Author Anna

Over the past few years some of the biggest names in architecture have brought their firms together in order to secure a growing number of high profile international projects. It has led to some unusual partnerships, such as Norman Foster and Frank Gehry’s combined effort for the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station in London and Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind’s ecclectic community of homes in Milan.

While a select pool of ‘starchitects’ can afford to create such partnerships almost at whim, it sets a poor example for the rest of the architecture industry. On the surface, many of these star-studded joint efforts seem to have little to do with synergy or common goals and values. They are often just big names on the marquee attached to glitzy, overly-funded projects. Like the stuff of tabloids, when these frivolous matches don’t work out, all we can do is knowingly roll our eyes.

But smaller firms simply cannot afford to follow in their footsteps. The wrong venturing partner can destroy individual brand equity, and a poor setup could lead to gross inequality in terms of compensation, input, and liability in the evident of a major error or setback.

Getting a Joint Venture Right Means Building a Good Foundation

On the other hand, small architecture and design firms cannot go it alone. Today, a firm’s ability to secure work is often directly tied to the quality of their partnerships with other firms and contractors. This is the direct result of vast improvements in communications and information sharing technology as well as the falling away of geographic barriers to entry. This past decade had also seen major advancements in construction and design technology. In short, projects are getting bigger, higher, and more elaborate, and they often involve the input of extensive multinational teams.

Joint ventures can help a company get a leg up over their competition and allow them to overcome the very real risks associated with larger, complex projects in an international market. The benefits of extended market reach as well as the combined resources, experience, and talent make joint ventures seem like a no-brainer. For these reasons, there has been a significant rise in joint ventures among architecture and design firms- both for one time projects as well as long-term collaboration across numerous joint assignments.

But, many architects and design professionals approach joint venturing far too casually, and while there has been a lot said about joint ventures, most of the attention has been heaped upon the “marriage contract”- all the logistical, financial, and legal issues that tend to crop up.

These are important points for sure, but just like any relationship without a certain level of chemistry and the sharing of some core mutual values, the chances for success are slim. The reality is that over half of joint ventures will likely end in failure within five years. That’s worse than the Australian divorce rate.

For this reason, it is extremely important that senior leadership make the effort to research and understand any key potential partners before an agreement is made. Who is running the firm? Who are they as individuals? Can they be trusted? What are their core goals and values? How do they operate, and what does their corporate culture look like? Though it may be hard to put a number on any of these qualities, they are often the ones that make all the difference between a good joint venture and a bad one.

Joint ventures aren’t just about collaborating firms; at every level they involve collaborating teams of people. Aside from the creation of a clearly defined, agreed upon, and documented strategy, successful joint ventures recognise and prioritise the people factor, and they are committed to making the relationship work from the inside out.

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A few of weeks ago, architecture firm Elenberg Fraser secured planning approval for a new luxury skyscraper in the heart of Melbourne. The so-called Premier Tower will be an elegant, curvaceous structure that will house 660 apartments, retail space and a 160-room hotel. While the building’s form is intriguing, so far its biggest achievement is that it has compelled us to mention architectural physics, design, structural efficiency, and Beyoncé’s music videos- all in the same breath.

Whether or not you are a fan of the building’s design (or Beyoncé for that matter), it illustrates a movement that is slowly taking over and redefining the architecture and design industry from the inside out.

Of Science and Slithering Forms

According to what Elenberg Fraser writes about the project on its website, the development of the Premier Tower was a blend of science, inspirational design, and those slinky, writhing forms in Beyoncé’s “Ghost” music video:

“This project is the culmination of our significant research into how to best work with individual site and climatic constraints, brought together using our new parametric modelling techniques. The complex form – a vertical cantilever – is actually the most effective way to redistribute the building’s mass, giving the best results in terms of structural dispersion, frequency oscillation and wind requirements… For those more on the art than science side, we will reveal that the form does pay homage to something more aesthetic — we’re going to trust you’ve seen the music video for Beyonce’s ‘Ghost.’”

Some have criticised this project, debating the use of a contemporary foreign pop icon to justify the form of a building, while others are caught up with the fact that the building is being designed around the female form as a sales gimmick, or that the structure will have little connection with its immediate surroundings.

