The Ability To Inspire

How will the role of the senior architect change over the next five years?

A recent post on KA Connect’s LinkedIn blog posed the question in the subhead above. The first posted comments had to do with fluency in various technologies that are reshaping our profession. Building Information Modeling (BIM), Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), social networks and other information access channels are driving whole new ways of accessing knowledge and resources, and sharing information. There is no question that a comfortable and fluid working relationship with new processes that have become commonplace in architecture and engineering design, documentation, project management and team communication is just part of the job. But the continuing education necessary to stay current is just part of being a true professional today.

This was an appropriate comment, but I couldn’t help but add my two cents:

Referring to said technologies in my post: “All of the above is interesting, but the most salient talent today and going forward will be leadership skills – the ability to inspire an entire team of participants to collaborate, to contribute the best they have to offer, in order to bring value to a client. We’ve all experienced the chaos that ensues when there is no leadership talent on a project, whether provided by the architect, contractor or another participant. We also know that when great leadership skill and style become manifest, the project flourishes, no matter who steps up to lead. The leader keeps everyone focused on achieving solutions that will explicitly contribute to the enhancement of the client’s business – more sales in a store, higher repeat and referral guests in a hotel, less absenteeism, and higher employee satisfaction and engagement in the workplace. Expanding on the theme of Evidence Based Design, the leader insists on establishing and monitoring metrics that are important to the client, engaging the entire team in working together to achieve that end.”

Subsequently, I’ve thought about it further and recognize how very different and demanding the talent requirements are today for a senior architect or engineer. Solid technical skills are, of course, a threshold requirement. Professional managers who do not stay (or never were) current on the mechanics of what we do as professionals are ineffective in a lead role on a project. With the continuing increase in the complexity of the regulatory environment (think energy codes, life safety, disabled access, LEED, and so forth, which are constantly evolving and being redefined and vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction), a senior project leader has an obligation to stay current.

Add to that changes affected by BIM and IPD that alter who does what documentation. The whole concept of liability is being redefined (and argued about by lawyers and insurance companies). We’re evolving toward a design-build environment, requiring project leaders to be adaptable as they set up and guide project processes. And no two projects today are set up the same way.

With large, complex projects today, there are really two “senior architect” roles at play, simply because it’s virtually impossible for one person to have the bandwidth to stay current across the entire spectrum of knowledge and to embody the broad range of talents and skills required. I see projects being co-led by two people, both with strong leadership skills. One is best suited by talent and disposition for an outside role – working with the client, the funding source, governmental agencies, particularly those with discretionary review and approval authority, and guiding the project team through design. The second is a more technical by nature, deeply immersed in the technology and engineering aspects of the project, able to negotiate code and other regulatory issues, manage the consultant and contractor teams, guide the structure and process of documentation, and to keep everyone working collaboratively.

Clearly, scale adds complexity but even smaller projects today are governed by the same complex codes and regulations, subject to the same array of varying team configurations regarding who does what in design and documentation. It’s a very new world for the senior architect or engineer, and a time when the universities training future professionals need to shape their curricula to select for leadership talent and train students for this new professional world. It’s also a great time for universities to engage in continuing education for these senior roles. They’re best equipped to do it. It would reconnect them with practicing professionals, bringing greater relevance to what’s being taught, allowing the curriculum to be shaped by the real world.

This entry was posted in Enterprise Management, Leadership, Practice Management. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Ability To Inspire

  1. hbeer says:

    Terrific stuff, Ed. It shines a light on the near continuous transformation a professional (of any kind) makes throughout the arc of their career. With some that arc is visited upon them by circumstances (for example, what markets are doing) with others the arc simply “happens” because the professional simply doesn’t comprehend that one doesn’t remain the same person over time. “Gee, I still feel 35!” That’s a formula for some concern within a professional practice because there are in fact some genuine 35 year olds who are trying to understand what the hell the 65 year-old senior partner wants from them…

    I would suggest what the highly energized, high skilled 25-35 year-old is looking for from the wise and seasoned 65 year-old are questions, not answers. Transitioning from being the Answer Person to the Question Person is the single most difficult transformation a professional must make over the course of their career.

    I’ve observed that almost without exception the most powerful and influential person in a meeting is the person that asks the best questions. Of course if the right questions aren’t posed, no one will come up with the “right” answer. The one thing that the young practitioner doesn’t have that the seasoned professional does is perspective and experience. These two verities, brought to bear on a client’s problems in the form of provocative, insightful probing questions will have a remarkable effect on the young professional. And if those questions are framed in a way that are intended to provoke and inspire rather than intimidate or belittle, all sorts of magic ensues. This serves the practice in general as well. Posing great questions early on within the protective and supportive context of the office ensures that the younger professional will not be humiliated or blindsided in a presentation by a client asking those same questions.

    Becoming the Question Person is the capstone role for a successful professional. It enables the young person to do what they do best–to go out searching madly for the answers to the question that had never even occurred to them–with all the skill, fresh energy and awareness that characterizes a professional at that stage of their career. It is enormously gratifying to the senior person as they have leveraged their professional lessons through another. A deeply satisfying and enduring outcome for both parties as well as the practice and ultimately, the profession.

Leave a Reply