Listening, Learning and Leading

Monica Edwards , 4 April 2022

Listening and Learning is fundamental to the Champions of Change Coalition approach. Monica Edwards outlines the four-step process, describing it in relation to design processes already familiar to architects and built environment professionals.

The difference between listening and pretending to listen, I discovered, is enormous. One is fluid, the other is rigid. One is alive, the other is stuffed. Eventually, I found a radical way of thinking about listening. Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you. When I’m willing to let them change me, something happens between us that’s more interesting than a pair of duelling monologues.”— Alan Alda, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned

Alan Alda, the actor who played Hawkeye in M*A*S*H, crafted his listening skills as an emerging actor in improvisational comedy. The Yes, And method is in the improv bag of tricks, and starts with the premise that you can’t build a conversation – harder still comedy – without first hearing what the other actor has said. The ‘Yes’ acknowledges what has been heard, and the ‘and’ develops it. This technique is a useful allegory for understanding Listening and Learning.

Listening and Learning is key to the Champions of Change approach. The process is composed of four parts, each of which can be readily understood in relation to the design process.

Part 1: Listening and Learning

Listening and Learning is similar to understanding the brief, identifying opportunities and challenges, and returning with a re-brief. It is also an act of consensus – finding that moment where everyone is in agreement and change is possible.

Listening and Learning sessions take place at a practice level. Each Champion workshops the daily experiences of individuals in their business over four focus groups – senior male leaders, senior female leaders, emerging male leaders and emerging female leaders. Non-binary leaders are welcomed at all sessions. Focus sessions are separated by gender for ease of filtering gendered patterns. By hearing the experiences of others, a discourse evolves that allows the unseen to be seen. By asking the same questions of each group, awareness of the role gender plays is mapped across the practice. Many are blind to its influence, while others are sensitive to it.

It is crucial for the Champion to listen actively, avoiding comment throughout the sessions. This helps to prevent quick judgements or a defensive response, which may steer the conversation. Staying quiet can be hard for some Champions, who are used to leading discussion and outcomes in their life as a leader of the practice. It is, however, essential. By shaping an environment where all experiences are acceptable, a Champion builds understanding and trust. The Listening and Learning sessions usually reveal a stark difference between the genders. This can be life changing for many – these are Champions that Change.

The lessons learnt are summarised in a practice report. Confidential in nature, these reports are analysed to distinguish common themes for action across all practices. The bi-annual progress reports, located on the Champions of Change Coalition website, list these themes.

Common themes return every session, including improved flexibility, and expectations of commitment and a long-hours culture, with promotion reliant on presenteeism. These issues are deep in our cultural practice and require a blend of responses to address effectively. The development of parental leave policies was an important early initiative; we have since shifted focus onto examining barriers to how parental leave is taken, with women tending to take bulk leave and men opting for a day or two per week. Career planning, sponsorship, mentorship, effective networking and profile building are constants – perhaps revealing the lack of successful programs in these areas. Finally, transparency around pay equity is often raised, signalling a sense that despite annual parity checks by practice, the inequity of the gender pay gap is front of mind to many individuals.

These themes set the framework for the next three acts, recognising that change can only take place within a Champion’s sphere of influence, their practice.

Part 2: Research and Identifying Actions

Research and Identifying Actions is similar to exploring precedent and preparing a schematic design – essentially, it involves agreeing on the big picture moves.

Implementation Groups are formed, which combine Champions with Implementation Leaders from a number of Champion practices. Implementation Leaders are individuals with an interest in advancing gender equity – both at an industry level and within their own practice. Working to the theme set from the Listening and Learning sessions, Implementation Groups rely on research to shape simple, measurable actions that lead to incremental change.

The emphasis on incremental, targeted change is important. This approach draws on the work of social change leaders and researchers who have tested pathways to progress the empowerment of women and other marginalised groups over many decades. The Champions of Change program leans on this knowledge as a starting point, to find solutions applicable to the profession and to individual practices.

A guiding principle for the Champions of Change is “Men stepping up beside women, taking responsibility with women to accelerate gender equality.” The Listening and Learning sessions reveal that many men come to the table not necessarily knowing what the next steps should or could be – they lack the lived experience of women. Many worry about making a misstep or offending others, conscious of their privilege, yet unable to describe what that privilege is. Listening to the voices of women, and leveraging research is an excellent tool for supporting men to increase their understanding of gender-based issues and for building awareness of the struggles for women in the profession. It gives them time to submerge themselves in the knowledge of others, cultivating an awareness on their own terms. They draw on their empathy to understand the challenges faced by marginalised groups and this builds confidence for men to find their voice and to contribute authentically to a change discourse.

