Making Space for Leadership

Michael Lewarne , 28 March 2023

Delegate, listen, be transparent, give feedback, step back and gain perspective, ACA NSW/ACT Committee member Michael Lewarne explores what good leadership might look like in practice.

There are many types of leadership. I hope we agree the best leaders in architectural practice support others to do their best work, be their best selves and invest in their growth. In some instances, when making adjustments to adopt the advice below, things may get worse before they get better. My advice is to keep all moves small, keep faith in the process and, if required, get support for your leadership, such as a coach, mentor or consultant.

Don’t monopolise work tasks

You hurt your team and practice by doing work others could be learning from and doing. It creates dependencies, disempowering your team. Monopolising tasks might also imply a lack of trust.

Similarly, solving all problems also creates dependencies. It denies your team agency, relieving them of problem solving. As sole problem solver, your team must always come to you. You become a bottleneck, it takes up your time and slows your team down.

For example:

Consider doing less of the work that’s an essential skill of an architect: designing, design decision making, running meetings, coordination, and so on. You can still review, give oversight and manage this work, but resist doing it all. Giving it up frees up time for you to lead.

Try this:

Delegate work and problems to your team. Empower them by giving them ownership of the work and problem solving. Be clear about your expectations. Be a source of support, rather than answers. Regular check-ins can assist in building autonomy. Use check-ins to help your team embrace more responsibilities, without micromanaging. This helps develop a culture of psychological safety and trust, and frees up your time.

Make space for leadership

If you’re too busy in the work, you’re probably not making the space to lead your practice. You need time to support your team, which you can’t do if all your focus is on doing other work. Space is required for listening, responding and being available for your team. Getting bogged in the “busy” work denies you the necessary time for the “important” work of leading.

For example:

Work might take you out of the office regularly for meetings or you might be responsible for constantly briefing staff, consultants or clients, giving you no time for oversight of the bigger picture of leadership and supporting your team. It’s impossible to lead a team you’re not connected to.

Try this:

I like the Basecamp framework for making space. Program in a weekly time to meet with each member of your team to ask them what they’re doing and how you might best support them in their work. If you don’t have time to do that for every member of your team, your team is too big and you need more leaders. (Note: this is not an office meeting; they’re about information and rarely about leadership). Programming a regular time is not for everyone. The key is to make sure you have some slack in your commitments so you are able to focus not on the busy work but on leading and supporting your team.

Regularly stand back from your practice for perspective

When caught in the busy day to day of practice, it’s hard to see the bigger picture. You might fail to identify existing and developing problems, or see where misalignments may be occurring.

For example:

The bigger picture might include your work pipeline or the state of the industry. It might include office politics, dysfunction or morale, which is harder to see when you’re sitting in the room. These things require time outside the office to consider with focused intention.

Try this:

Take time, at least once a month and potentially weekly, to assess how the practice is tracking. Review what might be being neglected and identify any problems.

Create a culture of psychological safety

Open and honest communication is essential to create a culture of psychological safety. Team members need a safe environment in which they’re comfortable to express their ideas, take risks and be vulnerable without fear of judgement or punishment. It requires embracing transparency, humility, empathy and feedback. They help to build trust and create an environment in which teams are more engaged and willing to take risks.

For example:

If your team is reluctant to speak up about projects, issues in the office, or they’re not giving you feedback of any sort, it’s likely there is a lack of psychological safety. The team doesn’t feel safe to speak up, fearing punishment or reprisal.

Try this:

Model better behaviour. Admit mistakes. Give actionable and constructive feedback, as well as regularly acknowledging the good work your team is doing. Embrace all feedback as a gift. Even when you don’t agree, accept it with grace. Celebrate mistakes and what can be learnt from them. Acknowledge all work.

Be more transparent

Transparency builds trust, autonomy and security. It’s not necessary to share everything; context is all-important.

For example:

All practice finances do not need to be confidential. The profitability of the practice and project pipeline might be worth sharing when people’s jobs are at risk. Your team should be made aware of their performance, whether good or bad.

Try this:

Sharing information about fees for a project can assist the team in understanding how the project is tracking and if there’s a need to find more efficiencies. Some of the practices that performed the best during the early days of the pandemic let the staff know if the practice was facing financial challenges. Sharing the challenges built trust, and prepared staff for reduced hours (if necessary). Sharing performance feedback with staff should happen regularly, not just at annual reviews. As Brené Brown observed, “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.”

Have more humility

Not all architects are arrogant or filled with hubris, but the cliche of the arrogance of architects came from somewhere. Humble leaders have better performing teams. They tend to be better listeners, have greater flexibility and inspire better teamwork. Leaders with humility seek to learn, ask for feedback and willingly experiment. Humility builds empathy, relationships and self-awareness. You’ll notice the best leaders are humble.

For example:

Failing to listen comes from hubris. It’s a symptom of those who think they have all the answers. We see many practices identified by a single name, without knowing who is doing most of the work. Many leaders are also quick to call out errors, slow to applaud good work and rarely admit when at fault.

Try this:

Seek contributions from your team. Listen without interjecting, ask questions and resist giving an opinion unless asked for it. Regularly acknowledge your team. Admit when you’re wrong. Find opportunities for your team to stand up to acknowledge credit and represent the practice. Take a back seat.

Be empathetic and compassionate

Empathy delivers more positive outcomes for both the staff and the practice. When a leader shows more empathy, teams are more engaged, there’s a higher retention rate, cooperation increases, the team feels more capable of navigating work-life, and the mental wellbeing of staff improves. (Based on a study by Catalyst.)

Self-compassion is similarly crucial for you and your team. When faced with a challenging situation, it’s easy to be hard on yourself. Self-compassion is essential for self-care. Taking the time to acknowledge your own feelings and experiences allows you to process difficult emotions and find perspective, giving you a better platform from which to lead.

For example:

Empathy and compassion are important in understanding the perspective, needs and feelings of others. It’s crucial information for any leader. Empathy and compassion helps build connection, trusting relationships and good communication.

Try this:

Everyone is different and requires a different leadership approach. Provide individuals with more or less support, give feedback, provide coaching or give more autonomy – this is all contingent upon the situation. Everyone has their own unique noise and stories in their head. It’s worthwhile taking a moment to understand them, putting yourself in their shoes.

Give and receive feedback

Giving and receiving feedback is essential to any successful team or practice. It helps identify problems, build trust and creates a learning environment. Feedback should be specific, actionable, timely and direct. It must go both ways, with leader and team open to giving and receiving feedback. Criticism comes with the territory of being a leader too.

For example:

For the most impactful feedback, the team needs a culture of psychological safety (as above). Team members must feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable. They need to feel supported by their leader and safe knowing they won’t be punished for mistakes. Encourage all team members to give respectful feedback to each other.

Try this:

Give regular and ongoing feedback. Regular check-ins and feedback sessions help to make sure everyone is on the same page. Identify, discuss and address any problems before they become significant.

It’s more risky not to take risks

Taking calculated risks can help your leadership grow and develop, as well as your practice. Leaders should be willing to take risks and accept criticism, while team members should feel supported and safe.

Making changes to your leadership and your team might sound hard or even risky. The question to ask is … What’s the risk in not changing?

Michael Lewarne is a coach on the edge of architectural practice, curious about the way architects practise and keen to uncover better ways to do good work. Michael founded unmeasured to help architects plot their desire lines in their practice through coaching, workshops and community. He works to build better practice, culture and leadership in the profession.