Empower your people for the greater good

Nov 15, 2020

The texture of varying beliefs, values, and backgrounds inform how we see the world, and are at the very core of our ability to serve our clients and community.

The nature of leadership has never been challenged more than during the extraordinary events of 2020.

As the year started, and before the pandemic closed our offices, I reflected on the leadership model we foster at FXCollaborative where responsibility is shared, with contributions being made in a dynamic way from both top-down and bottom-up. This model effectively moves the business forward, while at the same time advancing and securing the firm’s culture by engaging future generations of leaders.

Subsequently, discussions of social equity have moved to the forefront of every conversation, leading to a more untraditional form of leadership – one that focuses on empowering each individual for the greater good.

Trust your people. Our firm has always prided itself on our collaborative culture, one where every person’s role is valued and every person has a voice. Every team member – from firm leadership to junior designers and administrative staff – is included on our website. But as the pandemic hit and all employees began to work from home, that collaborative culture was tested and we had to reevaluate how to maintain that culture across a firm of 150 employees scattered across New York City and the world.

Critical to the success of remote working is an innate trust in your people. Through a confidence already established as a result of our heavy investment in firm culture, we have been able to further empower our employees to work together to design their individual and team workplans and identify the tasks that needed to be accomplished. While senior leadership provides guidance, mentoring, and counseling, it is oftentimes the grassroots efforts that really propel projects forward. Impressively, we have been able to not only complete work on schedule and with high quality, but we have won new work through developing creative design proposals and virtual interviews.

Empower staff and encourage connections. To ensure that a firm grows and evolves, all staff must have opportunities to contribute to its ethos. We have a history of empowering our staff to launch initiatives that reflect and give voice to the diverse perspectives of individuals on the team, and proactively help to evolve the culture and policies of the firm. The framework for this model is structured to facilitate a number of voluntary, employee-led and firm-recognized affiliation groups known as Employee Resource Groups that reflect a diverse range of interests and passions. These groups bring awareness of LGBTQ+ issues within the AEC community (FXOne); celebrate cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity (FXMosaic); support women’s leadership development and professional growth (FXWomen); and continue the firm’s long-standing leadership in sustainable design (Team Green) as well as our commitment to quality and meaningful design (Design Core).

While group leaders have faced some challenges in maintaining momentum during this period of remote working, their resourcefulness, bolstered by steady encouragement and resources provided by firm leadership, has resulted in new and creative programming. Our ERGs are now using videoconferencing to engage just as easily with experts and guest speakers from around the globe as with local ones. They have also shifted focus from in-person events to new virtual initiatives, such as fundraising campaigns.

In addition to supporting internal programming, the firm has encouraged these groups to connect with professional organizations outside of the firm. Not only does this expand their influence, it also elevates the visibility of emerging talent and raises the firm’s profile within the industry as a whole – and sometimes beyond. For example, our firm has earned both industry and more general recognition by encouraging individuals to provide expert commentary on key topics such as diversity and inclusion, environmental issues, and legislation pertaining to the building industry.

Encourage a culture of inclusiveness, diversity, and transparency. An intangible asset for successful design firms is its culture. It is often more than an internal “ambience;” the culture is also an important part of a firm’s public image, attracting prospective clients and potential employees alike. Study after study shows that diversity and inclusion initiatives will improve a firm’s bottom line, but a culture of inclusiveness can also improve the way we work and the projects we complete – as well as our own and our employees’ overall career satisfaction. As the world has adapted to different ways of living and working in these last five months, the definition of leadership needs to be similarly flexible to address different situations and difficult conversations.

Already challenged by the impact of the pandemic and the transition to remote working, more challenges presented themselves following the death of George Floyd and the resulting social unrest and call to anti-racist action. Our firm has, throughout its history, been active in advocating for change in the profession relative to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We had already instituted many policies regarding recruitment, promotion, and pay equity – but our awareness was taken to another level in the wake of these events.

Building off what we already established, and with senior leadership’s full support and the commitment of firm resources (both monetary and dedicated time) to the efforts, the ERGs have led our firm’s efforts to address unconscious bias and to amplify the voices of minorities in the workplace, highlighting and tweaking any structural inequalities that might affect opportunities related to recruiting and the advancement pipeline.

We have shared demographic data related to staff gender and ethnicity with all employees and the industry to create an atmosphere of transparency and to demonstrate our willingness to have difficult conversations about leadership paths and the need to be more proactive. With the encouragement of the firm, many of our employees are also engaged with outside organizations (including the AIA and NOMA) and are focused on doing the work necessary to eliminate systemic racism in the profession and our communities.

I strongly believe that leadership is both bottom-up and top-down. Leadership comes from every part of the firm. Collaboration amongst us all is at the heart of the design process, strengthened and enriched by the contributions of those who bring diverse experiences and views. The texture of varying beliefs, values, and backgrounds inform how we see the world, and are at the very core of our ability to serve our clients and community.

Guy Geier, FAIA, FIIDA, LEED AP, is managing partner at FXCollaborative Architects. Contact him through LinkedIn.

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