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Learning the soft skills of leadership

30 January 2020

There are many different aspects to good leadership. An effective leader draws on a repertoire of ‘soft skills’ that can be learned, practiced and developed. These might include a coherent attitude to time management, an empathetic relationship with colleagues, or a willingness to take on the responsibilities that others shrink from.

Carlo Magni is a senior architect at EPR Architects. As his career has progressed, he has taken an increasing interest in developing his leadership skills, picking up tips and deriving inspiration from psychology and management books, and from events and conferences for architects.

One presentation that made a particularly strong impression on him was by Grimshaw’s Managing Partner Kirsten Lees at the RIBA’s 2019 Future Leaders events series. These annual conferences feature talks and interactive exercises provided by thought leaders and senior architects. They offer early career professionals with a comprehensive introduction to leadership ideas.

Lees described her own progression into a leadership role in detail, speaking about the conscious change of focus she had to adopt: stepping back from the details and taking a more strategic view of work.

Like many architects, Magni considers himself a detail-oriented person. He has learned to become more self-aware about how he is working and what he is contributing to his team.

“It's a different way of looking at things: thinking about how to manage yourself as well as others,” he recalls. “You have to learn to move on from looking after all of the small stuff. Your role should be more about enabling others to take responsibility; fostering trust among team members and building on their strengths.”

More experienced staff in your place of work can be a valuable source of advice in this regard.

“Find a leader that you can learn from,” Magni urges, “but as well as taking inspiration from them, do not be afraid to present your own ideas.”

Carlo Magni, senior architect at EPR, has provided colleagues with valuable training in synergies between agile work methods and BIM

Guidance from a figure in a leadership role is important, and architects should make sure they take advantage of any opportunities for formal mentorship that their practice provides.

Katerina Examiliotou is an architect at Grimshaw who is very appreciative of the formal mentoring embedded within the practice. Regular meetings with a mentor can help to improve confidence in speaking to more senior members of staff, and are a good testing ground for your ideas.

“There is plenty of unofficial, on-the-job mentoring as well,” she reveals. “It is very useful in identifying aspects of my professional behaviour I could be improving: what has been working and what has not.”

Examiliotou’s mentors at Grimshaw have shown her how design teams can work at their best. Part of this is ensuring that all team members have a voice, and are able to challenge more senior figures when appropriate.

Like Carlo Magni, she has also learned many leadership lessons from the RIBA’s Future Leaders events. A presentation by Basil Sawczuk at one of the 2017 events provided advice on how to approach networking events as part of an overall strategy for developing the right relationships with the right clients.

His advice was equally applicable to practices wanting to find and win over new clients, as it was to job-seeking architects targeting practices they wished to work for.

“Networking is frequently at the forefront of my mind,” Examiliotou admits. “Sawczuk gave very practical suggestions, keeping it very people-focused. He discussed networking at a fundamental level: should you be approaching those who are standing on their own, or those in groups?”

One of Sawczuk’s main tenets, that well-connected people are valuable people, sums up precisely why networking is a core leadership competency.

“He covered icebreaker questions, elevator pitches and the difference between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ questions. Many architects crave tips about these basics.”

Examiliotou sees networking in very broad terms. Architects who consider networking irrelevant to their current specific role might not appreciate the domino effect of communicating with fellow built environment professions, whether more senior or junior, at industry-related events.

“Most of my networking is with clients or engineers. But to a lesser extent I network at an industry level, with the RIBA or NLA, for example. This is often simply a talk that is of interest, but it is all personal career development: being exposed to different viewpoints and areas of expertise. It helps your professional progression.”

The overall value that Examiliotou took from Future Leaders was a renewed sense of purpose.

“What stayed with me was the general message that you can accomplish more when you have a vision. Examples from other completely different industries were given, which were very motivating. Skills and charisma help, but having a strong, clear vision of where you want to be is very important.”

Tickets for this year's Future Leaders: Developing a Leadership Mindset are now on sale.

Thanks to Carlo Magni, senior architect, EPR Architects; and Katerina Examiliotou, Grimshaw.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

RIBA Core Curriculum Topic: Business, clients and services.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, Professional Features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD Core Curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as an RIBA Chartered Member.

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