But these practices are far from new. Several famous developers and architects have modelled buildings on iconic women. Consider Frank Gehry’s, Fred and Ginger building, located in Prague or the buxom towers in Toronto said to resemble Marilyn Monroe’s hourglass figure. Many buildings these days also seem conspicuously out of touch with the surrounding architecture and cultural environment.

Plus, the truth is I feel that all of this chatter is taking attention away from a much more important and deeper trend that is shaping the way projects are being developed and designed.

Elenberg Fraser’s Premier Tower was designed using parametric modelling – that allows complex shapes to be created in response to various data constraints. In the brave new world of design technology, architects are in a constant pursuit to push our building designs out of the box, literally, and it’s the smart blending of art, technology, and science that makes the interesting pieces of architecture that are in such demand these days.

Herein lies the fundamental shift.

Along with the unprecedented changes in design technology, from Microsoft’s Halolens to 3D printing, and the rapid, realtime sharing of knowledge over the internet, it seems that the exclusive demand for the traditional skills of architecture and design will eventually wane. In its place will rise a new wave of design professionals who know how to use the technology at their disposal to bring disparate elements together in new, unique (and eventually, cost effective and structurally sound) ways.

It’s not that those who know how to process and manipulate data will nudge out the true originators. Rather, the sharpest design minds will need to be fluent with the technology that will help them give expression to their ideas in ways that were simply not possible a few years ago.

This evolution is already happening, and though we may still be in the early stages of adaption, the blending of art, technology, and science will no doubt lead to some stunning, optimised optimised pieces of architecture in the years to come.

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Architects are not just architects any more. These days they are Design Principals, Directors of Projects, BIM Managers, Chief Fill-in-the-Blank Officers or Fill-in-the Blank Leaders (where that blank can be Culture, Systems, Global Sector, Collaboration, Marketing, Innovation, etc, etc).

These new titles tend to have two functions- one internally within a firm and one external to it. When leadership and promotion systems are working properly within a firm, titles can be used to define an employee’s compensation, level of responsibility and growth path. Externally, these self-same appellations are meant to distinguish key talent in a competitive market. They help outsiders, such as clients, peers, and recruiters, apply an immediate judgment on skill and experience so they can more accurately understand an employee’s exact role within the firm.

More often than not, however, fancy titles do none of these things. When the systems that support these titles go wrong, it can lead to employee resentment and such pretentious job titles that outsiders won’t even know what the person really does for a living.

To make things even more confusing, there is little commonality among firms in how they relate to their home grown title system. Some studios guard their Associate, Director, and Principal titles like the crown jewels, while other firms seem to hand out leadership titles to everyone like lollipops. There are practices that only have two leadership tiers even as others have now introduced a fifth tier- a move that seems to devalue the whole leadership structure.

Sometimes titles can be the make or break for a senior placement when firms refuse to give titles away, or obscure titles get “lost in translation” putting added pressure on an already cumbersome hiring process.

What’s in a Name?

There are two main problems with the majority of title systems these days. One is that people develop, grow, and learn at different paces and in different ways, and a title alone cannot possibly hope to convey where a person is really holding in his or her career. The second is that the process by which titles are created and assigned is often itself subjective and flawed. Many times, they are inaccurate classifications used to define a typically artificial hierarchy.

While that hierarchy may be a convenient way for senior leadership to group employees together for compensation and promotion purposes, if it is enacted arbitrarily, it can cause confusion and resentment that ultimately discourages good performance and pulls teams apart.

Changing the Rules of the Naming Game

I think the solution to all of this is a change in approach and perspective. Instead of trying to re-create a title, focus instead on recreating the processes of growth, leadership, and ownership that it is supposed to define. Then, the goal and the responsibility is on senior leadership to guide their employees, to lead them through experiences that will allow them to learn, document, and recognise their accomplishments, and also help them to quickly recover from any mistakes they make along the way.

Use the same old title, while implementing and selling the new process- both to employees and clients. Do that, and those same old titles become so much more. Fancy names alone won’t attract top talent, nor win more clients.

