Nurturing Future Leaders

By Nicholas E. Vlattas, AIA, and Deborah Marquardt

Those of us who started firms and have invested a lifetime in them would like to know that what we’ve worked so hard to achieve would continue long past our retirements. But many of us don’t do a very good job of making sure that happens. Not that we don’t have good intentions. Not that we don’t talk about it. But we get busy, and the best laid plans get pushed to the back of the pile. Then, one day, it can be too late.

Add a recession into the mix, when many A/E/C firms lay off their youngest members, and soon firms, and the profession, are in a crisis—a talent shortage, a leadership gap. Jeffery Potter, FAIA, recently inaugurated as the AIA’s 88th president, acknowledged the issue: “A … key priority I have for the Institute is to help address the challenges of emerging professionals so that we can develop, mentor, and retain young and aspiring architects so that our organization and the profession at large can thrive well into the future.”

Scott Braley, FAIA, FRSA, has written extensively on this topic and has regularly presented and shared his findings with the AIA. His recommendation is to develop an in-house Rapid and Sustainable Leadership Development (RSLD) initiative. “To be genuinely effective, the RSLD must be a fully integrated initiative—ranging in influence from recruiting and retention to sustained performance management—more than a well-orchestrated training and development program. Read more here.

The members of the 2012 VSAIA Emerging Leaders in Architecture class is the program's fourth.

While many firms may not have the resources to accomplish Braley’s plan, or to hire a consultant to help them, there are other tools. Chambers of Commerce sometimes sponsor leadership programs; Toastmaster clubs teach speaking skills. PSMJ offers an A/E/C Principals Bootcamp course for approximately $1,300. Closer to home, we are fortunate to have the Virginia Society AIA’s Emerging Leaders in Architecture program, which just concluded its third year.

Brian Frickie, AIA. LEED®AP, with Kerns Group Architects in Arlington, and a former Virginia Society AIA president, remembers being troubled about leadership in the profession. “We struggled with how to prepare young architects for leadership, and there wasn’t a program out there, other than IDP. If you had a mentor and worked for 30 years, you might be halfway there. I kept thinking, what can we do to make the profession better? How can we impact that outcome sooner?”

With the help of like-minded professionals such as Will Scribner, FAIA, principal at SMBW in Richmond, and Jim Clarke, AIA, principal at Arlington’s MTFA Architecture, the ELA emerged. Dozens of ideas were consolidated into seven intense day-long sessions, covering everything from financial management, negotiation skills, risk management, ethics and contracts, to community activism and presentation and communication skills. “This is an Honors Academy, meant to attract the best and brightest,” says Frickie. The program accommodates 16 individuals each year who benefit from informed speakers and a class project to test new skills and knowledge.

Scribner, chair of the ELA Steering Committee, notes on the Virginia Society AIA Web site:  “As important as the project is to the program, our main goal in one short year is simply to expose these young leaders to the lessons it has taken us 30 years to learn.”

The program charges $850 tuition to cover project costs. Often, firms pay this on behalf of their nominee, though some nominees have shouldered the expense themselves. A firm also must be willing to give the ELA member time for the program, which sometimes conflicts with work hours.
Abigail Grubb, a young designer with our firm, was a member of the 2011 class. “I saw it as a unique opportunity to get involved and broaden my view of the Commonwealth, because I’m not from here,” she says. “Our class represented a range of age and experience, from students to people starting their own firms. I liked the interdisciplinary aspect of the program, and while I don’t personally enjoy the business side of architecture, it is very important to have an understanding of how it works. It was interesting to see how others approach problems in different ways.” The best part, says Grubb, was the professional network she developed with her classmates. “We got very close.”

Dan Zimmerman, principal of Alloy Workshop in Charlottesville says: “I came away with an optimism for the future of our profession. I learned that the profession is not static but an evolving profession, one that we are able to define and mold through our actions in our office and more importantly, our community.”

Thom White, who just opened Work Program Architects in Norfolk, says he received validation about steps he had taken when starting his firm, and he learned a lot about managing time – marketing vs. actual project work.


Brian Frickie, AIA, during a January 13, 2012, ELA session.

Frickie says the Virginia Society AIA has never tried to measure the program’s ROI, but, he says, the teams asks themselves: “If we have a culture that doesn’t value architecture and architects, what do we need to do differently? Make young architects more effective earlier on.” This program fills in gaps that aren’t being taught in architecture schools. Frickie reports that he has had more than one individual say: “The program changed my life. I didn’t get it in school.”

We are fortunate to have a resource like the ELA so close to home. We encourage every firm and every regional AIA chapter to nominate a promising young leader. It’s in all our best interests to develop the future leaders—and owners—of our firms. It’s also critical to the future of our profession.

Please scroll to the end of this article to share your firm’s experiences with the ELA Program or other leadership development initiatives. 

Leadership in Action: Class of 2011

By Deborah Marquardt

Each Emerging Leaders in Architecture class is responsible for a team project. The 2011 group was charged with making recommendations for the improvement of the Commerce Road corridor in the Manchester neighborhood of Richmond. The class began the process by meeting in March with city representatives, including a surprise drop in by Mayor Dwight Jones.  They also toured the area and met with developers and other stakeholders.

But rather than just produce another master plan that might gather dust on a shelf, this team organized itself into a “design-build firm” that conceived of a modular kiosk that could travel to different locations in the area and be used as a gathering place for residents to share ideas, data and oral histories of how the neighborhood has changed over time. Team member Thom White, Work Program Architects, Norfolk, called it a “content generation machine.”

Visitors sketched perceptions.

Each member of the “firm” assumed roles, from marketing and public relations to managing funds. They designed, built and installed a very modular kiosk of wood/fiber panels and a corrugated plastic roof. They spent $3,500, including materials, announcement postcards and t-shirts.

 “In professional practice, sometimes you lose perspective of the opportunities architecture can really provide on a small scale.  Designing and building a structure, and then inviting the public into the space, has been such a fulfilling experience, and it reinvigorated me as an architect,” says Anna B. Barbour, AIA, LEED ®AP BD+C, of Shalom Baranes Associates architects in Washington, D.C.  “Developing camaraderie and friendship in tandem with the project with like-minded professionals has also been the most rewarding part of the project.”

The kiosk was on display during the AIA Grassroots Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., March 7-10, and will be again in September at the Virginia Center for Architecture in Richmond.

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