Facilitate leadership development in your firm to keep your best employees engaged and to maintain a continuous source of leaders.

Identifying the next generation of leaders is crucial for any design firm. However, good talent is often hard to find and sometimes even harder to keep. The good news is that the search for new leadership doesn’t have to be difficult because it usually ends right in your own backyard.

The key to growing your own leaders is getting employees engaged in career development planning so they can see the leadership possibilities that exist in the firm. To accomplish this, it’s important to start with a thorough leadership development and succession plan, which is what we did at Kasian with the help our talented human resources team. Here’s how we did it.

Career Development

Talented employees need to understand the long-term career development opportunities where they work. Without a clearly articulated path, there is a risk that they will become bored, meaning they will begin looking for opportunities and challenges outside the firm. We see this happen a lot in the design industry simply because designers are innovative thinkers who want to be empowered to keep doing bigger and better things.

In any organization, there are usually people with untapped potential and those with the capability to become exceptional leaders. These are the people with talent who make a difference. They are very good at their job and master new skills quickly, which can sometimes be their downfall because instead of mastering a certain skill and moving onto something new, they will often be allocated the same task again and again and again. While this cycle may work initially, eventually talented employees want to move on and learn new things, and the assignment of repetitive work is no longer fulfilling.

This is understandable. Employees should be given the chance to try something new and broaden their experience; however, this can often create a challenge for organizations in that they are no longer able to use their best resources for the job because if they assign that same task again, the employee’s motivation will quickly erode. Project diversity is incredibly important in our industry. It builds employee expertise, challenges high performers, and expands the capacity of the entire firm.

To ensure we weren’t assigning employees repetitive jobs, we went through a talent review process to investigate the role description and project work load of each employee. We wanted to know what roles each employee was best suited to occupy and also how we could create long-term retention plans for all employees aligned with their career goals and the opportunities within the firm. It is important for our employees to identify what drives them, and we want to empower them to take charge of their future within the firm so that they feel good about their career path and ultimately more engaged and fulfilled in their work.

We’ve seen this type of talent review process in other industries and believe that it will translate well into our firm. Without prior knowledge of employee goals, it is difficult for managers to orchestrate project alignment with employee growth. Career planning helps guide employees through a process of self-reflection by ensuring their personal career strategy is aligned with their job aspirations, life plans, and the direction of the firm. This helps managers match employee goals with appropriate projects and creates a win-win situation for everyone by motivating and stimulating employees to achieve their work objectives while also benefiting our firm by increasing employee retention.


To further support our employees in the career planning process, we have structured Kasian into a team-based model that streamlines everything from how we market our practice areas to the way we globally share our work. Our team structure matches projects to teams rather than people to projects and was designed to improve our effectiveness and ability to handle multiple projects of various sizes.

Each office has multiple teams that handle varying building types, and everyone in the firm has a “home team.” Within this team, all employees are supported by mentorship and work together to develop synergies and partnerships that will further the team’s success. Teams in each office are established to make sure that experience and expertise are well distributed and that knowledge sharing happens daily. Our teams are equal in strength and experience although unique in personality and dynamics thanks to a diverse range of leadership expertise that comes from team leaders. By breaking down our offices into these smaller groups, employees are able to learn and share with each other and never feel lost. Each team has a balance of employee expertise within it, and employees are assigned projects that support their professional development goals.

Leadership Development and Succession Planning

When it comes to leadership, everyone needs to be on the same page. With a range of leadership expertise in the firm, we realized that our team could use some help in continually evolving and improving. Both younger, up-and-coming leaders and more experienced, senior leaders need guidance and support when it comes to development. We want our leadership team to deliver a united front through consistent behaviors with clients, employees, and in the community. To create this consistency and help strengthen our leadership team, we created a leadership development program to encourage and support leaders to improve continually.

To kick things off, we completed a review of the leadership skills of our principals using a 360-degree feedback process that focused on the internal perception of leaders’ people skills. The 360 feedback process operates through employee assessment and is followed by a series of skill-building sessions that address leadership gaps with each participant. From here, participants are coached on how they can develop and improve their leadership skills. This initiative was launched in the fall of 2008 with our principals, and we are currently working with our associates and senior associates to identify their leadership abilities. By the end of next year, our goal is to have all senior-level architects, interior designers, technologists, and projects managers go through this process.

