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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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A few years ago, I wrote about the growing counter-offer culture that has been spreading throughout the Architecture and Interior Design industry. The instant key employees hand in their resignation notice, they are served a seemingly flattering counter-offer that compels them to stay. In a few cases, these employees actually had no real intention of leaving, but were simply leveraging an anticipated counter-offer in order to get more money, responsibilities, or both. In either case, however, giving in to that counter-offer is often a big mistake- for both the employees and the firm.

This topic brings to mind another issue that has persisted even though the job market for architects and designers has been hotter than ever. Over the years, I have come across many talented candidates who chose to stay in less than perfect jobs. They all have their reasons for pushing away the signs that are telling them it’s time to move on. Some fear that they won’t find a better job, some believe the promotions, recognition, and equity shares they deserve are just around the corner. They convince themselves it’s not so bad. They get comfortable, and then that comfort turns to complacency.

The problem is when they finally reach a breaking point with their current employer, and they decide to move on, they have been out of the job market for so long that they don’t know where to even start. Older candidates in particular often find that the job search is an arduous, uphill journey.

You don’t want to put yourself in that position.

Not only will staying at a job you don’t like affect your performance, happiness, and career advancement, there is a lot of research pointing to the fact that you are also exposing yourself to a number of physical and emotional health problems, including exhaustion, stress, burnout, and depression.

But while some candidates are clear about when it’s time to leave a job, for others, as I mentioned above, it may not be so obvious. So, if you have been debating with yourself whether or not to leave your current employer, here are five of the most telling signs to watch out for that suggest it’s time to search for greener pastures:

  1. You don’t like being there. Simply put, you are no longer passionate about your work, you get depressed every Sunday when you think of the week ahead, and you dread getting out of bed each morning. Your work performance is suffering; you feel stressed and anxious, and it is taking a toll on your health and personal relationships. If these things are happening, then you need to ask yourself, “Why?” The minute your job starts negatively affecting your mental or physical well-being, then it’s time to leave.
  2. You don’t like who you are working with. There is a lot of research supporting the idea that employees who have good relationships with co-workers and supervisors have greater job satisfaction and well being, are more productive, and are less likely to leave. The opposite, however, is also true. For years you may have had a great working relationship with your peers and leaders, but then you start to sense a fundamental shift in the firm’s culture and the style of leadership. If your professional relationships within the firm are becoming unpleasant and strained and you begin to feel like you don’t fit in, then it may be signal for you to move on.
  3. You don’t like the direction the company is going in. Related to the point above, it could be that your firm is starting to change its focus and culture in a way that you do not personally agree with. If you no longer see yourself fitting in with the business culture- whether it’s due to changes in the work ethic, core mission and values, or even a shift in the kinds of clients and projects they are targeting- then you need to re-evaluate your reasons for staying.
  4. There is no room for advancement. A stagnant work environment that offers little room for you to move to higher positions or few if any options take on more responsibility, can fundamentally affect your level of motivation and passion to do your work and ultimately your job satisfaction. So, if you begin to feel like you have exhausted all learning opportunities, and the path for career advancement and development is either closed or too slow, then you should seriously reconsider your stay at the firm.
  5. You don’t feel like you are making an impact. Perhaps you feel that your work and input is not being properly appreciated- whether this shows up in terms of salary, verbal recognition, or the opportunities for advancement and development that are coming (or not coming) your way. Maybe you are bothered by your inability to affect the direction of the business. You are left out of decision-making meetings, and you are overlooked for high-impact assignments. If you are looking for more influence and involvement than your current employer can offer, then it’s time to start the job search.

In short, if your job isn’t giving what you need to feel happy (not just pay the bills), yet it isgiving you a whole bunch of things that you don’t need, like stress and resentment, then it’s up to you to change the situation and look for better opportunities. Don’t wait till you are forced to do it.

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Sometimes candidates ask me for advice on how to best apply for a particular architecture role. Regardless of how they approach me, what they all really want to know is how can they make a good impression on the interviewer or hiring team, and ultimately stand out from the pack. The response I give them, however, is often not the one they are expecting to hear.

