Understanding career planning and why it matters

12 October 2022

Career planning within practices matters. It helps organisations to plan for the future, identify opportunities for training, development and mentoring, and develop areas of collective knowledge and expertise. It helps individuals locate themselves within the practice, understand pathways to potential roles, identify areas of interest and how these can be developed. Career planning helps people to understand their role within a team and to better articulate their skills, value and ambitions. All together this helps create a stable workplace that people can feel confident within.

This article was developed as part of a set that draws on the Champions of Change Architecture Group Role Descriptions Toolkit with the aim of sharing knowledge and experiences within the wider architecture profession.

Curating a meaningful career will be any architect’s longest design. Career trajectories are often framed in terms of individual choice, yet all careers exist at the interface of social, cultural and economic cycles, and are subject to personal, practice and community bias. They are hypersensitive to the choices, classified knowledge and unspoken belief systems of others, all of which can disrupt the agency of the individual. For many, navigating a career in architecture is messy, confusing and often marked by a lack of transparency. People must negotiate their hopes and expectations with the realities of opportunities offered, experiences gained, social networks and their aptitude, skills and capabilities.

In many architecture practices, career planning and development is vague or left to chance. This has impacts at many scales. It can allow bias to flourish, reinforcing inequity with unfair, uneven and negative impacts for some. For individuals, it may result in little understanding of how their career could progress, what the opportunities might be, where to find them, and how to grow as a professional. Within practices, the absence of career planning and development processes often also means that the organisation lacks a clear picture of capability and capacity of its team, and may lose talented individuals as they seek opportunities elsewhere.

Open communication and clear systems predicated on equity unlock these roadblocks, giving both the individual and the practice an understanding of potential roles, pathways for development, and potential alignments between individual, team and practice ambitions.

The Champions of Change Architecture Group has developed a framework that locates opportunities for professional growth within the values and structures of a practice and supports productive conversations between a practice and its employees. This article is built on this work. It outlines the importance of career planning, the shortcomings of overly informal approaches, and the potential of clear role descriptions to create effective processes. The companion article offers a detailed description of the Competency Matrix and Roles Description Framework and how to implement these.

Why is career planning valuable?

Effective career planning within a practice involves a strategic approach that links people and their skillsets with practice and business needs and opportunity. This is vital for both. Career planning helps to clarify goals, identify risks and mitigate their impact. Put simply, planning helps individuals and businesses to be accountable for their actions and their decisions. Like the design process, career planning starts with understanding the situation, exploring options for change, agreeing on a path forward, and then taking action.

When done well, career planning brings the following benefits:

  • A clear outline of the areas of competency expected and performance levels required at various career levels.
  • The framework to explore how an employee’s skillset and aspiration can align with the practice’s business needs, expectations and opportunities.
  • An evaluation of performance within a framework, providing transparency around why advancement occurs.
  • The potential to inform professional development, such as coaching, mentoring and training.
  • An indication of gaps within teams and the practice, communicating opportunities for internal growth and clear criteria to assess new talent external to the team.
  • A framework to enable diverse teams, with promotion pathways measured against competency fairly communicated to all.
  • Help in attracting and retaining talented staff, by clearly articulating opportunity and describing the steps an employee needs to take to grow and develop within the practice.
  • The capacity for individuals and businesses to work together to achieve aligned goals, ultimately driving high quality outcomes, efficient processes and a motivated studio.

For individuals, career planning involves:

  • Self-awareness: understand intrinsic motivations – those interests, values and personal attributes that guide career choices
  • Options analysis: research into career pathways, additional knowledge, or specialisation
  • Refinement: decision making and execution – this is most effective when linked to goal setting or time
  • Review: re-evaluate, regularly responding to change and growth

For practices, career planning involves:

  • Business positioning: understand the business within the marketplace, building on networks, knowledge and past projects; define business values and purpose
  • Business goals: identify aspirations and opportunities to grow the business within an agreed time, checking goals set to reinforce business values and positive culture
  • Skills and attributes: list competencies required to deliver business goals; undertake a gap-analysis of these competencies across the employee team
  • Communication: communicate required competencies to the team, identifying expectations for differing levels of responsibility and potential gaps within the group
  • Review: re-evaluate, regularly responding to change and growth

The shortcomings of informal approaches

Practices differ widely in their career development methodology, motivated by experience, exposure, business culture and business health. However, one pattern prevails – that many practices take highly informal approaches. This can bring a range of challenges and result in individuals and businesses that struggle to identify opportunity, have poor communication and inadvertently create inequities between employees.

