotten Art, that some architectural firms are tragically out of touch with the wants and needs of their clients. They fall into the trap of assuming that most, if not all, of their clients are primarily interested in the architect’s name and artistic expression. But, the truth is that most clients are fixated on their own needs, and they are really just looking to architects to give those needs expression.

The firms that recognise this dynamic and learn how to truly listen to their clients are the ones that will be the most successful. They are in touch with the qualities and services that are the most valuable to their clients and know how to effectively communicate this value to them. These firms also actively seek feedback- both from happy customers as well as the prospects that turned them away.

3. Go in with the right attitude. Many smaller architectural firms tend to get intimidated in the face of their bigger competitors. Whether you realise it or not, this attitude will come through to your potential clients and could turn them away. If your firm is clear about whom you are targeting, and you are laser focused on providing needed value, you can go into any competition with confidence. Plus, many of your bigger competitors may actually be pretty complacent since they feel that they can win the contract on their name alone. This creates a very big opening for your firm.

Each one of these “tactics” are designed to produce satisfied customers who will be more than happy to refer your firm to their contacts. You’ll generate a healthy stream of work and be able to ditch that hamster wheel once and for all.

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When most young architects are considering whether or not to take a new position (or leave their present one), they typically look at the job’s benefits- things like salary, location, culture, and how interesting or fulfilling the work is. Often absent from this list of qualities is one key benefit that can significantly make or break the work experience. The firms that “get it” are the ones that are attracting and retaining the best talent.

The Architectural Glass Ceiling

Young architects and designers in their twenties who are just starting out in their careers may not really be thinking about where their present jobs will take them ten years from now. Most people this age are intent to just get a job and look for something better later on.

But this attitude typically changes with employees who are a little further along in both their careers and lives. That’s when some fundamental priorities start to shift.

Every single week I am contacted by numerous Senior Associates and Associate Directors who are not happy with the lack of direction and options their current employers are giving them. These are extremely talented, experienced people. They are typically in their mid to late 30’s or early 40’s, have been with the same firm for several years, have put in a lot of good hard work and a lot of hours, and have risen through the ranks.

Then, bam! They hit a glass ceiling.

It’s a barrier that affects both men and women (though women do have it harder). But it comes at a pivotal time when people are building families and preparing for the future. The Associates who contact me are taking a good, hard look up the organisational ladder. Though the wording may vary a bit from person to person, they inevitably all ask the same question: what’s in it for me in the next 5 years?

Thinking About Tomorrow’s Needs Today

These firms are not giving their best employees hope for the future, and they are not grooming them correctly to move through the upper corporate ranks. The result is that some ambitious young star performers are feeling disgruntled, frustrated, and ultimately not engaged. The firms that are not recognising and acknowledging high performing, high potential talent will continue to lose these people to their competitors.

That’s how it should be.

If a firm’s senior leadership won’t make the effort and investment needed to cultivate their key talent, to prepare for both the future of their employees and of the firm as a whole, then that sends out a very strong message: There is a crack in the foundation, and the employees will be better off taking their talents elsewhere.

That being said, it is a two way street, and the next generation of leaders need to understand that in order to progress to Director level and equity- you have to develop the essential entrepreneurial skills in marketing, business development and commercial acumen, which are imperative to help lead the continued success of the firm.

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In the Architectural industry ‘Value Creators’ come in many forms. They’re not just the business developers generating revenue through winning multi-million dollar projects, they can be on the delivery side driving profit margins, or creating profile through innovative design leadership.

Yet there continues to be an apparent disconnect between key employee performance and what architecture and design firms are willing to offer as compensation and incentives. In order to attract and retain the best talent, architecture firms need to get creative on how they are paying out appropriate bonuses and incentives to the employees and leaders who are going well above and beyond the call of duty.

Across the professional services industries, Architecture is regarded as being low-paying considering the education and skill level required. Therefore, it is critically important to reward your key employees. It’s often one of the main reasons top talent leave; they need to see recognition through the reward structure.