If you think its about the title, you’ve already lost the game.

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One of the biggest paradoxes in leadership is that many of the most powerful decision makers, trend setters, and influencers in the world can be some of the hardest people to work with. Though this is a phenomenon that exists in just about every sphere of human activity, the business world in particular stands out. The hollowed halls of the corporate elite are littered with countless examples of gross mis-management, greed, and inflated egos. The sad truth is that even if someone may have a high position in leadership, it doesn’t mean that this person is any good at leading.

In fact, I recently saw a study which claimed that the more CEOs get paid, the worse their companies end up performing, and don’t think this just affects a handful of ridiculously over-compensated CEOs, either. This same pattern exists, claim the researchers, regardless of whether the CEOs were at the highest end of the pay spectrum or at the lowest.

How did we get here?

While it may be easy to just blame the leadership itself, the truth is behind every bad leader, you will also find a group of people who choose to follow this person as well as the the systems and processes that allowed the leader to attain his or her position in the first place. When people are selecting leaders based on superficial qualities without the proper due diligence, and the recruiting and promotion systems offer little leadership support and training, then it’s little wonder why the potential star performers are turning into big black holes, sucking up precious resources and sapping a firm of its vitality.

In The Wake of Poor Leaders, Lots of Distressed Employees

There is a lot of incentive to get those leadership decisions right. A while back I read the book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, by Marshall Goldsmith. One of the biggest take aways from the book is that the higher your level of success, the more destructive your bad habits become because your potential impact on others is greater, and you can affect the experiences of a large number of people.

The businesses that have chosen to embrace poor leaders become toxic environments that negatively impact not just productivity but people’s self-esteem, health, well-being and relationships both at work and at home. As Simon Sinek puts it, “our jobs are killing us and the people who are responsible are our leaders.”

Good Leaders Make Good Impressions

In my opinion, leadership has little to do with position or titles. Real, honorable leadership is an attitude. It stems from the desire to serve and support others and to bring out their very best- not just to get the job done. Good leaders give off positive vibes that are infectious, rubbing off on anyone who comes into contact with them.

In my executive search firm, we make our assessments on individuals’ ability to perform by the confidential, 360 feedback we get from the people who work around them. This typically includes the employee’s former team subordinates, peers, and direct reports. We do this partly because the best indication of good leadership is the impact and influence employees have on those around them. This is a quality that is impossible to hide or fake.

Most importantly this process works at every organisational level. As employees rise through the ranks of general management to become leaders, directors and principals, there are usually very clear signs along the way that point to their leadership abilities. 360 degree feedback is certainly a good place to start. But the decision makers in the recruiting and promotion process need to be looking for these signs in the first place.

Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge the effectiveness of a leader just by his or her title, no matter how impressive it may be.

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As the fight for talent continues in the Architecture and Interior Design industry, the salaries that some candidates are demanding are getting ridiculously high. In my executive search and recruiting firm, we routinely see architects with 5 or 6 years of experience asking for salaries that are 30 to 40 percent more than they are worth. On the other side of the table, there are the firms (usually big ones) willing to match these outrageous demands.

Hand in hand, both sides have created the perfect recipe for a pervasive counter offer culture that has been brewing over the past few years. I suspect this is happening because a) a lot of Architects and Interior Designers use the threat of resignation as a bargaining chip for more money or responsibility; and b) the firms extending the offer want to push off a costly or inconvenient hiring process.

This is just a waste of everyone’s time and money.

The rub is that these trends are creating a big rift in the Architecture and Interior Design industry between the have’s and the have not’s, and it’s putting a lot pressure on smaller firms in particular that are trying to compete for good talent.

Of course, supply and demand happens in every industry to some extent and affects the amount that someone is willing to pay for something. The problem is that in order to stay competitive the fees most Architecture and Interior Design firms are charging these days are not going up at the same pace as salaries.

How Do We Get Out of Here?

When money, convenience, and ego drive business decisions to the exclusion of all other considerations, such as human dignity, value and purpose, then the results are often negative and debilitating.

But the opposite is also true.

