Remarks to the Design Colloquium

"The Design Colloquium for Design-First Firms is a unique forum where leaders of exceptional firms in architecture, engineering, and related design disciplines gather in an intimate setting to exchange ideas and experiences with their peers. The program is hosted by Cameron MacAllister Group, who coined the term Design-First to refer to practices that have maintained a consistently high level of design quality, while not dependent on a black-cape superstar." This year's theme was Disruption: Game-Changing Design, designcolloquium.com

Below are my remarks delivered to the Design Colloquium in San Francisco on April  19, 2018.

I attended my first Design Colloquium in 2015, and one of the themes of the event that year was studio culture. I found myself moved by the kinds of collaborative and inclusive practices that many of you described, and to me it felt like a totally different workplace than the one I had left 20 years earlier when I had my children. This was in the 1990s, before words like “flexibility” and “work-life balance” had entered the lexicon, and for me, at that time, I felt like I had to pick a lane. In or out. So, I chose to leave firm life for family life, working as a sole practitioner out of my home for 15 years. But during that Colloquium, I realized that if I had known that practices like yours existed at the time I left, I probably wouldn’t have left at all. This is relevant because the one thing I hear most often from firm leaders is that they want to do better on gender equity. And the biggest challenge, it turns out, isn’t attracting women. It’s retaining them. So, the question I hear over and over again is: How do we support women over time so that they can advance to positions of leadership?

There are no easy answers to this question, but we are at a cultural moment where there is an increased focus on the experiences of women in our profession. And that gives us all an opportunity to do better and to make the profession more equitable, inclusive and diverse. As I talk to firm leaders and candidates all over the country, what I’m learning is that many of you in this room are among the most progressive, creative and committed firms in this effort. So not only do I recognize and applaud you for your leadership in this regard, but more importantly, candidates -- women and men – recognize it, appreciate it and, unsurprisingly, want to work for you.

Another promising trend that I’m seeing is that more and more firms are filling strategic business roles with actual business people. They’re seeing the advantages of building diverse leadership teams. In this instance when I use the word diverse, I mean bringing in people with different experiences and areas of expertise and divergent viewpoints, which study after study shows is key to the success and resilience of an organization. One of these roles that I’d like to highlight is Human Resources. Now when I say HR, most of you probably think of a benefits administrator with a little box for employee complaints mounted outside their office door, but what I’m talking about, and what I’m beginning to see a lot more of is high-level, visionary HR people. Chief People Officer. Director of Employee Experience. Whatever you call them, firms are investing in them for a couple of reasons. One is that strong, creative HR leadership will be a key piece in solving the diversity and inclusion puzzle, and two, firms are recognizing the strategic importance of the employee experience. We are in a competitive talent market which is only becoming more competitive, as more and more architects and designers leave the profession for adjacent fields, like real estate or construction or tech. Once an architect is working for Airbnb or WeWork or Skanska, firms that are very intentional about their employee experience, it is very difficult to get them back to working for an architecture firm.

Today, when people consider joining a firm, design is not the differentiator it once was. While candidates used to join mainly for a firm’s design reputation, now they join a firm for its people, its mission, its values. They join for social impact and a commitment to the planet. So, as we discuss the future of the profession over the next couple of days, I suspect we are going to learn that there are a lot of unknowns, but in my view, one of the most important things we can do to prepare for what lies ahead is to make sure we have the right people on our teams.

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