Allowing Growth By Nurturing New Leaders Through Varied Approaches

You don’t create a leader in your firm simply by bestowing a title. HGA is nurturing new leaders through a variety of approaches that allow professionals to grow.

You don’t create a leader in your firm simply by bestowing a title. HGA is nurturing new leaders through a variety of approaches that allow professionals to grow.

Where are the future leaders of our firms? Planning for succession is a pressing industry-wide issue. Some firms view leadership development as a right reserved for experienced professionals who are progressing toward senior positions. But developing leaders requires more than offering token training then handing over a title.

Leadership is about influence. Firms need to offer opportunities that help identify the next generation of leaders and then help them grow.

At HGA, leadership development is built into the daily functions of our firm. We provide many opportunities for all staff at various scales, including task group, project, department, office, practice group, and firm-wide. Leadership can be exhibited by any person, regardless of their years of experience or formal position, as their personal influence is developed. HGA leaders embody a servant-leader philosophy established by our founders.

Founders’ Philosophy

HGA Chief Executive Officer Dan Avchen recently described thinking that reflects the leadership philosophy of our founders when he said, “Leaders must be able to listen and then lead, take appropriate risks, be open to and invite input, and be able to make tough decisions and build broad consensus.” Richard Hammel, Curtis Green, and Bruce Abrahamson set the context for today’s leadership development approach at HGA. They established a culture with a deep tradition of creating an open, transparent, and collaborative environment that fosters innovative design with an integrated full-service team approach.

Hammel was known for demonstrating a positive attitude, being supportive and a consensus builder, listening to the opinions and ideas of others, and taking risks by supporting change and growth. These leadership values are perpetuated, in part, by HGA’s Hammel Award given each April in his honor as part of employee appreciation month. Winners of the award are selected by their peers based on their embodiment of Hammel’s leadership values.

Leadership development is a fundamental core value and philosophy that can be consistently experienced in our culture. The various strategies, plans, programs, and initiatives we use are an extension of the culture.

Bringing Up Leaders

HGA’s goal is to understand the cultural and business needs of our clients and to help them realize their organization’s vision and potential through responsive, innovative, and sustainable design. Accomplishing our vision and goals requires every person to be a leader in their circles of association. We encourage all staff to step forward, speak up, and take the lead where they see a need. Every person at the firm contributes value to clients. The organization is focused on providing clients an exceptional experience when working with us; likewise, we desire that staff have an exceptional experience working together. That requires every person to exhibit leadership qualities to fuel the innovation that is highly valued by both staff and clients. HGA is about people sharing these common values as we work together.

Allison Wallace is part of the firm-wide group of sustainability leaders and is finding leadership opportunity in sustainable design.  “My passion for sustainability has resulted in me leading a variety of initiatives with both internal and external clients,” she said.  “Sustainability touches everything we do and it gives me an opportunity to add my perspective and experience to all aspects of our projects, our firm and our community.”

Project leadership occurs organically within our daily work. We place power in the hands of teams, and we focus on results rather than overly prescriptive processes. Projects are planned and controlled through a distribution of responsibility and are coordinated at meetings (called integration events) where all relevant parties are at the table and have the ability to influence actions and outcomes. Team members are empowered to create their own roadmap to key milestones. Team organization is aligned with building component systems, which provides additional leadership opportunities at the project scale. Leadership skills developed in this setting include clearly articulating ideas, concise speaking, perceiving others’ needs, working in a group, developing an expertise, taking a risk, and speaking up.

Collaboration takes many forms and occurs on many different scales. Designer HGA Satoshi Teshima enjoys being a new member of the firm-wide design council. He said: “I have the opportunity to openly interact with very experienced designers firm-wide, and my perspectives are welcomed. As a younger member, I benefit from the exposure and from using the council as a sounding board to discuss different design ideas and innovations. It is a unique platform with huge merit where well established designers and someone with less experience but with a new perspective can learn from each other.” This demonstrates the synergy between the project scale and the firm-wide scale. A balance of firm-wide processes and individual creativity enables dynamic and relevant solutions.

Leadership Development

Coaching is a part of everything we do for all positions and all job functions. Senior leaders are available and seated in the open, where there is visual and physical access. The reporting structure is flattened so that most staff are one reporting level from the chief operating officer. The firm offers many options for leadership experiences and development.

“We encourage an entrepreneurial spirit, which creates an environment where people have opportunities to take initiative,” says Director of Human Resources Sandy Parsley. “It’s an excellent way to develop tomorrow’s leaders. This is one of our keys to success.”