If architects and designers feel under-paid, then let them go to their current employers and negotiate a better salary. When architects and designers do move then it should be for reasons of sustainable value and purpose, such as career advancement, better project exposure, moving away from the glass ceiling, and seeking a better office culture.

If firms really want to hold on to their key employees, then it will take a re-evaluation of how to compel their employees to stay in the first place. It means creating an atmosphere where employees perform work that creates real value, and they want the best for the business as a whole. It means taking a good look at what is going wrong and taking real initiative to make hard changes.

But let’s get at the heart of the issue. Who is really at fault over here? Where did things break down? Should we attribute it to a competitive market… economic factors… corporate greed… ego… bad parenting, maybe?

Though it’s the individuals at the end of the day who need to rise up, I believe that real change will first need to happen on a business level, then eventually on an individual level.

It will take a group of firms that do business differently. Studios that don’t just throw money at their employees or their marketing efforts. They believe in making a positive impact and difference in the world. They value their employees and clients. They purposely hire people based on common values and nurture them.

These are the same firms that will create sustainable architecture and interiors that enhance their surroundings and improve the quality of life for all who use and see them.

At the end of the day, inflated salaries and equally inflated counter offers are not really the problem; it’s the attitudes and values behind them that need to change.

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Here’s a riddle…

What is the one asset that every single business on the planet has, the thing that has been proven to directly affect a firm’s financial performance, productivity, and rate of employee turnover, yet senior leadership often gives it little attention or consideration?

That asset is a firm’s culture; it’s the unsung hero that drives business success or, on the flip side, sets the firm up for failure. Yet, many, many firms seem to be totally unaware of it and its impact.

I suspect that this is due to a few factors:

•  Business cultures are strongly tied to the personalities and values of the senior leadership. Just as it is hard for individuals to see themselves objectively, so too is it hard for senior leaders to objectively see how their personal attitudes, values, and behaviours impact on the firm as a whole.

•  Culture seems to be this shapeless, fuzzy quality in total opposition to the “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” approach to business.

•  Culture is also hard to change once the business is up and running and it’s policies, practices, and systems are set in.

The problem is culture does exist whether or not it is recognised or worked on, and it’s making an impact whether or not it’s being measured.

In fact, several studies over the last ten years have all found that the companies with adaptive corporate cultures and strong leadership practices that reward hard work and innovation financially outperform those that do none of these things.

Consider the famous online retailer, Zappos. Much has been said about the company’s exceptional customer service, relentless innovation, and intense focus on employee happiness and development. The company’s strong culture has paid off in staggering year over year profit increases- even as other online and offline retail companies struggled through the dotcom bubble and a global recession. Recently, Zappos projected an operating profit of $97 million for 2015- that’s a 77.9 percent jump from the $54.5 million in profits in 2014.

What Makes a Great Culture?

At its most basic level, a business’ culture is an invisible web of expectations and attitudes. These spoken and unspoken rules shape our attitude and behaviour and rub off onto partners and employees.

Though cultures can vary, businesses with healthy, positive cultures tend to share some common characteristics. They strive towards some purpose and set of values that aim to make the world a better place. They highly value and respect their customers, partners, and employees, and they encourage leadership from everyone in the firm.

When businesses are focused on improving people’s lives- both inside and outside- they stand a greater chance of outperforming their competitors and achieving long-term financial success. To repeat, there is a very strong correlation between financial performance and a business’ ability to tap into fundamental human emotions, hopes, values and a greater purpose.

But that’s not all. Firms with great cultures are able to straddle two opposing, yet vital businesses drives- the need for production on one side and the need for innovation on the other. The result is that these firms are then both adaptive and productive. If client needs or attitudes change, for example, the firm’s culture itself almost forces people to change their practices to meet those new standards.

These ideas are particularly important to architecture and design firms on so many levels. Architects and their teams must be in tune with clients’ tastes and trends as well as the communities in which these projects are happening. They need to be motivated, passionate, and happy with their roles, or else prospective clients will pick up on their dissatisfaction. This doesn’t just happen by itself, you need the right culture and systems in place to foster it.

But, how do you go about building the right culture from the ground up? What can you do if your firm has already been operating for a few years, and you realise that things need to change?

