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What will help you take your next career step up?

17 February 2020

Being good at your job is usually a prerequisite of holding onto it. But it is harder to identify what qualities will help you take the next step in your career. Design talent alone, even if you are exceptionally gifted, is no guarantee of an upwards progression. What is it that makes the most significant difference in taking an architect’s career forward?

“There are many factors that account for a promotion,” muses Joanna Pawlas, an Associate Partner at Foster + Partners. “It is not just about having talent: a large practice will have plenty of talent and a high calibre of employee within the firm. Progression requires a little bit more.”

Pawlas sees an architectural career as a series of stepping stones. However, there is one step that she believes marks a significant change.

“If you can prove you have the capability to run a project, that can be a pivotal moment,” she affirms. “Architects ultimately have to have that project-running experience in order to progress: proof that you have the organisational skills to manoeuvre a team operation, or a multi-team one. For an early-career architect, running a project should really be your goal.”

There is a shift of focus to a wider picture, requiring a different set of skills to those an early-career architect might be familiar with.

“Having the capacity to manage both your own and the team’s time is important, and there are people skills that accompany that. You need to be on top of everything to keep group deadlines within sight.”

Versatility is another factor Pawlas identifies as a big career development asset. She has worked in practices of different sizes, which provides a solid bedrock for any future direction an architectural career could take.

“Many very successful colleagues have worked for a range of practice sizes. It is a huge factor in developing versatility and provides great background for wherever you choose to go, such as from a large practice to, say, a senior position at a smaller firm.”

“It is very useful to work for a small practice early in your career. You get to do a little of everything: from visiting sites and measuring and surveying to administering the office and picking up the phone to potential clients.”

“At a medium-sized firm the projects are larger, so there is a step up in responsibility. Then, at a large firm, you see what it is like to work on masterplans, and in urban planning.”

On a different level, her versatility as an architect is fed by her curiosity and passion for all things related to design, technology and visual media. As architecture is a multi-disciplinary sector, it pays to pay attention to current affairs and art and design exhibitions.

She considers this integral to her personal and professional growth. It helps her to keep up to date with the latest technological advances, and provides new design perspectives in a more abstract and creative way - on the use of space, for example.

The experience of running a project is for many architects a milestone in their career.

“Fosters is a very design-led studio,” she points out. “Creativity in any form is celebrated. When developing an idea, inspiration can be found anywhere, from biomimicry references to purist Classical art. It feeds in very directly.”

She reads the familiar media you might expect: publications such as RIBAJ, the Architects Journal, Dezeen or Wallpaper. But a lot of information and ideas come to her more generally via social media: a broad and nebulous stream of alerts and updates from architects, contemporary artists, furniture makers and designers.

“Social media is a very immediate way of staying up to date,” she suggests. “It is an ‘instant fix’, but a very useful one.”

Taking inspiration from outside architecture evidently nurtures creativity. But it also provides good networking opportunities. The Architecture Foundation and the Women in Architecture Forum are just two many sources of interesting events and talks that she subscribes to and participates in.

Laggi Diamandi, Head of Learning and Development at Foster+Partners, shares the opinion that immersion in an eclectic range of information makes for well-rounded architects. It is embedded into Fosters’ CPD programme.

“The speakers we bring in are by no means exclusive to our industry,” Diamandi reveals. “Architects can learn much about teamwork and long-term resilience from speakers such as Brendan Hall, the winner of the round-the-world Clipper Race.”

“We also hear from the film industry special FX creatives who use the same software that we use for visualisation, for example. This is in addition to the core knowledge we provide on subjects such as fire safety.”

For Diamandi, the challenges to career advancement are similar across different sectors, and ultimately no different for architects as for those working in media, retail or technology.

“Many professionals lack confidence in their ability to communicate certain things, or to manage particular group-led activities. This prohibits them moving forward and reaching their full potential. Moving into a role with accountability for people is always a challenge.”

He is keen to point out that learning and versatility should not just be focused on advancement within the particular practice you are in. They should be far-sighted and career-focused: an ongoing process of staying curious about the world in which you work.

Learn about Developing a Leadership Mindset at the first of this year’s Future Leaders events on 26 March at the RIBA. Tickets are now on sale.


Thanks to Joanna Pawlas, Associate Parter, and Laggi Diamandi, Partner and Head of Learning & Development, Foster + Partners.

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

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