Inside the Architecture Firm: Designing a Leadership Culture

Intuitively, we know that our inspiration and creativity are our greatest strengths as architects.  We are innovative and able to transform a lot of diverse, even contradictory, information into a cohesive design.  This talent unfortunately leads us to believe that we have a broader skill set than we actually do.  We think we are graphic designers, marketing gurus and, one day, emperors of our own little kingdoms otherwise known as the design firm.  The reality is that leadership in our profession is largely untrained to actually run a business and motivate/promote workers.  Will your tenure at any given firm (even perhaps your own) ultimately be beneficial or soul crushing?  This blog has dealt with architects' tendency to undervaluing our work and sell out to "make a sale."  In this installment, I wanted to focus on how we sell out inside the office by accepting certain stereotypes of character and leadership.

I presented this dilemma to Lisa Petrilli , CEO of C-Level Strategies, Inc., an expert in Visionary Leadership. Visionary leadership is something I think particularly resonates with our profession because it parallels the design process so closely in terms of being about big ideas, clarity and communication. Lisa graciously agreed to answer some questions specific to leadership in architecture, but I would encourage all of you to visit her site and learn more about her consulting and strategic planning services, as well as to take part in her Leadership Chat twitter series held each Tuesday evening.
AM: There has recently been a lot written on personality types and leadership temperament.  I appreciate that you make a case for introverts in your work, when so many push for extroverted leaders.  In particular, I am referencing a recent article in Architect magazine and other articles that push the ideal personality as being ENTJ.  I don't agree (of course, I am an INTP).  While ENTP may fit a stereotype for an architect, it is not necessarily an ideal temperament.  Is our profession in danger of rewarding some of the more aggressive and ego-centric characteristics of this personality type and even encouraging those who don't share this personality to model its characteristics? 
LP: I don’t actually think there is an “ideal” personality type for any role, including architects.  Although 31% of the architects who took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator with Robert Gaarder were ENTJs, as he points out in the comments, “The distinguishing characteristic was that they were already in leadership positions or aspiring to be leaders.” I believe this impacted the results to a large degree.

I also think what’s more important than the particular personality type is an individual’s awareness of their type, and the implications of their type in regard to strengths and weaknesses. For example, introverts love to immerse themselves in the world of ideas, which must be a tremendous advantage to an architect.  At the same time, architects need to work with clients and become fluent in the world of action – which is generally easier for extroverts.  This pushes introverts outside their comfort zone, and beyond their preferences.

I think successful professionals understand the importance of moving beyond their comfort zone, and are willing to do so as needed and appropriate.  Sometimes, depending on the person, this requires deliberate courage.  This holds not just for the introvert/extrovert scale, but for the other personality preferences as well.  Those who leverage their strengths (their personality type preferences) and have the courage to move beyond those strengths to meet all the needs of their role, will stand out regardless of their profession.

Big buzzwords in architecture firms are a "studio environment" meaning that there are few offices and workstations are relatively open to one another, and the idea of being a "flat firm."  What are your thoughts on promoting true collaboration and dealing vs. an almost natural human need to form hierarchies and award titles?

LP: I think the vision and culture of the firm determine which approach is best, and I don’t think they need to be mutually exclusive. In many industries having a particular title is important when the executive goes to meet with partners or customers.  Titles can also serve as forms of recognition as well as prestige in specific industries.  At the same time, companies that use a hierarchy and titles can also have cultures that promote a very deep commitment to collaboration in their approach to the work.

I think companies that break down silos and encourage collaboration can be extremely successful.  But it all goes back to the vision of the company and its culture.  As long as employees fully understand and are committed to the company’s vision and supporting strategies,  their particular role and how it fits into the greater vision, and how they will be evaluated and rewarded, they can succeed regardless of the design of their workstation.

AM: Many architecture firms have two parallel leadership structures:
Task based: Intern, Project Architect, Job Captain, Project Manager, Project Designer, Senior Designer, etc.
Title based: Associate, Senior Associate, Principal, Associate Principal, Vice President, President, CEO etc.
This is a bit schizophrenic as there is not necessarily a correlation between the two.  It also speaks to the diverse backgrounds and leadership experience that a person with the title Senior Associate, for example, might have. If that person is also a Project Manager, then he or she probably knows how to coordinate teams of people both inside and outside the office and to work with clients.  If that title is awarded to the IT person, however, the same skill set may not be present. Is this a good system and how best should it be implemented?

