What leaders can learn from architects

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Leaders on leadership

Phillip Graham

13 June 2018

Philip Graham, from the award-winning architect firm Cullinan Studio, reflects on what leaders can learn from architects – and the joys (and challenges) of their cooperative model.

Recently, I hosted a Quest visit from a group of senior managers from a pharmaceutical company. It was a fascinating discussion and it got me thinking about how my experiences as an architect might apply to the challenges that leaders in other kinds of business face.

Listen to what people really need

Many people think architecture is all about statement and shape-making, but it’s really about people – and how they use spaces. In a good consultation process, you help people discover something important about the way they live or work that they hadn’t appreciated before.

Take the new office environment we designed for Global Witness. As investigative reporters exposing corruption, human rights and environmental abuses, they place a big emphasis on privacy, to protect the identity of their brave sources.

As we talked, we realised that a preoccupation with secrecy could get in the way of collaboration and transparency between their journalists, so we designed a space that allowed privacy when necessary, but included open working spaces, to encourage conversations and information-sharing.

The same principle applies to any design challenge. The more time you take to listen to people – whether they're your employees or your customers – the more likely you are to come up with the right solution.

Focus on long-term value

Architects – like many businesses – are operating in a market that prioritises short-term value and minimising development risk. We’ve recently seen the terrible cost of this approach with the Grenfell Tower disaster and the collapse Carillion – where immediate financial considerations appear to have trumped safety and sustainability.

Ultimately, the only way to thrive is to create long-term value. At Cullinan’s, our employee-owned cooperative model puts us at an advantage in this respect. We had a good recession, because we could take pay cuts instead of making redundancies, and look for work abroad. It also meant that when the economy recovered we could jump on opportunities, as we had a full team, whereas other practices had to hire and train new people.

Give your team a sense of ownership

Our financial, business and management decisions have the input of our entire membership. This brings its own challenges. There’s a degree of compromise which means sometimes the hard decisions get avoided or delayed. And the fact that we collectively agree our salaries each year can be inflationary.

At the same time, our structure fosters a motivational ownership mindset. Everybody has as much of a say and a stake as anybody else, so we’re all prepared to work hard. If we have a good year, we all share the profits. Even more importantly, we can all shape the direction of the organisation and pursue projects that we believe in. This includes self-funded research on big social challenges, from low-tech construction strategies to empower Haitians to rebuild following the 2010 earthquake, to informing UK government thinking on promoting peace and coexistence through good urban planning.

Looking to the future: integrating commercial and social impact

Research work into alternative procurement models, patient finance, briefing methodologies, generous typologies and the potential of Building Information Modelling (BIM), gives our projects a real social relevance. Like our commitment to teaching, this research base keeps us engaged with the wider challenges facing the industry and brings commercial benefits, forging connections with companies and individuals who seek projects with purpose.

Much of our research is led by our members, whose personal endeavours grow dynamic expertise as well as links to research partners, partner practices or partner institutions. As a Practice we support these initiatives by using our central London base, our considerable network and our flexible working ethos to make our office into something of an impact hub for enterprise. In short, we want to be among the new wave of architectural practices whose projects combine social resilience with good buildings designed for a long life.

Cullinan Studio is an employee-owned architectural and masterplanning practice that makes beautiful, intelligent and sustainable buildings, spaces and places.