At DesignIntelligence, we frequently hear from firm leaders that talent management is their top challenge—specifically, attracting, hiring, training and retaining talent. So we sat down with Kathleen John of Meyer, Borgman, Johnson; Bill Karanian of SLAM Collaborative; and Cheryl Kitchner of HKS to talk about talent: trends, development, acquisition and how firms can be forward thinking to hire the best of the best.

DesignIntelligence: Sketch a picture of what’s happening in the talent environment.

Kathleen John: In our industry, developing talent centers generally around four areas: culture, opportunity, training and mentoring. If we’re going to hire top talent, they expect and require opportunity, growth and development. We have to be very intentional about devoting time and resources to providing those opportunities.

Bill Karanian: A trend that I’m seeing in schools are the number of studio projects that are collaborative in nature with a strong emphasis on teams. This is good to a point, as it is reflective of the collaborative multidisciplinary project teams assembled in firms, but the students also need to work independently to the extent that they can find their own voice and define their personal values as they develop as architects. Certainly, students are very well versed in technology, but it’s important for us to find those emerging professionals that are excellent communicators and those that are motivated and curious.

Cheryl Kitchner: An insatiable curiosity, a sense of business acumen, and a greater focus on the collaborative nature of design are all important factors that we are looking for. We are seeing students with great technological skills, but we also want them to be able to sketch and use those technological platforms to communicate their design. The desire to learn how to be an architect, that basic desire to see how things come together, is something we feel that we have to teach them, though.

DI: What do you think is the school’s responsibility and what is the firm’s responsibility to teach young professionals?

KJ: Students and young professionals today aren’t just quietly coming into a firm and waiting for someone to give them something to do. They want to contribute meaningfully. Of course, students need to know the basics, but curiosity, creativity, and being able to collaborate and communicate with clients and teams are important skills to have, and schools need to prepare them for this as well. Within the firm, we want to build and broaden their technical foundation. Beyond that, we want to be as engaged with them regarding their career path and development as with their technical performance. We work with them to explore and broaden their business skills in order to help them better understand the firm’s business as well as the client’s business. I would say that it’s a continuum, and that we build on the foundations and technical basics that schools have provided.

DI: How is Kathleen’s response the same as and different from what you’re experiencing at your firm?

CK: It may not be realistic for schools to teach things like time management, client interface and better presentation skills (i.e., presenting their work thoughtfully and compellingly). We want young people to be able to work through a design thinking process. It is up to us, though, to teach them how to understand construction. They’ll have that basic understanding, but we must teach them what that means when we’re designing, for example, a hotel or a stadium.

BK: We seek out motivated students but we also have a responsibility to inspire them. Students have an opportunity, when they’re just starting out, to be more impactful now more than ever. They’re interested in making a difference, so we’re challenged to continually question the type of environment that we are creating, one that will allow them to learn on their own as well as exposing them to a team environment that will informally provide mentoring and teaching experiences. And it’s important, in the sense of recruitment, to understand the kind of firm you are, to understand your culture and values, and then to recruit in a way that reinforces those things. You can help shape your firm’s culture and values by recruiting properly.

DI: How can firms create the right environment for growth and development?

CK: It starts with the recruiting phase. The first important step is to hire for fit because we can train for the skills we need. Our hiring model is “right out of college” as a key part of our hiring strategy, but it only accounts for about 25 percent of our annual hires. HKS recognizes the importance of hiring entry level talent and we have a strategy for doing that well. We have a robust campus recruiting program and onboarding program. HKS is a learning organization, and we allocate people learning hours every year. We have people who’ve been with us for 20-30 years and longer, and they are our subject matter experts who teach and share their wisdom with the young people.

KJ: We look for top-notch technical skills, but we also look for a well-rounded person who communicates well and is a fit for our culture. We are passionate about understanding and providing the right opportunities at the right times for each individual—technical and otherwise. In helping someone develop their career, we emphasize advancing their social, business and clientship skills, as well as the technical. Each individual on our staff has a professional mentor. It’s important that we have someone from leadership standing alongside each individual to assist them in shaping their career. We’re very careful when we make these pairings, and it is dynamic. We meet more frequently than the old mentoring paradigms, to keep these relationships engaged and on track. The dialogue is as likely about their career path as it is about their technical performance. Having that blend of focus ensures that no one gets lost in the shuffle. And in the event that someone’s path is taking them in another direction, we can be aware and support that as well.