I’ll get to that in my next article…

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In my previous article, I mentioned that there is a very strong correlation between a firm’s financial performance and the work culture it fosters. Those firms that reward personal development, innovation, and hard work and that have a clear growth path in place, are the ones that outperform the market.

If you are in the early stages of building a studio, then now is the time to get clear about what is important to you. What are the principles that you stand for in life and in business? These attitudes will affect the atmosphere within your practice whether or not you realise it. Ultimately, a firm’s culture is the result of many variables, but everything, and I really mean everything, stems from those fundamental attitudes. It doesn’t matter how big or how small the firm is.

But what happens if your studio has been around for some time, and you know that things need to change? A full cultural overhaul is far from easy, and it may mean making some difficult decisions. But, it is certainly possible if you are committed to making positive change, and you approach this change in the right way.

Renovating a Good Culture from the Ground Up

Changing a firm’s culture is much like renovating a building. On one hand, you could just knock the whole structure down and start all over again from scratch. But such an approach is not only extremely costly, it’s risky. Without a guiding structure and system in place, you could just end up building something that, while different, doesn’t address the problems you were originally trying to solve. Instead, you can end up creating new problems that were not there before. It’s also wasteful, since some of the building’s original features may have actually been valuable and useful.

When you renovate a property, on the other hand, you can then focus on the good qualities that already exist within a space and seek to enhance them, while at same time trying to minimise the unpleasant things.

The bottom line is that the best way to change an established firm’s culture is to introduce small, deliberate, incremental changes to the way the firm currently operates while seeking to enhance the things that are already working.

Where Do You Start?

While every firm is different and will need to create custom solutions, there are, however, some general areas that any firm can focus on in order to improve the work culture.

Re-evaluate and communicate your values, mission, and vision.  What is your mission that you broadcast to the world and what are those values that drive your firm’s internal focus? As I hinted to above, if you really want to positively change your culture, then start with your mission statement. These few sentences guide a company’s values and provide it with a purpose. That purpose, in turn, orients every decision employee’s make- from serving clients to treating colleagues, and upholding professional standards.

Once you are clear about your firm’s purpose, then you need to start regularly reinforcing these values whenever you engage with your employees, clients, and partners. Even the physical layout and aesthetics of your workspace can greatly enhance and help to promote your business culture.

Develop systems that strengthen and enhance your mission.  Of course values and purpose will mean little if they are not ingrained into the way the firm is organised and operates. At this stage you want to pick areas for change that are easy to implement, yet have the greatest impact.

How do you figure this out?

Start by speaking to your employees and clients. Get their feedback on their level of satisfaction with the firm, their roles, and on the changes they would like to see. If you do this process properly, then you should start to see patterns that will clearly point to where change needs to be made.

Get your team right.  Behind every great business are the great people who nurture it, build it, and sustain it from within. While this may start with the leaders, it really extends down to just about every level and division. Part of the reason why so many hiring decisions don’t work out is that cultural fit is either under-emphasised or left out of the equation completely.

From here on out, you need to hire for culture first. Is the candidate aligned with your firm’s vision and culture? If the answer is “no,” then this person should not be working in your studio.

Sponsor engaging company-wide events.  Make it a policy to hold a few symbolic and meaningful events that will help generate excitement around your firm’s mission and success. Though you certainly can conduct many mini-events throughout the year, most of your resources should go into one or two main events that will be meaningful to your employees and other stakeholders. Use these events as a time to highlight and reward successes and to communicate the firm’s goals for the upcoming months. Make these events fun, inspirational, and directional.

Little by little, such efforts will turn around even the most challenged and toxic of work environments- as long as they are made sincerely. Over time, your firm will be reborn.

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In 2009, Ursula Burns became the first African-American woman CEO to head a Fortune 500 company. The account of her rise to the positions of CEO and eventually Chairwoman of Xerox Corporation is a real corporate rags to riches story.

Hard Work, Flexibility, and Seeing the Potential

In 1980, Burns began working for Xerox as a mechanical engineering summer intern. After completing her master’s degree a year later, she permanently joined the company in an entry level administrative position she described as the “lowest of the low” and one she wasn’t even fully qualified for. For almost ten years, Burns slowly made her way up the corporate ladder, jumping at every opportunity for growth and development that came her way.

