Investing in staff’s continuing professional development benefits everyone. And it’s more important than ever in a time of tight budgets.

In this challenging economy, it might be tempting for companies of all kinds to place a lower priority on professional development opportunities for staff. The thinking is understandable: With an eye on the bottom line, programs that are perceived as non-essential to business can easily be tossed into the wait-until-we-have-the-budget pile.

In a creative industry like architecture, however, this mindset can have a particularly detrimental effect. We hire people not only for their demonstrated aptitudes and skills but also for the energy and exploratory thinking that results in great projects, and these traits require a working environment that fosters such creativity. Programs that provoke new approaches, deepen experience, and promote healthy competition are essential to keeping staff motivated and doing their best work. In the case of career-long learning, what’s good for the employee really is good for the firm.

Opportunities to Excel

At HMC Architects, we’ve instituted a wide range of programs designed to put emerging and future leaders on the path to success, recognizing that the firm’s vitality is based on keeping employees curious, creative, and engaged. As a baseline, architectural licensure is promoted and rewarded; continuing education is encouraged. (One example of this manifests: An HMC employee created an Architect Registration Exam board game for use during firm-sponsored study sessions.) Pasqual Gutierrez, HMC director of architecture, personally reviews interns’ submissions to be certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. Costs associated with taking the exams are reimbursed. Newly licensed architects receive a cash award from HMC, and their achievement is announced and celebrated upon licensure and again in the CEO’s annual address.

HMC has developed professional development program software to assist experienced architects and designers in interacting with and educating the next generation of architects both inside the firm and within the community. Lunchtime brown bag and firm-wide webinar training brings industry leaders together with students, staff, and industry colleagues. These sessions explore AIA-accredited topics and industry issues. With 13 HMC employees currently serving as educators at various colleges and universities, the firm remains fully connected to emerging ideas and plays a pivotal role in disseminating these ideas while also reaching out to new talent.

Perhaps most significant, HMC has developed a variety of mentorship initiatives that allow employees at all levels to develop practical and managerial skills and to hone their talents as designers, project managers, and thought leaders. These include a travel fellowship, the Intern Development Program and an associated forum, the nonprofit Designing Futures Foundation, and the annual President’s Awards.

Our travel fellowship, [X]ref, is perhaps the most distinct of these initiatives. The program was created to enable employees to gain greater exposure to outside influences, new ideas, and historic precedents. Each year, employees submit proposals for a travel experience intended to enrich their professional and personal perspective. Two winners, selected by a client jury, receive a week’s paid time off and $4,000 to realize their dream adventure anywhere in the world with the condition that they share their experiences once the trip is completed. Past winners have invested in intensive training sessions with stonemasons, learning one of the oldest crafts related to the design and construction of lasting buildings and cities. Another undertook a bike trip through Denmark, photographing and documenting notable architectural responses to the country’s history, climatic challenges, and societal and economic shifts. Director of Architecture Gutierrez notes, “The [X]ref fellowship is really a mechanism for opening up staff’s design perspective and interaction with different communities as well as encouraging them to bring that enthusiasm and those new perspectives back to their colleagues and clients.”

The process itself adds to the suspense and the rivalry of ideas. Each fall, entrants begin by brainstorming and crafting their proposals. Led by Sacramento-based Associate Principal Arturo Levenfeld, a committee of volunteers from HMC offices nominates jurors drawn from a pool of key existing and potential clients and consultants. Jurors’ interest in travel and adventure is considered, as is their awareness of the potential benefits to the winners (and their future clients) afforded by the opportunity. Levenfeld has seen that it is not difficult to get prospective jurors invested in the process. “They become hooked immediately,” he says. “Ultimately, they want to be part of the fun.” Winners are announced the following spring and are expected to create a presentation that can be shared firm-wide about their experiences.

From an internal standpoint, the [X]ref program has multiple benefits. In its use of external jurors, it provides the opportunity for HMC to engage clients even when a particular project isn’t the focus. The behind-the-scenes view often deepens clients’ trust in the firm’s people and processes while allowing them to get to know the passions that drive individual staff members. “There is a real cross-pollination that happens with the [X]ref,” Levenfeld says. “Clients get to see what makes us tick and get more of a sense of why we’re the people who make their schools, hospitals, and offices better spaces for living.” Each year, a different HMC office hosts the selection process, surrounding participants with interesting work on the boards, the submissions being considered, and staff who are on hand for the event. Hearty refreshments are provided, elevating the collegial ambiance.

Significantly, HMC leadership maintains a distance and does not get involved in the judging process. While they serve by answering technical questions about the submissions or procedural guidelines, HMC staff are not part of the review or discussion of [X]ref entries. Once the two winners have been selected, the committee (the same individuals who assisted with initial brainstorming and selected the jurors) meets with jurors to hear the comments, impressions, and influences that resulted in the final award decisions.

Investing in Staff

Even as firms across the United States are cutting costs, HMC has maintained the [X]ref program. It is rightly regarded as a creative challenge and a competitive event as well as a professional distinction for the winners. But the firm also invests in other programs to keep employees excited about their work and refine their skills as collaborators, managers, and leaders.

