22 May 2016

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What makes a great leader in architecture?

On Tuesday 17 May, Aliva UK co-hosted the AJ100 Future Leaders Seminar with The Architects’ Journal. The event offered important insights into everything from leading a team to the practicalities of setting up your own practice. Aliva MD James Ormerod reflects on the advice and debates that stemmed from the session.

AJ100 Panel

Figure (From L-R) The AJ Editor Christine Murray, Matthew Turner, Ben Adams, Karen Cook and Carl Turner discuss leadership in architecture

The Architects’ Journal, the leading architectural publication in the UK, is a veritable bible of information for architects across the country. Who better to bring together experienced speakers to give an insight into the qualities needed to be a great architectural leader?

The event, held at the London offices of practice Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, was chaired by Architects’ Journal Editor-in-Chief Christine Murray who introduced four speakers, who between them have many years’ of experience to share.

Communication and goal setting

First off the mark was Karen Cook, a founding partner of PLP Architecture. Karen shared her insights into leading a practice, what makes a good leader and setting goals for yourself.

The importance of communication and engaging with colleagues and clients was one of Karen’s key messages.

“Being a leader is about spending more of your day communicating, than it is about actually doing the work,” she said.

Another of Karen’s points which really struck a chord in the room was the need to set realistic goals. She said that she was herself guilty of always aiming for perfection, but emphasised that it is vital to set realistic goals.

Understanding your leadership personality

Following Karen was Matthew Turner, former architect turned careers consultant and Architects’ Journal’s resident careers coach.

Matthew turned his attention to self-knowledge, opining that often architects are set on their career course from a young age – the minute they start their studies – and this can often stop them from reflecting on what they’re really good at.

He advised that understanding your own personality type, and its strengths and weaknesses when it comes to leadership, can help architects to choose a career path that suits their character type.

Matthew also encouraged the audience to put time into developing their soft skills, because while the ability to manage projects is important, being able to network, communicate and work well in a team is also vital to career success.

Starting your own practice

Ben Adams of Ben Adams Architects was next to take to the floor, speaking about his own experiences of setting up his practice.

Ben spoke about the importance of identifying opportunities, using the imminent opening of his new Los Angeles practice as an example. In LA they’re now struggling with the same issues that London has had for some time around population density and space – Ben’s experience in London, made the move to LA a logical one.

He emphasised that starting a practice, whether your first or one of many, is a scary prospect, but that sometimes you have to ‘Just Do It’.

AJ100 Panel

Architects should ‘Just Do It’ when it comes to opening their own practice, says Ben Adams

Getting ahead

The talks were rounded off by Carl Turner of Carl Turner Architects, who takes a hands-on approach to running his studio and projects.

Using examples from his own career, he summarised his advice for getting ahead in architecture in the form of a nine point checklist:

  • Make a 5 year plan
  • Experiment on a small scale
  • Fail early, fail cheap
  • Don’t be in a hurry
  • Be selective
  • Be persistent
  • Be friendly
  • Speak plain English
  • Re/up-cycle ideas

Wise words for anyone in business, not just those in architecture. Carl finished by saying that ultimately you have to forge ahead and do it for yourself.

An insight into the challenges for architects

The panel debate and questions from the floor which followed, showed just how much this kind of discussion was welcomed in architecture. Questions ranging from the practicalities of starting a practice through to the logistics of client retainers were covered off.

The key takeaway was that business and strategy skills need to play a bigger part in architectural education than they currently do. It will be interesting to see whether this changes in the future.

It was a privilege to be able to co-host such an event and we look forward to attending the AJ100 awards on 8 June in London.

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