Equity Isn’t Orange

Before I get to some of the qualities that make up a good performance-based incentive plan, there is one important issue I want to address first. In order to attract quality candidates, too many firms are dangling the promise of equity like a carrot. But many of these firms are not really prepared to give this equity up, nor do they have the systems in place to pair these equity offerings with a clear pathway to leadership.

You need to have solid systems in place for singling out the right employees, developing them, and allowing them enough time to comfortably build their partnership interest in the firm. If these systems are not in place, then your employees may just end up feeling pressured and resentful. In other words, your equity offerings can end up doing more harm than good. 

Elements of a Good Performance-Based Incentive Plan

Though some of your top performers may be self-driven, a properly structured performance-based compensation plan can motivate them to continue to give it their best over the long run. Some companies choose to simply allocate bonuses and other incentive payments during profitable years, and on an arbitrary basis. Some don’t give individual bonuses but hive off a portion of profits to be split (more or less) equally amongst the team. Some don’t offer bonuses at all.

Assuming a company is profitable, here are some guidelines that over the years I’ve seen both employees and employers respond well to.

  1. The expectations, incentives, and rewards are clearly spelled out. Employees should understand what’s expected of them to qualify for the incentive compensation. You should clearly spell out minimum performance standards as well as the ‘over-and-above’ standards that will lead to incentives.
  2. The performance of both the company and individual employees are considered:This means simultaneously focusing not only on company-wide performance goals, but also individual performance goals.
  3. There are ‘subjective’ as well as ‘objective’ measurements: Individual performance goals and measurements of performance also include subjective measures, such as client satisfaction, peer reviews, and evaluations from direct supervisors/leaders.
  4. Put it in writing: too often prospective candidates complain that the road to incentives is woolly. Bonuses can’t be based on a wink and a nod.
  5. It’s not all about the money: sometimes incentives come in the form of education sabbaticals or time to pursue extracurricular industry participation such as delivering university lectures or tutorials.

In short, if you really want to cultivate and keep the top talent in your firm, then you need to properly invest in them. These days, you can’t afford not to.

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A while back, personal wealth expert Ramit Sethi was promoting something called the ‘briefcase technique’ that he claimed helped him and many other people land their dream jobs, get a pay rise, and walk away from virtually any form of business negotiation a winner.

That sounds like a gimmick, but it isn’t.

The most important factor behind it’s success is that it ultimately forces you to change the way you approach any interview or negotiation. Instead of passively answering questions or making requests, when you pull your proposal out of your briefcase, you are actually defining and positioning your value, and that helps to bring the decision maker over to your side. But to do this properly, you have to go in with a keen understanding of the business as well as the hopes, challenges, and dreams of that person sitting at the other end of the table. You also need to figure out the best way to sell the person on your abilities and passion. As Sethi puts it, “80% of the work happens before you walk in the room.”

He’s right- with or without the briefcase.

If you want to be successful in business and in life you should never see yourself as an interviewee in an interview, a negotiator in a negotiation, nor a presenter giving a presentation. In every single one of these situations what you really are is a salesperson.

Selling Is Not Sleazy or Superfluous

I frequently interview talented, experienced candidates who have a hard time promoting themselves. Some of these people are uncomfortable with the whole sales concept. It makes them feel pushy, arrogant or fake. Others just don’t see the need for it. Shouldn’t their qualifications speak for themselves? On paper, these candidates may have better skills and better sector experience. Yet, time and time again they lose out to the candidate who can better articulate his or her value in the interview.

The reality is that landing a job requires a different skill set than doing the job. Most candidates are solely focused on building the skills and credibility to do the job. They come to the interview thinking they are prepared because they have all the “right” qualifications, experience, and certifications in place. Getting the job, however, means knowing how to effectively interview, network, and negotiate. In other words, you need to know how to influence those around you to get the outcome you want, and this applies to anything in life.