Development opportunities include:

  • HGA University offers sessions by internal staff at a variety of levels. Topic experts present within each department or to an entire office. On occasion, firm-wide sessions are also hosted. Any person may be asked to present and may be paired with a presentation partner as mentor, if needed. Attendees are exposed to a variety of technical and professional development topics, including outside presenters on special topics such as leadership.
  • Toastmasters is one of several groups sponsored by HGA to extend improvement in skills related to speaking, presentations, and influence. Participation also provides additional leadership opportunity.
  • Professional credentials fees and exam costs are underwritten as part of our development program. Education and training for these are provided internally. This offers career and leadership opportunities to the credential seeker as well as those who are providing support.
  • Career path guides provides information to all staff so they can understand what’s needed for various positions. Job titles and positions are not rigid but are general guides. Advancement is often the result of staff exceeding the traditional boundaries of their job and taking initiative to do something more. Our culture fosters flexibility and allows for people to develop skills and a venue to apply them. Someone may be a senior team leader on one project and then work in a supporting role on a different project.
  • Annual reviews include the important element of performance assessment; however, the main focus is career and leadership development. Those who conduct reviews are coached each year by an outside consultant who specializes in human resources. Informal mid-year discussions take place as a way to encourage progress on goals. Goal-setting includes both one-year and long-range goals to encourage thinking about overall career and leadership development. The reviews include subjective self-ranking and supervisor ranking on a menu of skills including leadership. Another area of the review includes recognizing people who have been helpful and provided mentoring. This encourages informal mentoring and a culture of helping one another.
  • Discipline councils enable firm-wide sharing of expertise and best practices among HGA’s seven offices. These groups have expanded leadership opportunities to include the chair of each council and the office representative of each council. The members of each discipline (architects, specialty design professionals, and engineers) also know where to go to discuss needs so they can take initiative when they see a need. About 50 additional people have a firm-wide voice and a venue to influence what the firm does about how we do our work. Every year, these councils establish short- and long-terms goals. They also participate in strategic plan development and implementation plans and reporting to the board of directors.

Interior Architecture Council leader Kay Seno said: “It’s been a great opportunity to be exposed to a firm-wide context with all the other councils to see what the issues are. I can then align our goals to contribute more value. I am extending the same opportunity to the members of our council by forming committees. This will give opportunities for exposure firm-wide in an area of interest. Each group will put together their goals, benchmarks, and presentation dates. The people that are doing the work on the boards are the leaders of tomorrow, and they are ready to contribute value today. HGA is a place where I can take initiative to step into an area I can contribute value, have influence on the firm, and give opportunities to others.”

  • Task groups and initiative leaders are organized for various initiatives. This gives opportunities to many more people. Usually, an experienced person is provided as a key contact and offers coaching and mentoring.

“The design and construction industry is changing rapidly to embrace new technologies. New roles are emerging, creating new opportunities for people to take the lead,” said Jonathan Bartling, BIM leader. “Being the firm-wide BIM leader has been a tremendous experience and allowed me great influence as a young leader. Every day I have the opportunity to work with a great team of people around the firm to implement new ideas. I train interns as well as meet with senior principals. This exposure has made me a trusted advisor within our firm. I have learned a lot very quickly. My ideas have been listened to, and I have implemented many initiatives.”

  • Practice group retreats represent our major client groups. These four groups meet frequently throughout the year and annually to plan the work and develop strategies for the future direction of the firm. These leaders work with practice group leaders in each office.
  • External resources and programs are used for leadership development. We have found it effective to hire a specialist to work with an internal task team to customize a program for our culture. People are generally eager to participate in the leadership development activities. Topics addressed through outside programs have included increasing influence and aligning individual passions and skills, client service, communications, resolving conflicts, understanding different generations, and business acumen and awareness.

In addition, HGA offers a mentoring program and a newly created Enterprise Leadership Program.


Mentoring is embedded in everyday work. It is integrated into our profession, and it’s expected that team members will be approachable by less experienced staff members who need help or coaching. This help may include such diverse issues as how to draw a certain detail, how to influence an outcome within the team, dealing with a client issue, or handling a challenging construction problem. People at all levels are given opportunities to develop expertise in their discipline’s hard skills as well as the so-called “soft skills” that are often associated with leadership. Both are important.

Formal mentoring programs are an important supplement to informal mentoring to help people increase their exposure within the organization, seek solutions to work-related problems, learn the company’s culture, assess and improve skills, and identify interests and long-range goals. It is also an important part of facilitating leadership transition and succession, enhancing communication between levels, boosting employee morale, and aiding in retention of employees.