Finally, in January 1990, the biggest break of her career came when Wayland Hicks, then a senior executive, offered her a job as his executive assistant. Several months later, she became executive assistant to then CEO, Paul Allaire. Though these positions may have seemed belittling on the surface, they turned into mentoring opportunities that helped Burns better understand what executives did and how the business was run. She immediately put those lessons to practice, and ten years later, she was named Senior Vice President, of Corporate Strategic Services, heading up manufacturing and supply chain operations. She also began working closely with future female CEO, Anne Mulcahy.

Throughout her career at Xerox, Burns held an assortment of roles and leadership positions spanning several departments, including corporate services, manufacturing and product development. She was eventually named President in 2007, working under Chief Executive Officer in 2009, and Chairman in 2010.

Your Best Leaders Won’t Just Fall from the Sky

In the business world Burn’s story is an exception to the rule- but the thing that makes it an exception actually has little to do with her gender and the color of her skin. Behind the sensational headlines is the fact that her climb up the corporate ladder was mostly a long, self-motivated, and self-guided process, and if she hadn’t been able and willing to see the learning potential in each of her roles at Xerox (even the non-glamorous ones), perhaps she never would have gone as far as she did.

The truth is that there are very few charismatic champions who will independently emerge from the morass of a corporate hierarchy to provide the direction, guidance, and motivation that the company desperately needs. The majority of the best and brightest potential leaders won’t just suddenly appear out of nowhere right when you need them. On the other hand, most firms have access to a pool of current employees with amazing innate skills and strengths, who can certainly become the kind of leaders that firms require- but only if they are given the knowledge, tools, opportunities, and encouragement to do so.

As I have mentioned here previously, all too often the people placed into leadership positions within a firm are not suited to their roles. When this happens, it is typically the outcome of faulty career advancement policies, inadequate succession planning, and ineffective methods for properly identifying and developing leadership potential.

But, it doesn’t have to be this way. In my next article, I’ll identify several strategies that senior leadership can use to single out and develop high-potential employees and future leaders right from the beginning.

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A couple of weeks ago, I shared the story of Ursula Burns and her rise to the top of Xerox Corporation to become the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company. On one hand, her success is an extraordinary accomplishment; there were numerous barriers that could have potentially stood in the way of her advancement. But at the same time, her growth as a senior leader required a great deal of effort, flexibility, opportunism and a few big breaks along the way in order to come about.

She is a star example of someone who independently figured out how to chart her own career path upstream.

The problem is, for many people like Ursula Burns in a growing firm, there may be dozens more with tremendous leadership potential. But when firms are not making the right kinds of effort to identify, train, nurture, and retain them, these people either under-perform, leave, or worse, get promoted to leadership positions that don’t suit their innate personalities, skills, and strengths. This last outcome can cause a negative ripple effect that can bring down the whole firm- destroying productivity, morale, and ultimately, the firm’s bottom line.

Without a solid succession plan and a clear pathway to career advancement and professional development, chances are a firm is wasting a lot of time, money, and other resources on the wrong people.

So how can senior leadership identify and develop future leaders right from the beginning- those who will innovate, master change, and guide the organisation in meeting the new demands of an evolving market? There are three main factors that must be ingrained into the way a firm operates:

  1. There is a clear definition of leadership for each area of the firm. Different divisions and roles require specific skill sets and approaches to leadership. The things that motivate the marketing department are different to that which drives the design or delivery team. Knowing which leadership styles are best suited to each division is an essential first step.
  2. The firm relies on various assessment strategies to identify potential leaders. This includes personality assessments, job performance measurements, as well as reviews from supervisors and peers. The goal here is to try to determine which people have potential leadership qualities necessary for a specific role or department, and to do this in the most objective way possible. Of course, there are also some general leadership characteristics to look out for that will apply in any situation, such as the ability to handle set-backs, process information, seek out learning opportunities, and to develop new ideas.
  1. There is a defined path for career development and advancement. Without this final element, the previous two factors mentioned above will be of little help. But getting those systems in place to effectively refine and broaden the leadership skills of high-potential employees will take a real cultural shift- not just a shift in policy. Only when a whole firm is aligned towards developing, empowering, and engaging their employees, will the best and brightest naturally rise to the top. Though the actual policies and practices for career advancement and development will be unique to a firm, the most successful firms tend to do some things in common, namely: they rotate employees through different projects and sectors, they have mentoring programs, and they ensure that employees get “real-time” feedback and coaching.