What many candidates don’t realise is that hiring decisions are often made within the first few minutes of an interview. In fact, in a recent survey of 2000 supervisors, a third of them claimed that they know within the first 90 seconds of an interview whether or not they will hire someone. Not only that, but research suggests that interviewers are frequently swayed by “superficial” qualities, such as physical appearance, a sense of humour, and the candidate’s posture.

But, I’m not going to use this article to tell you what you should or should not wear to an interview, what your body posture should be, or how to answer those dreaded open-ended questions like, “Tell me about yourself,” or “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

I want to dig a bit deeper than that, because what really gets candidates hired versus overlooked is an underlying sense of confidence and determination, clarity about themselves and the position they are interviewing for, and the feeling that they know what they want in work and in life. At the end of the day, hiring decisions are often based on these hard-to-measure, unspoken factors that tend to shine forth the minute a candidate walks in the room- sometimes even before he or she starts talking.

Architect and Design candidates looking into competitive positions would do well to pay attention. The architecture and interior design industry may be pretty hot right now and the demand for qualified architects and designers is going strong. But more jobs doesn’t mean that landing a good job is a given.

That said, here are five of the most critical mistakes candidates need to avoid in an architecture or interior design job interview and what they should be focused on instead:

1. They are not prepared for the interview. One of the most important things candidates need to do before they even step foot in a firm, is to conduct research. The more you know about the studio, the position you are applying for, as well as the interviewer or members of the hiring team, the more you can craft your delivery to align your skills, talents, personality, and experience to the needs of the firm.

An additional benefit to doing such research before the interview is that it allows you to learn enough about the firm to know whether or not it offers an environment that will motivate you to do your job. Sometimes the biggest interview mistake candidates make is interviewing for the wrong firms.

2. They don’t have a clear vision of where they want to go. Where do you see yourself professionally in five years? The answer to this question will typically include why you want to leave your current position as well as how the position you are interviewing for may help you achieve those goals. The most important thing to remember over here is to be realistic and honest with yourself and to consider how your ambitions match up with the needs of the interviewer and the firm as a whole.

3. They are lacking basic communication skills. Another important rule to remember is that while your answers to questions are important, there is often much more weight put on how you respond. Are you making eye contact? Are you talking clearly, logically, and with enthusiasm? Are you not just answering questions, but asking them as well? The attitude and energy that you give off can solve far more perceived problems than an impressive list of credentials and project accomplishments. One way to polish your presentation is to take the time to rehearse your answers to some of the typical questions before the interview.

Some of these typical questions include:

  • Why do you want to work here?
  • Why did you leave your last position?
  • What are your expectations and goals for this position?
  • What value can you bring to this studio/business/project?
  • What are your biggest achievements

4. They are not in touch with their strengths and weaknesses. Many candidates make the mistake of only mentioning the strengths and weaknesses they have on the job. But, if you want to really stand out from the pack of other candidates then you have to give interviewers a fuller picture of who you are and what makes you so special in the first place. What are the qualities that help you get by in life? What are the best parts of your personality? What unique skills, talents, and life experiences can you draw on? Even when you mention a weakness, you should do so in an objective way, and don’t forget to add in how you cope or plan to work on this weakness in the future.

5. They lack a balance of humility and confidence. In short, don’t forget to be human. Many candidates either over-do it on the side of self-importance and the belief that they can climb any mountain; others are too cautious and critical of themselves. No one wants to hire a know-it-all, and no one wants to hire a self-doubter, either.

Bottom line: if you want to have the best chance of landing a great position, then before you even start the interview process, you need to be in touch with yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, and where you want to take your career. And, don’t forget to do your homework!

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When they’re done well, employee feedback programs can give your firm a real competitive edge. They can help employees improve in key areas, encourage innovation and collaboration, and can increase employee engagement and productivity. But when they’re done poorly, the mis-guided performance appraisals and stagnant employee suggestion programs can suck the life out of a good firm. Employee morale suffers, conflicts and tension reign, and collaboration is dishonourably pushed aside in favour of competition and politics.

I’m sure that most senior leadership wouldn’t consciously choose to lead a firm that no one enjoys working at. But when employee feedback programs don’t work the way they are supposed to, it usually means that there are other, more fundamental issues that need to be addressed. Choosing to ignore those issues can get pretty costly.

