IMPORTANT Website terms of use and cookie statement

Learning to lead: how can architects transition from employee to employer?

Making the jump can be difficult, but understanding who you are first should be a priority.

29 June 2023

The concept of leadership is essential for every successful practice at every scale to understand and install, and it takes many different forms. At the smallest practice level, a leader has to be figurehead, systems builder, hands-on organiser, confidence builder and general all-round management enabler.

In a larger practice, the concept of leadership might look different.

For architect Gurmeet Sian, who set up the award-winning Office Sian in North London shortly after he qualified, these ideas and definitions of leadership were brought into sharp focus when he transitioned from being a sole practitioner to an employer.

Gurmeet is one of the speakers during the opening RIBA Future Leaders 2023 event on 6 September 2023, where delegates will be introduced to the principles of leadership, how to develop a leadership mindset and how to create a practice culture that can promote collaboration, enthusiasm and creativity.

Considering what you've learnt from other leaders can be a great start to any leadership journey (Credit: Practical Psychology)

What kind of leader do you want to be?

When he made the transition, Gurmeet had to think about what kind of leader he wanted to become.

The first thing he tried to understand was himself, and his own personality.

“I think leadership comes down to creating an atmosphere that is authentic,” he says. “To go through that process you’ve got to understand who you are: are you an introvert or an extrovert? Before trying to create a working environment, think about who you are first.”

He likes the analogy of a football manager, who has to have a very clear picture of team structure and must get the messaging right so that every player knows what they have to do and understands what the team is trying to achieve collectively. If the messaging is not clear at the Monday morning meeting, or whenever, that’s when panic can start to creep in when things aren’t going well on match days.

Messaging from the leader of the small or micro practice is crucial, Gurmeet argues, because there will likely be no alternative co-directors or associates to turn to.

“At the same time, you have to create an environment where people are not afraid to make a mistake,” he adds. “It’s through mistakes that you might get that moment of brilliance. You have to create an environment where someone such as a Part 1 is not afraid to try things and then hold up their hand when it does not work, knowing that it is OK to make mistakes and that we will work through them.”

However, this supportive and flexible environment can only exist if some traditional management structures are created first, he continues. It’s from this strong base that staff can flourish. To empower people to do good work, someone has to set up the structure that will allow it all to happen.

It’s one of the key principles of leadership Gurmeet has learned.

“No matter how friendly the relationships (with staff members) are, there will always be hierarchies on different levels, such as a hierarchy of professional capital, and a hierarchy of confidence in talking to clients or communities,” he says.

Being open to fresh ideas and being flexible to change is a key leadership trait (Credit: Pexels)

How being open and flexible can inform leadership style

The other side of transitioning to a leadership role is being open to fresh ideas and being flexible to change.

As soon as he became an employer, Gurmeet says that he was confronted by the fact that his own idiosyncratic management systems could, and should, be improved.

“Colleagues should feel empowered to say, ‘that’s not working for me’,” he says. “You have to be open to being led by your employees if you want a culture that is not going to be static. Rigidity of thought is worrying to me. Listening to people perhaps 20 years younger than you brings fresh ideas, and their own fresh concerns. You have to curate these ideas, otherwise you will be falling behind.

“If you have review sessions where everyone has a voice and can speak up, design quality will go up.”

Gurmeet says he does not really want to be consciously seen as ‘the leader’ by his team. And outside the office, he says he would never refer to a colleague as his assistant or a “Part 2 who works for me”.

Rather, he sees his leadership role as essentially creating a practice system and collaborative environment that he knows is working well: “I want a system that can work without me being there. In fact, I want a system where people can take up the baton without me being there and say, ‘let’s do this!’”

Future Leaders is a three-part program, consisting of two in-person conference events and a separate on-demand CPD course from industry experts, which is curated and recorded, especially for the Future Leaders 2023 delegates. The face-to-face conference will reinforce the key themes of the on-demand content and bring it to life with interactive sessions featuring live business actors, exercises, polls, and input from industry experts and thought leaders such as Gurmeet, hosted and led by Debra Stevens, Leadership Coach.

Sign up by the 7 July to take advantage of the Early Bird ticket offer.

Thanks to Gurmeet Sian, Director, Office Sian

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 a RIBA Chartered Member.

Latest updates

keyboard_arrow_up To top