Visiting Critic

  • Leadership Development: An Investment Vehicle

    As originally seen in YAF Connection


    American architecture firms are suffering from a disinvestment in leadership development.  It’s not because they don’t want to, nor is it entirely their fault.  I chalk it up to not having the financial capital to part with.  This is because many firms operate as a small business, defined by the US Small Business Administration (SBA) as gross revenue of $7.5 million or less per the appropriate category1.  But don’t just take the government’s word for it.  Take a look around your office.  If you work in a characteristic architectural office, chances are you’ll have less than eight colleagues2.  By anyone’s definition, that feels pretty small.  However it shouldn’t hinder a firm from seeking out alternative opportunities to develop leaders, because human capital has traditionally been one of the best investments a company can make.

    Operating as a small business does come with perks, many of which are a good base for leadership.  Samples of situations include increased responsibility, forced efficiency, and an accelerated experience curve.  They are intangible skills that will serve both the employee’s growth and employer’s bottom line.  This hands-on approach is also a great way to expose employees to key aspects of the business in a compressed time frame, but it should not be the only method of engagement.  Because being productive and efficient doesn’t always equate to staying relevant.  Understanding how to stay competitive starts with strong leadership and being exposed to theoretical and practical solutions.  Multiple perspectives help further broaden an employee’s knowledge base and underscores the act of engaging outside of work.  My proposed solution is that career experience should be supplemented with a structured development regimen or volunteer leadership that exposes an employee to a different set of conditions.

    The structured program is valuable to architects and designers because most don’t get formal training as part of their education.  Leadership development is not a core competency of a design curriculum and is often overlooked in favor of technical skills. Such technical skills, of which design falls into, is heralded first and foremost at university and computer literacy, another technical skill, is a top requirement for interns.  Think about how often the recent graduate’s (or even mid-career professional) first round of interviews start with “Do you know AutoCAD or Revit or [insert program here]?”  The best firms may look for a well-rounded candidate, but the more prevalent small firm, who is focused on production staff, can overlook the long-term potential of a new hire. 

    If a formal, for–profit program is out of reach financially or geographically, architects may be able to seize alternative opportunities.  The AIA is a great example of an organization that can offer that opportunity.  A breadth of committees exists on the local, regional, and national levels that are in persistent need of both active volunteers and leaders.  Each committee may have needs such as fundraising, communications or programming efforts that are great exercises to hone soft skills.  In addition to leadership positions, there are a number of standout programs that are sponsored, in part, by the Institute.  The Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program, The Vision Leadership Program, and The Leadership Institute, out of AIA DC, AIA Cincinnati and AIA Illinois respectively, are best practice examples from across the country.  All of these programs are a series of highly structured events that expose participants to different situations, provide case studies for discussion and engage senior leaders in either panel discussions or intimate roundtable talks.  However, the AIA is just one available resource that allows architects to impact the profession and gain valuable leadership training.  Most communities have some form of volunteer leadership that runs the gamut from public service to non-profits and neighborhood associations to zoning boards.  Many find that service to the public or society at large is not only rewarding, but is a very specific skill that can’t be gained in any other situation. 

    In either case, structured program or volunteer leadership, I believe the responsibility falls on both the employer and employee.  The employee who desires to lead should have a natural inclination to seek out opportunities, provided they have the passion and the ability to balance the commitments.  The employer is also responsible, especially if they cannot directly finance a structured program.  Sometimes it’s as simple as an invitation, but employers can also incentivize action.  If a firm values certain initiatives, it would behoove them to use them as carrots for promotion.  If a path is clearly defined, supervised and agreed upon, both parties stand to benefit.

    Committing time and financial resources from tight schedules and budgets can be a hard sell.  Firm leadership needs to carefully weigh the risk in investing (even in people), but nudging employees to seek out opportunities is free.  By sharing this responsibility and engaging in one or more of the examples listed, firms and their employees can strike a balance between the technical skills necessary to perform at a high level and the leadership skills to sustain future success.


    1 Data taken from the SBA’s summary of sectors website

    2 Per the 2012 AIA Survey Report on Firm Characteristics, 63% of all firms surveyed are 4 employees or less and 81% are 9 employees or less

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About this Blog

Visiting Critic is a continuing series of thought provoking observations from architectural insider Jeffrey Pastva - Editor in Chief at YAF Connection, Communications Director for the AIA National Young Architects Forum and a Project Architect at JDavis in Philadelphia. His critical eye will cover everything from the state of architectural education to the future fate of the profession. Expect ideas in your inbox bi-weekly.

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  • jpastva

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