Bottom line: if firms really want to figure out which of their employees has leadership potential, then they need to be clear about who they are looking for in the first place…..and why. They must then ensure that these people are given the tools and experiences they need to polish their skills and expand their knowledge. Not only will these high-potential employees be more likely to succeed, but they will naturally pull the whole firm up with them.

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In 2009, Harvard Business School published the case study of Buro Happold, a rapidly growing British engineering firm that faced a critical shortage of the management and leadership talent needed to properly support further expansion. In response, leaders at the firm tried bringing in management talent from outside the company. But, the initiative ultimately failed when the newcomers were unable to meld with the firm’s unique culture.

On the heels of this unsuccessful strategy, Buro Happold then started sending its engineers to open-enrolment executive education programs at several leading business schools. But, these course offerings were often wildly out of touch with the realities of the industry and of the firm in particular.

For their third and final attempt, Buro Happold’s senior leaders decided to establish a formal in-house management education and training program, called “Archimedes Academy.” This successful initiative helped them to develop leadership skills in all areas and levels of the organisation tailor-made to their industry and business culture.

Demand for Business Acumen at Architecture and Interior Design Firms is Growing

At our executive search and recruiting firm, we have seen a spike in the demand for Operations Directors, General Managers and Practice Managers within Architecture and Interior Design firms- in short, leaders who possess strong management skills and all-round business experience.

This trend seems to be stemming from an evolution within the industry. Over the past 5 years, design teams have grown in size and complexity, often including members of other firms across national and cultural lines. There has also been a virtual renaissance of new design methods and technologies as well as ever-changing end-user tastes, preferences, and needs.

As firms grow and begin to win multiple, complex projects, they are faced with the challenge of delivering them whilst making a profit. All of this puts pressure on senior leaders in particular to manage their studios effectively. To remain competitive they must ensure that projects are running profitably, adequate physical and human resources are being allocated in the places where they are needed most, and that the firm’s culture is preserved as it goes through various stages of growth and transition.

The Two Methods for Building a Senior Business Leadership Team: Which One is Right for Your Firm?

In a traditional setup, lead architects and designers typically receive promotions in their firms to senior leadership positions based on their seniority and their track record of professional accomplishments. If they are persistent enough, they’ll eventual become the leaders of studios, sectors, operational subunits, or geographic/regional areas. This is how most of the business world works.

But while these architects and designers may have learned a thing or two about management and leadership while heading their project teams, heading a whole operational business requires a much broader, more refined skill set. Senior leaders must possess a solid foundation in business operations, organisation, and financial management as well as business strategy and its implementation. This knowledge and experience is not something that new business leaders can learn on the job because at that point the stakes are too high. The mistakes that will be made during the “learning process” can literally put a firm out of business, or seriously damage culture.

Firm’s therefore need to make a good effort to give upcoming high-potential employees solid business management experience and know-how along the way via executive education programs, mentoring opportunities, and by exposing these people to different roles and responsibilities.

Where such systems are hard to implement due to lack of adequate resources or time (as in the case of a rapidly growing practice), then it is certainly possible for a firm to bring in talented business leaders from the outside. I’ve seen it done many times. But in order for these hires to be successful, the hiring process must be very well thought out and executed. Senior leaders need to be clear about who they are looking for and why; they need to hire for culture; and they need to make sure that there are plenty of checks in place to quickly let go of the people who aren’t performing as hoped. Those firms that are getting these critical hires right, are reaping the rewards of a well-run business and sustainable practice

Bottom line: a practice is only as good as its senior leadership. They are a firm’s key influencers and drivers. So, it’s vitally important to fill those positions with the right people- regardless of whether they are developed from within or on-boarded from another firm.

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