It reminds me of a quote I a recently read;

Selling impacts every person on the planet. Your ability or inability to sell, persuade, negotiate, and convince others will affect every area of your life and will determine how well you survive… Your ability to do well in life depends on your ability to sell others on the things in which you believe! … It doesn’t matter whether or not you call yourself a salesperson because you’re either selling something or someone is selling you. Either way, one of the parties is going to influence the outcome, and it will either be you getting your way or the other person getting his/her way… Regardless of your preconceived opinions, ideas, or evaluations regarding sales and salespeople, you need to fully adopt the idea that you are going to have to sell no matter what your position or job is in life.

The individuals who know how to sell, persuade and influence are the ones who can get the promotion they deserve or the pay rise they have been looking for. They are the ones who can sell design solutions to clients, win competitions, lead design teams, and achieve strategic partnerships. And, they are the ones more likely to be hired over their more qualified peers.

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments on this topic – I have always said ‘selling is not a dirty word’ – please post your comments for discussion.

(Quote – Grant Cardone, Sell or Be Sold: How to Get Your Way in Business and in Life)

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Joe sat across the table from me with determined look on his face. He was a compelling candidate all around: experienced, confident, and talented. He had already spent years climbing the corporate ladder and had proven himself in positions of leadership. He knew how to solve the critical problems and arrive at the solutions that could win clients and build partnerships. But the architectural firms that presented the best fit wouldn’t even consider him. The problem: he’s 50.

Over the years I’ve worked with many Joe’s (and Jane’s)- extremely talented and experienced people in their 50’s who are actively looking for mid and senior level positions. While many of them may be exceptional individuals, they are by no means exceptions to the rule. But when they try to convince hiring teams of their value, they just hit a brick wall. Though they may have proven themselves while working for other firms, now they can’t even get their foot in the door.

I find this attitude surprising given that the most celebrated names in architecture are in their 60’s and 70’s. Think: Philip Cox, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, et al. Architecture and design is also a sector that requires a maturity of creative thinking and the ability to see the potential pitfalls and bottlenecks before they happen. These qualities come with age and experience.

There is No Substitute for Experience

But, the reality is that many firms these days are reluctant to hire older workers in favour of those in their 20’s, 30’s and early 40’s. I suspect that there are a few motivations behind this attitude. Here is perhaps the top three:

1. Some employers believe that older workers will not be so nimble or easy to train.This is especially true if the position involves working with cutting edge or constantly updating technology. While this may be a valid concern, the candidate’s ability to adapt to new technologies and experiences will likely be evident in his or her previous work. But candidates need to provide suitable evidence of this adaptability (more on this in my next article). On the other side of the table, the hiring team should spend a sufficient amount of time investigating the candidate’s background and references.

2. They think older workers are more expensive. This added cost takes on several forms: 1) many older workers want higher salaries commensurate with their level of experience and expertise; 2) older workers may not be as productive and may take more sick leave; 3) the company may not get so many years out of the older employee before he or she retires.

What these factors really boil down to is the long-term goals and values of the company. Younger workers tend to make more mistakes; they may be less committed to the company and its values, and more likely to leave for an apparently better opportunity elsewhere. The firms that are committed to excellence and long-term winning strategies will always prefer experience, maturity, and tenacity over a cheap salary, since they want the best for their clients.

3. They want to promote people from within. I’ve mentioned in an earlier article that the longevity of a company depends having the systems in place to recognise and reward top performers, encourage professional and personal development, and allow for employee advancement across divisions and leadership levels. While it makes sense to groom people from within, it’s a long-term strategy that can take several years, and there is always the risk that the person will leave the company along the way.

Hiring older people with 20+ years of experience, who can immediately start in a senior level position has several advantages. These people are less likely to run off and get married. They don’t need maternity leave or have to take off time to care for their small children. They are also more likely to work collaboratively with others instead of stepping on people in order to climb the corporate ladder.

The bottom line is that there is real value in the experience and maturity that older workers tend to bring with them, and it is typically worth much more than the cost.

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