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2015 AIA Leadership Institute

Posted by: 
Andrew Queenan, AIAGR Secretary
Monday, November 30, 2015

"We are in the Leadership business, and Design is our Medium." This is a profoundly important statement to what we, as architects, try to do in our professional lives. On October 23rd, I had the honor of attending the AIA 2015 Leadership Institute, a program that has existed in different formats for a number of years but has recently been rejuvenated under the guidance of Helene Combs Dreiling. The event was hosted locally by AIA Cleveland, which included some great speakers that explained their path to leadership. The main national event was broadcast from Washington D.C. to satellite locations across the country.

As I participated in the event throughout the day, I could not help but reflect on the importance of our profession to society, but also the AIA's importance to the profession. As leaders from across the country shared their experiences and advice, I came to understand a few key points:

It takes a Village to Raise a Leader. While it is said that the field of architecture is an old man's profession, I think it is important to recognize that millennials represent a key demographic in all industries in the next decade. It is vital to our success as architects that we not only embrace and develop these future leaders, but understand their thought processes and expectations. Millennials are eager to learn from the people that have come before us. They look for opportunities to challenge the status quo, not out of a feeling of maliciousness, but out of a passion for understanding. We can all benefit by the experiences of collaboration between young and old that can and should exist within all of our studios. Michael Schuster and Jack Bialosky both spoke at length for the importance of multi-generational leadership.  They shared examples of how, within their own firms, they have created a culture of empowerment and mentorship to develop the next generation. A key example they shared are Design Fridays. Every two weeks, two different members of their staff are selected to give a presentation on something they are passionate about. It may be projects they are working on, or it could be entirely unrelated to their work, but the importance was that they get young and old alike comfortable with speaking in front of groups and having the confidence to share their ideas. A key caveat they shared for the young professionals though, was to be patient. Millennials are at times labeled as impatient and quick to change paths if they are not satisfied. Michael and Jack ask the question, "Is it better to have 10 years of experience 1 time, or is it better to have 1 year of experience 10 times?"

Those thoughts play well into the idea of mentorship. Mentorship is not about cult of personality. It is about sharing knowledge. In my own career, I have been fortunate to have mentors who shared their approach to mentorship with the following analogy: "I don’t want you to drown, I want to help keep your nose just above the water. If you start to sink, I will help pull you up, but it is up to you to swim." This was highlighted by multiple speakers throughout the day. We can all agree, that architects at time have egos. When it comes to developing peoples' skills though, it is important to look at the larger picture and not just look at sharing our opinion and philosophy as gospel. Our own membership has a diversity of young and old, and if we can make connections between people at different stages of their careers, we can further enhance our role as architects in society.

One of the last presentations in Cleveland was a panel made up of leaders from peripheral areas of architectural practice. Two Deans of Colleges, one of business and one of architecture, a state senator who trained as an architect, and a senior practitioner from Cleveland shared their experiences of leadership and how training as an architect enhanced their careers. It was interesting to hear about alternative paths to leadership that we, as architects, are prepared for. Senator Christopher Widener, FAIA, summed his thoughts with the following comment, "Leadership is about facilitating the best outcome for the greatest number of people." I believe we, as architects, seek to do this with the built environment. In the realm of politics, whether you agree with a person's opinion or not, this is what drives many of those in local, state, and federal roles across the country.  Past AIA President Mickey Jacob, FAIA, laid down the challenge for more architects to get involved in public service. Architects tend to be generalists and care greatly for the future of humanity. We possess great leadership skills, and by getting involved in government service, we can further share and enhance our position in society. Robert P. Madison shared his thoughts with the comment, "We are an example. We have to know better and do better! Our goal should be to leave things better than they were!"

As I drove home from Cleveland, I reflected a lot on the day and the importance of leadership in architecture. I believe that architects are natural leaders and offer valuable insight and leadership to society at large. We have lost some standing in our prior roles as owners' representative, but I think as we continue throughout the 21st century, we should utilize our collaboration skills that have been developed throughout studio-based education practices to reposition ourselves back into a role befitting our training and affirm our importance to society at large. I also believe that the AIA has an important role to play in developing the next generation of leadership within our own profession. I am sure many of us have been asked, "Why should I join AIA?" by other professionals in our offices. This program helped define what my answer would be to those who would ask. You get out what you put into the organization. As we have moved away from the recession, the profession at large is going to begin experiencing a gap in leadership and talent. AIA Grand Rapids, AIA Michigan, and AIA National are always looking for volunteers to participate and fill voids. I challenge all of you to share with our board ideas you have for programs to better serve you and get value out of your membership. Networking is a huge piece of being a part of this organization, but it can and should be used to enhance your own careers. If you look at our "Board of Directors" page on the website, you will see a number of positions that are opening up either in May 2016 or May 2017. Get Involved! If you have a passion for something that isn't listed, let us know and you may just become the next committee head for that passion.

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