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AIA Dallas 2021 Emerging Leaders Program: Firm Leadership | High Performing Teams

The fifth session of the 2021 ELP class started off with a recap of May’s class centered on the foundations of Architectural Advocacy both Local & Regional. Led by Pete DeLisle PhD, Hon TxA, the class this week is focused on Firm Leadership and High Performing Teams.

The June Leadership meeting began with a reflection on the debate raised in May’s session, otherwise referred to as “Juice v.s. Rinds”.  This prior exercise established a problem that would lead to an agreement or debate between two parties.  Most importantly the class learned that there are often multiple ways of evaluating a problem.  Sometimes there are different approaches to solutions which might be hidden upon initial review.  In terms of firm leadership, there are often different ways to handle a dispute or lack of productivity in the studio for example. 

The topic of productivity transitioned nicely into discussions for this class seeing as how the pandemic has given us the opportunity to evaluate “productivity”.  Pete DeLisle began his class with a series of questions:  Is production evaluated by the number of hours you spend at your desk or simply the quality of work you are producing?  Does quality work ultimately get produced by a collection of individual efforts or is it more interdependent? These questions and more elaboration were reviewed in evaluating a “High Performing Team”.

To determine performance, Pete began initially to define team v.s. other associations one might have.  He elaborated by saying that we can belong to multiple teams not just one.  In addition, we overuse the notion of “Team” while more specifically there are groups, associations, and teams.  A “Group” was defined as a gathering of people for a common purpose, for example those in a movie theatre who are unassociated to each other.  An “Association” is a deliberate desire to be connected to other people, for example meeting in the lobby after the movie.  On the other hand a “Team” is an association to the next level.  Everyone has a role to play, for example someone says “let’s see this movie, and I will pick you up”.  With this notion there is a sense of interdependency, people have to be there to achieve the desired outcome.  Pete mentioned the Marching band metaphor - any one person can become the weak link at any time and bring down the entire fort.  The project team within an office should possess this interdependent quality to truly become a “High Performing Team”.

A team can be further explained through the traditional Japanese principal “Juah” pronounced hoo-wah. The essence of this principal is focused on “Oneness”.  The idea of oneness is not about independence but rather like mindedness, for example, Japanese baseball players all receiving the same salary as an ode to equality.  Everyone is viewed as equally effective and equally important.  Americans on the other hand, are always swinging for the fences, trying to outdo or differentiate themselves in a singular way.  Japanese culture has a sense of oneness which is the true idea behind mindfulness.

Team building is the first step to achieving a high performing group of associates.  A recommended approach to “Teams” would require looking not immediately at abilities and assigning tasks, but establishing relationships first.  Even further, this process would require a critical self-reflection and then relationship building with those who comprise the team.  Upon building trust and like mindedness, the high performing team goes into the task knowing they can rely upon each other since the relationship is already there.

The group exercise for this class known as “Lost at Sea” identified some qualities that team participation can yield.  Given the scenario of being stranded on a small boat at sea, while given a few items for survival such as a fishing kit, maps, or mosquito netting – small groups were asked to rank these items in terms of rationalized importance.  Each team came up with a different order of ranking and rational of course.  The takeaway was that group consensus is better than the individual.  By considering the logic of other members, our team was able to formulate an overall better solution to the task at hand.  This process of discussion and agreement indicated that successful teams should be able to provide feedback.  In opposition, “Teams” will disintegrate when individuals compartmentalize.

Our June panelists included young entrepreneurs who have either built their own firm and / or have a thriving team mentality by methodical approaches to business.  The panel included four guests each of whom have very unique qualities and aspirations within their career paths:

Josh Kunkel – His firm METHOD focuses on empowerment by creating a family of people.  Employees participate in weekly / daily temperature check-ins.  Josh explained that being there for employees on professional & personal topics goes a long way.  He values communication as the most important tool especially with flexible hours.  He typically does five rounds of interviews for new employees and tries to identify core values.  Josh brought up a good point that you can actually choose your clients and not every pursuit is the right fit.  He also recommended the book “Designing Your Life” to explore alternate pathways alongside your prescribed journey.

Leah Bayer – Started her firm OJK Architecture & Planning o­­riginally as 100% virtual and 100% women employees.  This was done prior to the pandemic and was proven successful even though many team members have not even met.  Leah explained that to be a successful communicator - the “way” in which a message is communicated is as important as the message being delivered.  When looking for new hires, she asks the question “What is the special sauce?” that this person can add to the team.  Leah’s take on Work-Life balance is not really about two parts, it’s all considered “Life”.  She believes we need to look human and be human, and in this process we realized how “human” we really are.

Mandy Freeland – Her firm Mandy Freeland, Architect is a woman owned company.  In addition to architecture and construction, Mandy has a strong communications and marketing background that she utilizes in her business approach.  To clarify, she is a one person firm.  Her ethos is to be an architecture firm that teams with the contractor with the goal of never being in opposition.  Mandy explained, her approach is to communicate intimately with the contractor and get feedback on their process.  She believes in the collaboration of solo architects and embracing an environment of shared work to keep business going.

Evelyn Lee – She is a “Design Strategist” and very well known for her Practice Disrupted podcast.  Evelyn is currently an “Experience Designer” at Slack.  Prior to her position at Slack she acted as a workplace consultant.  With a degree from SciArc and a background in architecture, Evelyn’s current objectives entail working in partnership and bringing together real estate, facilities, operations, people ops, technology, marketing, and more.  When it comes to running her team, she is very cautious about treating those who work remote vs. those who work in the office with equal respect and opportunity.  Evelyn likes to evaluate the future of work, instead of idling with current technology or methodologies, thereby keeping employees engaged.  For example, “how to disrupt the typical weekly meeting workflow?”.  Can the efficiency of status updates to be more organic and less structured, yielding higher productivity?  Evelyn emphasizes “Brainwriting” over “Brainstorming”.  She believes in setting up a strategy to vet someone in the interview process – in order to gain trust.