Patterns that may reinforce inequitable career opportunities include:

Bias and stigma
  • Bias about who is seen as a leader. This can include prejudice in relation to gender, race, class, neurodiversity, availability, role, or even personality types, including introversion and extroversion.
  • Stigma related to part-time or flexible work, which can delay advancement and promotion.
  • Limited examination of bias and the influence it has on decision making, the distribution of career-defining roles, talent identification and career promotion.
Poorly managed processes
  • Poor delivery of career progression processes may lead to different experiences between employees, inviting disparity and unfairness.
  • Poor maintenance of career progression processes, with infrequent reviews regularly rescheduled, avoidance of difficult conversations, or disappointing past experiences.
  • Little to no training on how to conduct fair and constructive performance reviews, risking distorted feedback that may leave an employee feeling disengaged and resentful.
Entrenched cultures and habits
  • An entrenched aversion to role descriptions and KPIs (key performance indicators), energised by anti-corporate sentiment and a preference for a ‘studio culture’.
  • The flat structure of a ‘studio culture’ model may become toxic, encouraging inequity within a group that witnesses hidden layers of power through bullying, favouritism, or a sense of entitlement. Insufficient reporting systems make it harder to call out and resolve problematic behaviours. These can disrupt and disturb the career planning process.
Ill-defined roles and expectations
  • The practice expectations of what a role entails are not clearly defined, often left to hearsay and inconsistent communication. Many of the competencies required for advancement within a firm, such as ‘soft’ skills and business acumen, are not described or measured.
  • When adopted, traditional list-based role descriptions are difficult to read, focus on skills and technical knowledge, and are regularly seen as ‘tick boxes’ for promotion. Avenues for meaningful feedback on soft-skills and business management required for promotion are restricted to a select few. This may result in frustration or confusion when advancement is not offered.
Unclear values and competency gaps
  • The values of a practice are poorly articulated, with leaders assuming that the practice vision and culture is known and understood by all. When performance fails to align with business priorities, it can be viewed as a fault in the reviewee, as opposed to a communication issue.
  • Competency gaps in teams and the wider practice are not always understood, especially if the review process is a one-way street – either reviewee-led, with a focus on individual goals and aspirations; or reviewer-led, with a focus on performance and deliverables.

Role descriptions and competency maps

Over the course of a career, an individual will master technical skills and develop interpersonal skills. Some people will extend beyond day-to-day practice to have influence in the profession and the industry. The degree of expertise across these differing spheres will differ between individuals. The daily operation of any practice requires a mix of skillsets, but this full mix is not always accounted for within standard career planning frameworks.

The way roles are described and the mechanisms through which abilities are assessed impacts career development and planning for both individuals and practices. This is particularly important in relation to interpersonal or people skills, which are often absent from role descriptions and, at the same time, are vulnerable to the impact of bias in assessments. Information gathered through Listening and Learning sessions within the Champion practices also revealed a disconnect between what individuals think they need to know and what employers need and expect them to know – and this gap is most prominent in relation to ‘soft’ skills.

The Champions of Change Architecture Group has developed a new approach that positions a full range of skills – including interpersonal skills and other ‘soft’ skills – as central to career planning, business processes and promotion pathways. This links skills to career development processes and practice values through a role description framework and competency matrix.

This approach recognises that any role is more complex than a job title, qualification and list of responsibilities, skills and experience relevant to a task. It provides a context for the open communication that is pivotal in moving from traditional list-based role descriptions towards targeted conversations constructive for individuals and the practice alike.

The competency matrix allows for the assessment of skillsets, competencies and aspirations against clear role expectations. The helps form an individual career map for development, review and progression of individuals. At the scale of the practice, it helps inform recruitment, employment contracts and performance management.

The competency matrix is developed in relation to a practice’s business values and priorities. It provides a context in which conversations can flourish, with a focus on those areas where competency measurements suggest a gap between the reviewee’s self-assessment and that of the reviewer. It is fair to say that we all see the world differently, it’s a shifting plane, reinforced by access to the unwritten rules of practice. The competency matrix acknowledges that difference, and invites conversation to foster knowledge and build shared goals, ambitions and purpose, with a fair and equal approach for all.

For more information on career development, see the Role Descriptions & Competency Map and watch the recording of the On Career Development discussion (available shortly).

This article was written and compiled by Monica Edwards and Justine Clark as part of a set that draws on the Role Descriptions toolkit, created by the Champions of Change Architecture Group.

Contributors to the toolkit include David Randerson (DKO), Brett Hudson (Peddle Thorp), Thihoa Gill (Grimshaw), Soo-Ling Kang (Grimshaw), Eeshenn Wong (Hayball), Tara Keast (DesignInc), Sofie Pringle (Peddle Thorp), Gemma MacDonald (DKO), Rebecca Champney (Nettleton Tribe), Will Nguyen (Grimshaw) and Amy Dowse (Tzannes).