LP: The way a company organizes its talent is one particular strategy that should be designed to support the achievement of its vision.  If the organizational structure helps to clarify roles and responsibilities and to move the company toward its vision, then it’s working.  If the organizational structure confuses roles and responsibilities, prohibits individuals from fully executing their roles, limits their ability to achieve success, prevents clear messages from being communicated and makes it more difficult for the company to move forward, then it needs to be changed.

AM: Not every firm provides leadership training or mentoring, in fact, that is the exception to the rule.  As a result,  there are firms led by Principals who take employees for granted, offer no professional development opportunities, and generally create a sink or swim cutthroat work environment.  Further down the food chain, there can be Project Managers who can't lead a team or play nicely with their co-workers.  What advice can you offer to an architect to help them determine whether they are in a healthy or toxic work environment based on a few quick leadership assessment guidelines?

LP: I don’t think an architect, or any professional, needs leadership assessment guidelines to know if they’re in a toxic work environment.  If their gut tells them they’re in a toxic environment, that’s ultimately all that matters.  If someone believes they’re in a toxic environment, it’s difficult to convince them they aren’t.

What they have control over is what they do about this situation. The first thing to do is determine why, specifically, it feels toxic, given different people interpret this word and feeling differently.  They should ask themselves:
1.   Is my role in the organization clear and do I have support to fulfill my role to the best of my ability?
2.   Do I have opportunities for visibility in the organization commensurate with my responsibilities as well as desire for growth?
3.   Am I recognized for my accomplishments?
4.   Do I get credit for my work?
5.   Do I feel valued?
6.   Am I receiving constructive feedback that enables me to grow in my role, and praise in equal if not greater amounts?
7.   Is there a formal review process that provides clear direction for growth and advancement?

If these essentials are not in place, then ask for them.  Sometimes leaders become immersed in their own roles and lose sight of these essentials, especially if the company does not have strong policies and processes in place.

If you ask for these essentials and the answer is, “no,” or if you’re told “yes” and there is no follow through, then be honest with yourself about your options, what’s important to you, and where you want to give your time, talent and loyalty.

AM: Why is leadership important to creative professionals?  Many would argue that it's all about talent.  How can firms better train their leadership at all levels?
LP: Leadership is so much more than titles, levels and how we define our roles.  It’s about how we live our lives.  True leaders recognize and reward leadership qualities in people regardless of where they sit in the organization.  True leaders also have a strong, compelling vision that fosters growth.
For companies to thrive over time there must be a continuous effort to recognize, encourage and reward leadership attributes in their people.  Doing so leads not only to financial growth, but to personal growth, which furthers loyalty and productivity and fuels the cycle of opportunity!
Ultimately, we need to design our firm structure as carefully as we would any project.  We need to implement good integrated team strategies and value the input from staff at all levels.  Just as clear vision in a project process helps clients to get on board with an idea early on and embrace its power to transform the way they use space, so must we cultivate a leadership process that empowers everyone to make a difference as well as to clearly see whether they are in the right culture to advance their particular career goals.  Please share your thoughts and experiences either with leadership or as a leader.


  1. Insightful list of questions and summary on leadership.

  2. Thanks Katie,
    Please post updates on how well any of these work for you!

  3. I like Lisa's answer to your last question. I agree that great leadership has to be part of who you are. You have to truly believe in the competence of those you are leading and help them believe it, too. That, along with being able to read people's strengths and place them in the team accordingly, will allow you to harness the full potential of your team.

  4. Joseph,
    I think you hit on the biggest challenge of leadership in my opinion, especially in a creative profession, where personal identity gets wrapped up in the brand. Being able to let go and trust is essential.

  5. Your beginning statements about how an architect's creativity and intuition can lead them to believe they had more skills than they actually do is a plight of all artists. If you're in a creative field, you're bound to think that you can do anything creative, even if you haven't done it a lot before! It was nice to read an article about leadership in a creative field of work, since that is the sort of field I would like to get into eventually.

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