By Iva Kravitz, Assoc. AIA
Full disclosure: I’m not an architect, but I’ve spent my career doing strategy, communications and marketing for architects and designers. As a consultant to the profession for 30 years, I have an inside-outside view of the strong and intangible role of culture in work life. I’ve seen small firms thrive with strong culture and happy employees, and large firms succeed despite terrible leadership. Here are a few notes as well as my own observations.
A lecture I once attended made the excellent point that corporate culture is not “getting together for beers after work once a week”. Rather, it’s an expression of shared values that guide individual and group ethics, standards, behavior toward one another, loyalty to the firm and employee engagement.
Harvard Business School author John Kotter defines culture as “norms of behavior and shared values among a group of people. Norms of behavior are common or pervasive ways of acting that are found in a group and that persist because group members tend to behave in ways that teach these practices to new members, rewarding those who fit in and sanctioning those who do not.”1 He also notes how insidious culture is:
Consultants, industrial salespeople, and others who regularly see firms up close without being employees know well how much culture operates outside of people’s awareness, even rather visibly unusual aspects of a culture. I can still remember going into a major publishing company about twenty years ago and finding that eight of the top eleven male offices were under 5’8” tall. (The firm’s founder was 5’6”.) When I commented on that fact in an off-hand remark that certainly wasn’t meant to be disapproving, the others in the room looked at me as if I were a space alien. At another big company where the first major product had been an explosive and where safety had been an obsession for more than a century, I found that virtually all executives walked up or down stairwells clutching the handrail as if they were all ninety-nine years old.”2
Establishing a strong and authentic brand is critical to defining and fostering firm culture. Branding requires a few essential elements, one being a clearly articulated, values-based mission statement to help others understand who the firm is—but this kind of clarity is even more critical to employees. Understanding and sharing the values held by the organization allows staff to put their efforts into a greater, meaningful context.
Unsurprisingly, the most cohesive, enthusiastic and good-vibe offices I’ve worked with have enjoyed honest, transparent and supportive leadership styles. Two Twelve Associates, which specializes in environmental graphic design, had a staff meeting every Monday at 9am, where every employee shared what they did over the weekend, their deadlines for that week, and their available capacity to help other designers. Other versions of these meetings can end with a few people selected to share an image that caught their imagination or an interesting or fun recent experience. I’ve also seen weekly meetings close with a project presentation as everyone in the office learns about their colleagues’ work. These regular meetings immediately set up a helping, open environment where work is better shared and managed.
The landscape architecture firm LaGuardia Design Group has literally taken a family approach, as they’ve built a healthy culture with very little turnover. Partner Jane LaGuardia explained that early on—when the firm was “tiny”—she and her husband, Chris, considered it their responsibility to make sure employees could afford to live in the Hamptons, on Long Island, where they are based. They helped fund cars, assisted with rent, and did anything to support their people. The office is larger now and multi-cultural, with staff from Iran, the Philippines and the United States; all 20 employees read an in-house weekly e-newsletter with birthdays, family events, garden tours, lectures and other office news.
Collaborative volunteer (pro bono) projects, like designing a sculpture for Long House Reserve, build team cooperation as well. It’s not surprising that when the occasional parent of an employee comes to visit, they are effusive in their appreciation, all thanks to Chris and Jane for going way beyond normal efforts to let employees know they are cared for.
Hawkins Partners, a 20-person landscape architecture firm in Nashville, has another generous and unusual custom: the business pays for EVERY employee to travel together on an annual weekend trip to another city within a four-hour flight. To prepare for the trips, each person chooses one place or building to research. During the weekend, designers each take center stage to present their “place” to the group as they visit it. At the trip’s end, these mini-reports are bound into a book.
All these strategies bring employees closer together and don’t just build friendships –shared time and activities encourage empathy and compassion. In the best cases, this type of activity breaks down generational and hierarchical walls They inspire and motivate people to be significantly more collaborative, productive and loyal.
Conversely, my firm worked with a large architectural office a few years ago where staffing was a revolving door. Here, the two senior founding partners were older white men who, consciously or not, skewed toward promoting men over women, valued loyalty over open-mindedness, and gossiped openly about staff. The human resources director had no training in conflict resolution. No surprise that the people who rose in the ranks were largely white males who shared the founders’ values and were foot-soldiers rather than leaders. This firm had no substantial mission statement. It had been a profitable business for over thirty years, and the partners had an “if-it’s-not-broke-don’t-fix-it” attitude.
In another extremely successful design studio of about forty people, the founding partner was always busy and distracted. His job was to get new business, which he did very, very well. The person left to manage the studio started as a bookkeeper, became CFO, and then requested the title of president. She had no training in any aspect of management and thus was constantly threatened by competent people. The ultimate result was a “mean girl” culture of favoritism, destructive behavior, back-channel communications, rumor mills and a generally toxic environment. Even though the founder was kind and compassionate, he had stopped paying attention to studio day-to-day dynamics and let a terribly toxic culture take hold.
The professor of my change management class said that a common phrase in business school is “culture eats strategy for lunch.” Architects spend a lot of time planning strategy but can be shockingly tone deaf to the subtleties of culture. Indeed, small misalignments can be difficult to pinpoint; they may appear around conflict or not meeting goals or result in a workplace that simply doesn’t feel good—the energy is wrong. Digging into what employees say and feel requires clarity and strength, but owners and managers are rarely open to hearing what’s wrong at that level. And yet when I talk to small firm owners about best outcomes, the suggestions we discuss seem obvious: be honest and transparent. Communicate more, not less. Be respectful and generous. Bring in an outside voice to overcome tone-deafness.
Beyond making staff comfortable, if the culture is supportive and employees feel safe and respected, they feel empowered to talk about things they want to change. Constructive criticism and engagement replace employee bitterness, frustration and anger. Removing these from any culture increases productivity and improves retention.
In design, as in any professional service, there is no product without the creative capital of staff, which one could interpret as saying there is nothing more important than understanding, managing and paying attention to your firm’s culture.
- Kotter, John. “Leading Change,” Harvard Business Review Press, 2012, p. 156
- Kotter, John. “Leading Change,” Harvard Business Review Press, 2012, p. 159
Iva Kravitz, Associate AIA, has spent her career immersed in the business of the built environment. Working with architects; interior, graphic, lighting and landscape designers; in construction and real estate; and, most recently, landscape architecture, she has helped small and large firms better define their goals, strategies and communications. Iva believes her clients’ work is important and meaningful, either through high design achievement, commitment to social justice or leadership in sustainability.
Iva is on the Committee on the Environment (COTE) and the Awards Committee of the AIA NY Chapter and is a member of the Society of Marketing Professional Services (SMPS), where she serves as a mentor. She has been a board member of the Association of Real Women/ CREW New York, where she was recognized with the Founders Award in 2009. She has spoken and written on marketing and communications in design for Madame Architect, the AIA New York Chapter, IIDA in New York, SMPS Maryland, the AIA Marketing Committee, and on podcasts USModernist Radio and the Business of Architecture.
A graduate of the University of Vermont - including junior year at the Université de Nice, France – Iva has done additional course work at Harvard University, New York University and the Steven Newman Real Estate Institute at Baruch College. She holds a Certificate in Organizational Development. Iva supports the Thorn Tree Project, which builds schools for nomadic tribes in Kenya, and is a founding Director of the Lauri Strauss Leukemia Foundation. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
(Return to the cover of the November 2023 PM Digest)