Happy, Productive Employees = Competitive Advantage

Gallup poll research indicates that only 13% of employees around the world are actively engaged at work, and more than double that number are so disengaged that they are likely to spread their negativity onto others. In other words, only about one in eight workers are mentally and emotionally committed to their jobs and are likely to be making positive contributions to their companies. In major economies, such as the US, this costs companies between $450 and $550 billion each year, and puts them at a big market disadvantage. On the other hand, according to The State of the American Workplace study, companies with 9.3 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee experienced 147% higher earnings per share (EPS) on average compared to their competitors.

From feedback we receive from candidates all over Australia, I believe these figures to be similar for Australia and in particular Architecture and Interior Design firms.

Given these numbers, senior leaders should be making every effort to ensure that the majority of employees feel satisfied with their accomplishments, motivated to do their jobs, and are able to get along with their peers and leaders. Sitting front and centre of these efforts are employee feedback programs.

Where Employee Feedback Programs Go Wrong

But most firms do have some kind of program in place for employee feedback or appraisals. So, the question is, why aren’t these programs working?

While there may be several factors at play, from my experience, they all tend to fall into one of three categories:

  1. Team leaders and senior leadership don’t believe in the program’s importance. In other words, there has to be a shared core belief in the value that employees bring to a firm and in the feedback program’s effectiveness in nurturing and maximizing that value. Where that effectiveness is not there, the firm’s leadership is committed to testing things out and making necessary changes and improvements. Without this level of buy-in among team leaders and senior leaders, these programs will fall flat.
  2. The wrong feedback is being collected. Leadership needs to be measuring the factors that are real gauges of productive, motivated individuals and project teams. Sometimes feedback programs are weighed down by too much unnecessary information. (Anything longer than 2 pages is already suspect.) Firms have to cut out the bloat and focus instead on a few specific, measureable actions and qualities. They need to make sure that the assessment tools being used are giving back objective and actionable information and where necessary, are protecting employee confidentiality.
  3. There is no system in place to act on the feedback. This third factor brings everything together. Employee feedback data (or any other data for that matter) is only helpful and useful to the extent that it gets acted upon. When feedback is obtained and then quickly forgotten, it creates a situation that in many respects worse than it would have been had no feedback been given in the first place. It makes people numb and blind to the things that create real solutions for critical problems and prevents the studio or firm as a whole from taking advantage of the amazing opportunities for growth that exist both inside and outside of a firm.

Effective employee appraisal and feedback programs are organic value creators. When they fail to bring such value to the firm, then it’s a sure-fire sign that priorities need to be re-aligned.

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I often work with talented, experienced Architects who come to me feeling like they have hit a wall in their career. They have been with the same firm for ten years or so. They put in the hard work, have met or even surpassed performance expectations year after year. Yet, opportunities for advancement rarely came their way. Instead, these hopeful up-and-comers find themselves passed over for promotions that often get extended to their younger, less experienced peers.

Why would some young, relatively new hires get quickly promoted in a firm while, other hardworking, more senior talent is overlooked?

The Changing Rules of Advancement 

Over the past 15 years, there has been a fundamental shift in the way business leadership is defined, identified, and cultivated. Gone are the days when pay raises and increasing responsibility just came with time and hard work. Now, if you want to get ahead professionally, then you have to actively work to create and manage your own career path, and it’s a journey that could take you through multiple departments, organisational layers, and firms. You don’t need to just work hard. You have to work smart and take the initiative to groom yourself for advancement.

Remember that for every motivated go-getter in a firm, there are plenty of other people who are more or less satisfied with their salary and level of responsibility. Then, there are the under-performers.

Every firm wants sharp, hard-working, experienced leaders at the top, and they are tasked with identifying who has the real potential and motivation to get there versus those who are relatively comfortable with where they are. If you want to be identified as potential senior leadership material, then you have to make the moves that will show up on the “leadership radar” of the key decision-makers.

This process starts by recognising that the knowledge, skills, accomplishments, and even behaviours which got you to where you are today are important. But, they may not by themselves take your career to the next level.

The Three Pillars of Promotion at Work

Learn to change your mindset and put yourself on the radar by following three universal pillars of promotion:

Pillar #1: Be your own spokesman. Your hard work won’t speak for itself; you have to let people know what you do well. Expecting recognition to just happen is a big mistake that many good, talented people make. If you want to get ahead, you absolutely have to tell people what you have accomplished and what you can do and then prove to them that you are good at it. If you don’t, you risk being perpetually overlooked.