We have found that including senior-level employees in the feedback process further improves consistency and helps employees understand the behaviors that are expected of our leadership team. With so many leaders at various levels of experience and expertise, it is critical for them to receive this type of feedback so they are continually improving their skills and thus their overall contribution to the firm. We want to ensure that all leaders, no matter the level, exhibit the same quality of leadership skills so that each office is fully supported by the local team. Showing the importance of leadership in the firm allows the next generation of leaders to understand the value and the role they can play in the firm.

As a key component to our recruiting strategy and an important driver for high-potential employees, we have developed a sound succession planning process. Communicating this throughout the firm has created awareness about future leadership possibilities, which should help us build a robust pipeline of talent that will position Kasian’s next generation of leaders for success. We need to position the right people now so that when the day comes, they will be capable of stepping into senior leadership roles and comfortable supporting the firm’s growth and development.

We believe that new leaders inject fresh perspective into the firm and help us keep ahead of industry changes and trends. By identifying young leaders early in their careers and showing them a clear career development path, they can be mentored into the next generation of leadership.

HR Trends and Strategies

In order to engage and retain great people continually, it is of the utmost importance for human resources programs to be at the highest possible level. Kasian’s HR strategy supports employees through the delivery of best practices in everything we do, including recruitment, compensation, work/life balance, benefits, training and development, and proactive employment policies. We are also dedicated to the creation of transparent and thorough internal communication planning to support these services.

Our recruitment strategy is structured to guarantee that all new employees have the best experience possible as soon as they join the firm. From the moment they apply for the job and begin their first day at Kasian, we want employees to feel engaged, inspired, and part of something unique. We recently renovated our career Web site and implemented a quick and easy application process for current vacancies. This process makes use of a new e-recruiting software tool that allows us to respond to every applicant and retain their information for future openings. Search features include a tool that allows us to find candidates with specific skill sets and create process plans that help keep track of specific candidates. This software enables hiring managers to get directly involved in recruiting, which streamlines the process and gives them access to current opportunities and short-listed candidates. Overall, this new program has given Kasian a more organized and detailed way of selecting new talent, helped us reduce hiring time, and made the recruitment process a more effective, efficient, and enjoyable experience.

However, sometimes external recruiting techniques aren’t enough, and so we created a cash incentive, internal referral program to help identify and recruit candidates through our existing network of employees. After all, our employees are our best salespeople. They understand our culture, can brag about our exciting projects, and know the quality of experience we are looking for. We’ve had some our best talent come from the internal referral program and highly recommend it as a successful recruiting strategy.


To set Kasian apart, we are continually bringing our people practices to new levels of success. In 2008, we created a compensation framework that defined roles and responsibilities and the differences that exist between each of them. We also created competitive salary bands to ensure that all employees are being fairly rewarded for their talent. This framework allows us to conduct a complete analysis of our talent pool each time the market changes and also assists us in creating clarity for employees surrounding their performance and resulting compensation.

In alignment with this compensation model, we have implemented a new performance management process that ensures all employees have a performance mentor and a go-to manager to facilitate a series of performance review meetings with them throughout the year. This process enables employees to address any pressing needs on a continual basis and helps clarify the expectations and requirements of their role while also regularly celebrating their achievements and successes.

By supporting the next generation of leaders and evolving current leadership team, it is possible to create firm-wide career development and ultimately improve leadership potential. The key to making this happen is purely having the will to succeed. Getting everyone on board and committing to the future of the firm will pay dividends in the years and possibly decades to come.


Don KasianDon Kasian is president and founder of Kasian Architecture Interior Design and Planning Ltd., one of Canada’s largest fully integrated architecture and interior design firms, providing design solutions for education, recreational, public and health care facilities, transportation infrastructure, corporate offices, and hospitality and retail environments. The firm has nearly 400 team members across eight offices in Canada, Asia, India, and the Middle East. In addition to leading the firm’s management team, Don Kasian makes a major contribution to the visioning and conceptual design of its projects. He is a member of the Design Futures Council Executive Board and a Senior Fellow of the DFC.