Mentors and their counterparts meet formally one hour per month. The firm reimburses approved costs for the session, and time is billed to department overhead. The mentoring program is designed to:

  • Align people with compatible mentors.
  • Develop leadership skills for both participants.
  • Develop future mentors.
  • Reinforce collaboration skills.
  • Develop and enhance client service skills.
  • Understand the attitudes, behaviors, and quality components to be a successful professional at HGA.

Electrical engineer and mentor Joe Wetternach said, “I gained valuable insights about how others view their job. I developed my own skills in helping others to define their goals. I became more aware of individuals’ needs, and I looked for opportunities that matched their skills and expectations.”

Enterprise Leadership Program

The enterprise leadership program is an accelerated process for the identification and growth of potential firm-wide leaders. It is a customized, business-based program developed specifically to fit our culture.

The goal of the Enterprise Leadership Program is to offer selected associate vice presidents and newly appointed vice presidents the opportunity to experience real-life HGA leadership issues and broaden their knowledge of the firm’s organizational and business challenges. The experience is based on case studies, real projects, and teaming with senior leaders, and it includes an element of intensity simulating live leadership situations. This program features active and personal involvement of HGA board members, the COO, and the CEO. Besides the investment of time by senior officers, a substantial commitment of the firm’s financial resources also has been made to initiate this program and make it meaningful.

Those who qualify are accomplished HGA design professionals (shareholders) with the potential and the desire to become firm-wide leaders in the next five to 10 years. Selection is based on individual written applications, written recommendations from two vice presidents, and a commitment to 100 percent attendance and participation in the program.

Clare Tande, chief legal counsel and co-leader of the program, explained, “We wanted to create something uniquely HGA that had a rigor and intensity similar to an M.B.A. program but adapted to a professional service organization and specifically to HGA. This is a comprehensive program with a diverse group that represents a cross-section of the firm. They deal with real-world situations that are filled with ambiguity and complexity. It elevates the thinking beyond the daily project experience and broadens the vision of each participant.”

Another co-leader of the enterprise leadership program is Chief Financial Officer Kent Mainquist. “The Enterprise Leadership sessions have generated lively discussions and exposed people to the complexities of a large organization,” he said. “Participants have developed decision-making courage, which is a core competency needed in HGA leaders.”

Components of the program include:

  • Monthly meetings
  • Business case studies
  • Substantial reading
  • Outside presenters and discussion leaders
  • Critique presentations and written executive summarieS
  • Individual feedback sessions

Topics include:

  • Future of the design professional
  • Leading in a professional service firm
  • Strategic positioning
  • How to sell design
  • Financial management
  • Risk management and ethics
  • Human resources/personnel management
  • Organizational politics
  • Managing the professional service firm

“This has been an invaluable experience that has provided me with a fantastic forum to interact and learn from both my fellow peers as well as senior leadership in the organization. It has helped me be a more effective leader. I am always eager to take the lessons learned and the great ideas from the program back to my team and use them on a daily basis,” said program participant Mark Tiscornia.

Nancy Blankfard is enthusiastic about her experience: “This program is unique because it fills a need that is not addressed by all the other good things built into the day-to-day workings of the firm. It gives me a vision of firm-wide issues rather than just the project level, where I work most of the time. It gives me a strong cohort group, from across offices and disciplines, to consult with when dealing with difficult and ambiguous issues. This valuable experience is needed to learn to lead a large and growing firm.”

Leadership Now

Leadership has multiple meanings. At HGA, leadership means listening, decision-making, influencing, risk taking, facilitating change, graciousness, and helping others to be successful. Developing future leaders starts with educating the next generation and spans all experience levels and scales of influence. Leadership development must offer every person at every level growth opportunities and a way to stretch. Developing people capable of innovating and shaping the future vision for the firm requires more than a mere program or set of classes. There are some basic tenets about leadership that are common to all people and organizations, but there are many things that are unique to individual firms.

Rather than using generic programs isolated to only a few people, a more successful approach is comprehensive and customized. A solid leadership development program includes something for everyone and involves a substantial commitment by the organization, its senior leaders, and those who represent the future.

Patrick Thibaudeau is a vice president at HGA Architects and Engineers, leading the firm’s sustainable design practice and providing expertise on sustainable projects around the country. He is a frequent speaker and author on sustainable design and was a member of the first American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment during its formation in the early 1990s. Thibaudeau is a LEED accredited professional BD&C.