Of course, context is everything, and there is a difference between bragging and smart self-promotion. So, be on the lookout for openings where it would be appropriate to mention what you accomplished. Even better, create such an opening yourself by getting the other person to bring up the topic.

An important aside to this strategy is that you want key people to know that you are good at the things that matter. So, if you would like to be promoted to a particular position, then you have to find out what knowledge, skills, and other qualities are needed in order to fulfil that role and then make it a point to highlight them.

Pillar #2: Be helpful. What are the struggles and challenges that key decision-makers are facing? Figure it out and then make an effort to ease their pain by creating something new, or innovating on something that already exists in order to make it more powerful or easier to use. For example, identify a new sector, production process, or product designed to improve the business. Alternatively, you could help to make an existing service or practice better- whether it’s how you structure your fees, coordinate project teams, track employee performance, or invoice clients. Innovation can happen at every stage and level.

Pillar #3: Be visible. Make an effort to have contact with your peers and leaders- not just in your team, but in other ones as well. If there are no formal mentoring programs in your firm, then try to set something up informally. You should also make the most of company social time and elective initiatives, such as a company-wide charity program. Having a strong, internal reputation creates more opportunities to be assigned to that big project, be considered for an upcoming promotion, or get invited to join the firm’s senior leadership track.

As the new year gets under way, it’s the perfect time to take the reigns of your career development and advancement. If you want to advance professionally, then you have the power to scope out your options and create for yourself the best, most fulfilling opportunities.

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Having a strong pipeline of high-potential talent is, without a doubt, one of the most vital factors to the long-term success of any Architecture or Interior design firm. As the job market in architecture and design sectors has been heating up, we are seeing a growing war for such talent.

But the battle seems to curiously end the minute these people walk in the door. There are a lot of firms out there putting a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money into recruiting high-potential employees, yet ironically, they then do very little talent management and talent development to retain these people.

I’ve mentioned here before the importance of succession planning and of developing a clear pathway to career advancement for the consistent performers. While these initiatives and their supporting programs will vary from firm to firm, the firms that do it successfully all have one thing in common: they have some kind of mentorship program in place.

The truth is that any serious firm should have a well-structured mentoring program, and there are many compelling stats to support this. For example, a few years ago tech firm Sun Microsystems created an extensive company-wide mentoring program and then tracked the career progress of approximately 1,000 employees over a 5-year period. Here’s what they found:

  • Both mentors as well as those who received mentoring were approximately 20% more likely to get a salary increase than people who did not participate in the mentoring program.
  • Over the course of the study, 25 percent of mentees experienced positive changes in salary grade compared to 5 percent for non-participants.
  • Employees who received mentoring were promoted five times more often than people who didn’t have mentors.
  • The employee retention rate at Sun Microsystems was also boosted by 23 percent.

Bottom line: Mentoring is one of the most effective ways to attract, train and retain high potential talent and promote their leadership development within the firm. It is also an effective tool for shaping a firm’s culture and strengthening both employee morale and engagement.

That said, not all mentoring programs are created equal. In order to really maximise the benefits, four key factors need to be in place in some form.

1. Defined goals. Senior leadership needs to be very clear about what they want to accomplish. This means the more laser-focused and measurable those goals are the better. Some factors to consider include: appraisal scores; number of developmental milestones achieved; level of employee satisfaction, and retention rates.

2. Defined participants. Who specifically will be involved in the mentoring program and how will those people be identified? The most successful mentoring programs have established mentor and mentee profiles and assessment tools. They use these to identify both the senior leaders who have the ability and openness to mentor someone and those eager, high potential employees who will most benefit from interaction with influential colleagues.

3. Defined learning path. The learning path for each specific group of high-potential employees needs to be clearly mapped out with a set of key milestones along the way. Both high-potentials and their mentors need to be aware of the performance expected at each milestone as well as how that knowledge, skill and performance will be assessed.

