By Matthew Szymanski, AIA, Owner, Architect | Arx Design Co.
Traditionally, aspiring architects learned by apprenticing with experienced team members and watching how they: design, communicate, and make decisions. The AXP program approximates this model, but mentors must purposely supplement lessons of professionalism, business development, and emotional intelligence if well-rounded future leaders are the desired result. Today's managers face significant time constraints when trying to provide the consistent guidance necessary to develop new team members. In addition, new remote working arrangements and increasingly flexible/varied schedules result in fewer opportunities to naturally turn the issues that arise into learning experiences.
How can we effectively empower the emerging professionals on our team to excel as team leaders, independent workers, and design thinkers? There are practical solutions at hand. Systematic approaches to leadership development can ensure a base level of training while adding a deeper level of meaning and understanding to the practical tasks they are faced with each day.
Here are three ideas for anyone who’s interested in starting or expanding the leadership development offerings at their firm.
Idea One: Delegate
(image on right: Invest in staff by connection details within a drawing set to situations on the site)
If there is a dedicated member of the firm overseeing the intern experience, the resulting programs should pull from the expertise of members across the firm. Volunteer to help. If there isn’t anyone working toward this goal offer to help but don’t do it alone. Ask for help. Developing young team members into successful architects is not a task that should fall on one individual.
Start by asking yourself, "What specific ongoing training do our young team members require?" Follow this up with another crucial question, "Who within the organization already excels at the skills we want to nurture?" By doing so, you can easily identify individuals who can contribute by leading training sessions or workshops. This is a bite-sized request for the speaker, and it frees the organizer from the daunting task of creating an entire program’s worth of content.
(Resource: Standard Drawing Set Page - Pushing the use of checklists can help keep mentors and interns on the same page.)
Additionally, consider collaborating with capable mid-level leaders within your firm to support your training efforts. They may not take on the entire responsibility, but their involvement can make the effort manageable. Working together as a team lightens the load, increases the variety of insights, and leads to more successful outcomes in nurturing the potential of young staff members. This strategy also starts to create a network of insight sharing within your firm. This pulls hard-won institutional knowledge outside of the silos of standing teams so it can benefit the entire firm.
Idea Two: Look for Resources Beyond Our Industry
The AIA and NCARB have a wealth of leadership and mentoring materials, but you may find that the type of professional development that your team needs is readily available through local sources. Toastmasters can help those who struggle with public speaking. A local Chamber of Commerce might offer training programs for young people. You can encourage young members of your firm to go through these programs and request that they share what they learn with the wider group. It will increase the impact of a program if mangers schedule short debrief sessions to discuss integrating lessons learned into daily work life.
There are multiple formats to access leadership materials. Podcasts, conferences, publications, mentorship programs, book and online training sessions are all options. A dedicated time for a small group of EPs to discuss how to integrate what they are learning from different sources can produce great results.
Idea Three: Start with a Simple Workplan
It’s common to address issues and weaknesses by creating a workplan for improvement. This same concept can help successful employees, pushing them to increased success. Workplan is a simple path toward a set of goals paired with a schedule. It has actionable items and quantifiable goals.
Firms have found that creating a timeline and a checklist of fundamental experiences can insure employees get exposure to a minimum standard of experiences, conversations, and training. A clear plan with a list of goals helps mentors track progress and empowers interns and long-term employees to take ownership of their learning experience.
The plan/checklist can spell out a variety of things:
- introductory conversations about each building system
- the intent of each part within a standard drawing set
- the process of each design phase
Basic checklists can be expanded into more complex diagrams that provide the aspirating architects, often visual people, with a mental image of how everything they are learning fits into a larger framework.
This gamification of the onboarding process can help keep everyone organized and engaged. Mentors and mentees can easily scan their scavenger list or bingo card to see which experiences are lacking. An organized, visual list also allows multiple mentors to quickly assess and contribute to an aspiring architect’s experiences.
It might sound like a challenge to put this type of document together but if each intern/participant contributes to the effort their compounding input will yield solid, customized materials that speak directly at the level and need of future participants.
What can EP’s do expand the offerings of their firms?
If EPs are looking to expand the development offerings of their firms here are some helpful things to keep in mind:
- Go to the firm’s leaders with ideas and not a list of needs/complaints. Don’t negate the success of existing programs, just state how your proposals would achieve additional success.
- Be willing to expand your ideas to include the concerns and interest of other participants or firm leaders.
- Let the program reflect your strengths. If you are good at one-on-one conversations embrace that ability and set up dynamic discussions. If you prefer to write, pull in speakers that supplement a smartly crafted manual.
- Ask for a targeted number of overhead hours so that your efforts are fairly compensated, and everyone is in agreement of the office hours to be dedicated to the efforts.
Matthew Szymanski, AIA is an architect with over 20 years of experience working in the design and construction industry in North Carolina’s Triangle region. He is the principal of a small firm, Arx Design Co., focused on residential and small commercial branded spaces with 4 successful interns. His firm cultivates an active partnership with two North Carolina-based architecture education programs. His is a representative on the North Carolina Small Firm Exchange Representative and a member of the Steering Committee for the AIA Triangle Leadership Forum. His community outreach engagements include SPARKcon, Neighbor2Neighbor, and Habitat for Humanity with a focus on promoting the positive impact of good design.
(Return to the cover of the November 2023 PM Digest)