BK: Knowledge sharing is an important and ongoing process for us. We don’t have it all figured out, but we recognize its significance and the positive impact it can have on our practice. Our objective is to make knowledge visible and observable, recognizing that this is a profoundly social experience. We are developing learning strategies, with the key starting point being to identify what needs to be shared. That sounds pretty basic but it is key to reinforcing success. We are creating an environment where we can all listen and observe in a manner that promotes ideas and innovation. We have also made concerted efforts to celebrate our successes, making them visible by reinforcing positive efforts or actions. This may be in the form of internal awards/recognition of either projects or individuals.

CK: I want to expand on Kathleen’s point about if someone’s path takes them in another direction. At HKS we help them pave the way; we don’t want to keep people in a box. We’ve spent the time recruiting, hiring, and developing the person, but creating that path for people to do different things is empowering. We’ve spent time and money recruiting top talent, and we want to keep them. When I think about mentorship, I also think about leadership. Our leaders have a lot to focus on and we expect them to model humanistic and encouraging behaviors. They are teaching our future leaders how to be empowering and inspirational leaders. At HKS our professional development program is a pairing model focused on employees’ skills, knowledge, abilities and goal setting, and this is where focused mentorship takes place. But it’s up to the employee to take charge of their career so we entrust them to set meetings for their professional development. It’s a trust model; lead by example and empower the employee to own their career.

DI: How do your firms learn from younger staff?

KJ: We have accessible leadership. They’re right in the mix, so we’re learning from each other on an ongoing basis. As leaders, we’re as likely to learn something from younger staff as they are to learn something from us. It is a fine line, but if we’re not too descriptive in how they get to a goal, watching where they take it and how they get there is so valuable … for everyone.

BK: For us it’s about having an openness to ideas and trying to create a culture that allows people to feel comfortable to share those ideas and ask questions. Within the profession there’s an opportunity to bring in new ideas from many different places. We are as a profession much more cross generationally dependent than ever and this has allowed younger staff to contribute in positive ways almost immediately.

CK: When we all graduated from architecture and design school, the path was pretty linear. You picked a discipline and went down a particular path. Today’s young people say, “What path?” They have creative ideas that range from the actual work to how to run programs in the office. Their whole approach to teaching us is completely different from how we teach them. The people who have been engaged in our reciprocal mentoring program have really enjoyed it.

DI: Do you find yourself competing for young talent with career options outside of professional practice?

BK: We’ve found that most of the students want to get involved in the profession and even get licensed as quickly as possible. But it seems to be the people that are within the profession for a period of time are now more attracted to those other options. One way to avoid that is to have more diverse career directions or options available internally so you don’t have to worry about them leaving your firm. Even small firms can find ways to selectively do that kind of thing.

KJ: In some cases, when someone expresses an interest in an area that we don’t currently offer, and we give them the freedom to develop in that area, it has become a way for some of those services to become something we offer later. They don’t necessarily have to go somewhere else.

DI: If there’s one thing you’d like design educators to know about what you’re experiencing in professional practice, what would it be?

BK: The key to a quality education is making stronger connections between the schools and the profession without feeling compelled to replicate the learning experiences and practice skills. Practices are changing and evolving so fast, and we’re constantly trying to find ways to stay relevant and future-focused.

CK: I think we all—both as practitioners and educators—need to recognize each other’s roles and to own our respective parts. To have the opportunity to have a fruitful conversation around the framework of design and education would be helpful.

KJ: Our industry is evolving. That connection between the schools and the firms needs to evolve as well. A successful career is as likely to involve communication and negotiation skills and business savvy as it is excellent technical expertise. Firms are interested in engaging with educators directly in a number of ways, which can support that connection and development. One example is that we have quite a number of staff engaged with universities, providing instruction in our field and in our clients’ fields. I think educators don’t always feel they can reach out and collaborate, but certainly all parties can benefit when they do.

Kathleen John is operations director, principal and member of the board of directors at Meyer, Borgman, Johnson.

Bill Karanian is principal and chief operating officer for SLAM Collaborative.

Cheryl Kitchner is VP and director of professional development at HKS Architects.

Photo by Jonathan Velasquez on Unsplash.

Excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly, 3Q 2017 issue.