This is the essence of the Champions of Change approach – that genuine change will not happen if only half the population is invested in the process; it simply must be comprised of all people, from all walks of life, coming together to agree on what change looks like.

Research is also empowering for women and other marginalised or underrepresented groups. It provides evidence that change is possible. Experience is one part of the equation; knowing what to do next is another. Research offers a plethora of high-level options tested by others. Using the skills of design, Implementation Groups use precedent and adaptation to agree on a response and a clear path of action that will be effective for architectural practice.

Part 3: Implementation and Testing Actions

Implementation and Testing Actions is the same as an iterative design process.

Implementation Groups add detail to their nominated action; refining, testing and refining again until an action is perfected to a level that will bring meaningful change. This process sees the production of toolkits, policy and educational material. These are then shared with all Champion practices. A further level of refinement takes place at practice level, ensuring that actions are suitable for the culture of the practice. This phase achieves the Champions of Change second guiding principle, to “prioritise achieving progress on gender equality with work appropriately resourced via direct leadership involvement”.

Some actions are easy to implement – the ‘low hanging fruit’. These include initiatives such as the Panel Pledge – a commitment towards equal gender representation on all public panels. Others are harder, often requiring a radical overhaul to the structure of a business, such as All-Roles-Flex or a fully equitable parental leave policy. The more complex actions may take years to reach full maturity. This recognises that large groups of people comfortably adapt to small changes over time, rather than absorbing massive shifts within short timeframes.

Part 4: Measuring Change

Measuring change is the responsibility of each Champion practice. This phase can be compared with the Defects Liability Period and Post Occupancy Evaluation. Architects are notorious for losing interest in these stages, and so annual reporting is mandated by the Champions of Change Coalition in line with the third guiding principle, “Stand behind our numbers, sharing lessons learned”.

Measuring change provides data to support future change. It also maintains momentum and goal setting. Every Champion practice performs well in some areas with room for improvement in others. This data complements the lessons learnt in the Listening and Learning sessions, providing an encouraging blend of the business case for change (information that proves change can be profitable) sitting alongside the anecdotal case for change (the desire to build a thriving practice culture).

Shift the System

The final guiding principle is “Shift the system, not ‘fix women’, avoiding solutions that put the onus on women to adapt”.

Recall for a moment the Yes, and method in improvisational comedy, where the ‘Yes’ acknowledges what has been heard, and the ‘and’ develops it. Listening and Learning sessions seek an open and transparent narrative that investigates how the same policies, structures, culture and conditions can have different outcomes for different individuals. This is normal. But when those outcomes are experienced by a collection of people who share similar demographics or qualities or traits, bias is exposed. By bearing witness to the testimonies, stories and even emotions, the desire to care for others initiates a desire for change, best shared using the line, “Yes, I hear you”.

The next step – the and – isn’t easy. Change can be exhausting, and you need a varied approach to it to counter the inertia of conservatism. Collectively agreeing on what change looks like is easier when you rely on a diverse group of people. This sounds like a trope, but it really does work. Implementation Groups utilise the experience and motivation of all genders; leaders, non-leaders and those emerging; those with different roles within the practice – people and culture, project delivery, business strategy. Making sure that diversity is embedded in every act of the Champion process is pivotal to genuine and lasting change.

The Champions have seen change within their practices, and this has been positive to both culture and business performance. Importantly, this evolution has required shifts to the system rather than women. We expect that the Listening and Learning sessions will continue to identify areas that require improvement – the task of equity never stops. But they also tell us of the joy and hope experienced in seeing incremental change – change that brings enormous benefit to individuals of all genders, practices and ultimately the broader profession.

Monica Edwards is a member of the Champions of Change Architecture Group and a Senior Associate at SJB.

The Architecture Group was established in 2015 with nine practices to address the acute underrepresentation of women in the senior levels of the architecture profession; the Architecture Group now has 14 practices actively participating to increase the representation and influence of women at the highest levels of the profession. In 2021, the Group’s members were located across 11 jurisdictions, leading over 3,000 employees.

The Champions of Change Architecture Group is a specialist industry group within the global Champions of Change Coalition of more than 260 CEOs, secretaries of government departments, NEDs and community leaders who believe gender equality is a major business, economic, societal and human rights issue.

Photo: Monica Edwards and Joe Agius at the launch of the Champions of Change Architecture Group, 2015. Photographer Oly Begg.