The Emerging Leaders (EL) Forum provides a two-year experience for middle and upper management track staff to refine their corporate leadership skills. Even seasoned managers can benefit from the combination of inward and outward development offered by the forum: a focus on the inner workings of executive management that is paired with practical skills, such as the formal and informal sharing of information. This framework, which pairs emerging leaders with established mentors, facilitates discussion and learning, enhances communication and knowledge-sharing, and creates a continuously replenished base of candidates for transition as the firm continues to evolve.

“I have found the EL Forum to be a great way to plug into HMC’s executive-level leadership, where I can see the process involved in honing our vision and core values,” says James Krueger, a senior project designer and associate principal in HMC’s San Diego office. “This allows me to share these goals with my team and colleagues across the firm, so we’re speaking the same language.” Krueger also cites the program’s mentoring component as an important means to share ideas and cross-educate, bridging a variety of professional and personal backgrounds. “The fact that HMC has programs like this is a testament to the fact that they value their emerging leaders and are taking a broad view of the company’s success into the future,” he says.

This broad view looks both ways. In addition to fostering the leadership skills of up-and-comers within its ranks, HMC also reaches out to students and new practitioners with its Intern Development Program and forums. As Director of Architecture Gutierrez puts it, “Entering a large firm from school or without a management background, there is often a long waiting period before you are qualified for many crucial aspects of the architectural profession, such as construction administration.” To expedite the training period and expand prospective, new, and established but under-qualified employees’ experience, HMC’s IDP forums offer the opportunity to partner with senior members to study critical materials such as the Emerging Professional’s Companion booklet and carry out exercises on real-world projects. “Equivalent exercises — ones that are part of NCARB certification — can be completed over all phases of a project and sent in,” says Gutierrez. “It’s a very effective way to train people who might otherwise have to wait years for the kind of hands-on experience that is so necessary in our profession.” Recently, HMC contracted with the American Institute of Architects to document 1,000 of its professional workshops and to provide these in a Web-based format with relevant interactive quizzes, promoting continuing education credits for staff at any point on the spectrum of experience.

A corresponding and particularly noteworthy aspect of HMC’s outreach to new practitioners is its non-profit Designing Futures Foundation (DFF), established in 2008. With an initial endowment of $1.9 million, the DFF has followed its founding mission and granted numerous scholarships, sponsored research, funded design competitions, and participated in other philanthropic initiatives. Scholarships begin in high school and continue for up to an additional five years in college. In its first year alone, the Foundation granted scholarships to 29 students, effectively offsetting costs associated with college testing. DFF also awards scholarships to HMC employees and their families: In 2011, four employees and five children have received or will receive scholarships.

Giving back to the communities HMC serves has been a foundational aspect of the DFF. Since its founding, the DFF has facilitated commitments of more than $200,000 in funding and thousands of hours of staff time to support research efforts related to evidence-based design. Unique partnerships have arisen: Working with the University of California at San Diego’s 3-D virtual reality environment (the Calit2 StarCAVE), HMC staff and consulting researchers can study the direct effects of the built environment on users. This partnership has allowed HMC to better understand design concepts while they are in development rather than after construction.

Synergies and Benefits

The interconnectivity of HMC’s programs generates remarkable synergies. Recently, two EL Forum members engaged the DFF to create an initiative called HMC PlaceWorks, which commits a number of paid and volunteered staff hours to specified projects. This has two-way benefits: The community gets informed, engaged professionals who are committed to a project’s outcome, while staff who participate gain valuable real-life experience that they can apply to their IDP portfolios and overall professional development. HMC staff are supported in such efforts by HMC’s alternative 9/80 work schedule, which allows them to work nine-hour days with every other Friday free to use for volunteer work or personal time.

All of the programs and initiatives discussed above have both short- and long-term benefits for employees and for the firm. By expediting learning and training experiences and providing unique opportunities for mentorship, contemplation, and information-gathering, HMC is underwriting its future — a fact that it takes care to celebrate with the annual President’s Award. At the end of the year, employees firm-wide are invited, at all levels, to nominate peers who have contributed in some extraordinary way to the benefit of the firm to receive a President’s Award. These contributions surpass the standard scope of individuals’ jobs and often encompass raising the firm’s public profile, mentorship, implementing new ideas/processes, notable community involvement, or other above-and-beyond accomplishments. Employees are selected for their individual or team impact on the firm and are announced at the annual HMC Leadership Conference. As a reward, they receive a monetary amount to cover airfare, hotel accommodations, and spending cash, along with two extra days of paid time off.

With the benefit of more than 70 years of practice (and valuable hindsight), HMC views the investment in our employees as essential to our success. In leaner times, it is even more important to look beyond the challenges of the day and continue to cultivate the people who drive our business and our mission.

The collaborative efforts of HMC’s employees, with their dedicated commitment to clients, service to the profession, involvement with their communities, mentoring of future generations, and respect for one another, continue to make HMC a leader in the profession of architecture with focused purpose and a steadfast belief that design can change the world.

We also believe in the catalysis of ideas that happens when practitioners from the full spectrum of experience and background have the chance to connect and learn from one another or from a challenge presented by an experience, a client, a site, or a community’s needs. It may not be convenient. It may take months or years to show up on the bottom line, but it is the bedrock of a healthy design practice. As a slightly tweaked adage would have it, the future starts at home.

Randy Peterson is president and chief executive officer of HMC Architects. Throughout his career, he has worked with public and private institutions, leading the programming, planning, and design of major facilities throughout the western United States. He is a fellow if the American Institute of Architects and a LEED accredited professional.