4. Defined commitment. Sometimes firms find it hard to generate enough support and enthusiasm for their mentorship program. In the end, the initiative fails to maintain momentum, leaving senior leadership unsure if it has paid off in any way and fuelling cynicism among employees – especially those solid contributors who are not designated as high potentials.

Often, the problem is really one of communication. In order to generate the needed buy-in among employees at all levels of the firm, senior leadership has to make sure that the program’s intended goals and values are not only clearly identified, but explained. Everyone in the firm should know that mentoring is going on. There will be much more support and enthusiasm if employees feel that the mentoring initiative is not only good for the program’s participants, but also for the firm as a whole.

That last point is the key.

When the goals of a mentoring program involve the success and longevity of the firm as well as its employees, then it may automatically unlock a whole bunch of other benefits effecting every level of the company. Not only will high-potential talent be more likely to stay on board to become the firm’s future leaders, they’ll be in the best position to pull the whole firm up with them.

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Have an important job interview coming up? Before you begin rehearsing your answers to those potential interview questions or polishing up your portfolio, first take a step back.

While it may be exciting to be presented with a job opportunity that seems like it will be a good match for your talents and career aspirations, it always pays to dig deeper into the position and into the firm that’s offering it.

What you really want to know is:

  • How is this company performing? Is it profitable? Is it growing?
  • What is it’s reputation? How happy are their employees?
  • Who are they targeting with their services?
  • Does it hire talented people and then nurture them, or are they left to fend for themselves?
  • Who are the principals and how are they choosing to lead the firm?

Don’t assume that a firm is well-run or pleasant to work in just because it has enjoyed some high profile projects. You may be unpleasantly surprised. Researching your prospective employer before you even step in the door for an interview will help you to avoid a bad career choice that you’ll regret later on.

On the other hand, doing your research is one of the best ways to become a stand-out candidate during the hiring process. Your legwork will help you to make better decisions. You’ll have the confidence to make smarter answers and ask smarter questions, and you’ll know the best way to highlight your strengths and talents.

To drive the point home, according to one study of 2,000 leaders, having little to no knowledge of a prospective employer is actually one of the most common mis-steps made by candidates on an interview.

5 Tactics to Research a Potential Employer Before the Interview

But not all research is created equal. As a candidate, you want to put your efforts into the right places- the places that will give you most useful information and payback. Below are five of the best sources of that information:

  1. Review marketing materials and communications. The first thing that candidates should consider is how the firm is representing themselves. Pour over their website. Take a good look at recent projects, awards, press releases, mission statements, and information about their services and culture. What language and imagery are they using? Who is this firm targeting? Does the firm have social media accounts? Take a few moments to visit them and see what they are posting.

Not only will this give you vital information about the firm and its core values, but it will help you to craft your approach during the interview. You’ll have a better idea which concepts, impressions, and suggestions will make the most impact.

  1. Take a look at the firm’s senior leadership. The senior leaders in a firm will directly influence the culture and “atmosphere” at work. So, you definitely want to go into an interview with at least a basic understanding of who is running the firm and how.

Aside from the bios found on the firm’s website, search LinkedIn for the firm’s leaders. Take a look at their profiles. There you’ll find bios, employment and educational histories, as well as a list of skills, talents, and any associations they belong to. All of this will provide you with valuable information and “fodder” for the hiring process that you can use to guide your responses

  1. Find out who your interviewer(s) will be. Make sure you have the names of the leaders who will be involved with the interview process. Here too, you want to take a look at their profiles- both on the website if available and on other platforms. As you do this, see if you can find some common ground, such as a shared hobby, association, or experience. Even if you aren’t able to find something in common, getting a sneak preview of your interviewers and how they express themselves can help you to tailor your message.
  2. Read up on the projects they have completed. Most architecture firms display a portfolio of their most recent and high profile projects. Don’t just look at what is on their website. Find out if there is any press on the project. Pay attention in particular to what is being said “on the street” about the project and the firm behind it.
  3. Understand the objective of the role. Finally, make sure that you understand the position you are interviewing for or the potential opening. Find out what skills, talents, and experiences they are after. I’m amazed how often candidates actually miss this step, and it becomes painfully obvious during the interview.

While this pre-interview work will help you to get a leg up in the hiring process, it doesn’t stop there. What you ask your potential employer during the interview is just as important as what you answer.

I’ll address this in the next article…

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