"Market power is critical to the future of design firms. There is neither time nor the resources for design firms to know all they need to by themselves. Who do they look to? They look to Kerry Harding for support, thoughtful ideas, useful advice, and coaching...he offers a complete tool kit of ideas for professionals."

James P. Cramer, Hon AIA, Hon IIDA
Chairman & CEO
The Greenway Group
Norcross, GA

Creating Irresistible Talent in a Resistant Economy

November 4, 2010
by Kerry B. Harding

Recruiting, developing, and retaining star talent

Embarking on a career in law is something of a career in its own right. To begin, the recipient of a college degree may spend three months doing research before embarking on the grueling law school application process. For law school applicants, the Law School Admissions Council’s Credential Assembly Service combines all undergraduate, graduate, professional, and law school transcripts; letters of recommendation; and evaluations into a central location. These are summarized and combined with the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) score and writing sample into a report that is sent to all the law schools an applicant selects.

Candidates can plug their GPA and LSAT scores into a software program that reveals their chances of landing a spot in one the top 100 law schools in the country. Admission to law school is followed by three years of academic rigor. Then, law school graduates receive job offers based on their alma mater, grade point average, class ranking, and participation in a law review. Offers are extended first to the best and brightest candidates by the best and the brightest firms in a marriage-of-equals mentality.

In her article “Is This Any Way to Recruit Associates?” in The American Lawyer, author Elizabeth Goldberg discusses the cattle call aspect of the campus recruiting process. “There, partners meet 20 students a day for 20 minutes at a time for several days in a row. On the basis of those meetings, students are called back for a series of 30-minute office interviews. If a student is from a good school, has an acceptable resume and decent social skills, he or she is practically guaranteed an offer for a summer position within 24 hours of the office visit. And, nine times out of ten, a summer job leads to an offer for a full-time associate position with a median starting salary of $145,000.”

You’d think the selection process would be a bit more grueling; however, the law school’s reputation as well as the student’s class rank, grades, and participation eliminate the need for preliminary screening. In their book Building a Bench, authors Jay Lorsch and Thomas Tierney write, note that “Managing partners often focus so much on finding a competitive advantage -- figuring out how to beat their competitors for a client’s business and do it profitably -- that they lose sight of a simple truth: At any professional service firm, the people you pay are even more important that the people who pay you. … We believe that even in a slow economy, it is ‘star-making,’ not rainmaking, that fuels long-term success.”

The authors defined stars as those professionals who have the highest future value to a firm as an organization -- young professionals who are potential rainmakers, for instance, or those whose work is so outstanding that potential clients seek them out. Star-making is the ability to align star professionals’ needs with the firm’s strategic goals, which allows the firm to get as much value as possible from stars. To obtain a lasting competitive advantage, there is no greater priority than recruiting, developing, and retaining star talent.

Could the well-orchestrated process of identifying, screening, educating, and recruiting of top talent that has become institutionalized in the legal profession be adapted to architecture? There are many people in academia and professional practice who believe that quantifying the process of identifying creative talent is almost heretical.

One of the goals outlined in the University of Washington’s School of Architecture and Construction Management’s Strategic Plan is to “Recruit the highest caliber students who have the desire and passion to achieve excellence in architecture and construction management.”

In reviewing a variety of admissions materials of several top architecture schools, I found that all had a similar objective of recruiting high-caliber students likely of achieving excellence. But unlike the law school admissions process, there is not a consistent evaluation criteria for every school to evaluate all potential applicants.

Is the architectural community ready for its own version of the LSAT -- an Architectural School Admissions Test -- that would help admissions counselors differentiate from a diverse pool of applicants? If so, how and by whom would it be developed? How would it be scored? Where and by whom would it be administered? How would the results be reported?

The fact that it would be hard does not mean it shouldn’t be considered. The admissions test could be the bookend that determines aptitude at the beginning of an undergraduate architectural education complementary to the Architect Registration Exam at its conclusion.

In a December 2009 address at the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) annual forum, Architect editor-in-chief Ned Cramer said, “Even in today’s economic climate, young leaders in architecture have the power to radically impact the built environment, and no profession is more committed to the training and assessment of its students and interns than architecture. Educators, practitioners, and regulators alike take great care to ensure theory and technical skills are taught in the classroom, reinforced on the job, and measured through exam. But there is so much more to being an architect.”

In its own promotional materials, the AIAS itself notes that architects serve in a leadership role to bring together the design and budgetary requirements set by clients and that decision-making, team leadership, and creativity are key elements in making architecture.

The outgoing AIAS president recently remarked, “Most schools have an academic-based awards program that acknowledges outstanding scholastic performance, but the distribution of this information is not centralized. Most schools emphasize the preparation of the actual design portfolio as the most effective communicator of a student’s body of work.”

Should design firm principals really be expected to gauge a wide range of other skills, attributes, and character traits from viewing a 10-minute automated PowerPoint presentation?

There does not exist any kind of accessible nexus for architecture graduates and the firms looking to hire them. A mere graphic summary of a rigorous five-year professional curriculum is woefully inadequate in communicating the attributes of decision-making, leadership, and non-graphic communication skills so essential to success.

Recognizing Stars

Given the fact that a centralized repository of recently graduated architecture talent doesn’t currently exist and likely will not in the near future, firms are left to define their own strategies for discerning and hiring the best from each new crop.

In his book, How to Be a Star at Work: Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed, Robert E. Kelly’s research revealed, “It isn’t what stars have in their heads that makes them stand out. It’s how they use what they have.” It’s also true that, while some stars are born, others are developed through training. You may not be able to distinguish star employees until they start working.

When it comes to developing stars, design firms can learn much from accounting giant Ernst & Young, which won the 2010 Recruiting Excellence Award from the Electronic Recruiting Exchange. According to the judges, the firm’s recruiting success stems from:

A focus on brand pillars, which include opportunity, learning and development, and an inclusive and flexible work environment

Consistent inclusion in various best-place-to-work awards

Touchpoint mapping that guides interactions within and outside the company

Personalized communication channels

An exciting, accurate corporate careers page

According to the recruitment advisory blog Boston Hiring, there are six common traits that distinguish star performers from average Joes:

Self-management. Employees who can effectively regulate their own work agenda and work independently do wonders for firm productivity. While all employees need basic direction and tasks, the best can take direction and run with it. Star employees have the ability to leverage what they know and effectively manage themselves.

Accountability. In a productive firm, employees should be expected to create results fromt eh task at hand. Star employees take this concept to the next level. They have a sense of responsibility for their tasks.

Initiative. Star employees rise above the rest through their own initiative. Whether assuming leadership responsibilities or pitching ideas, action-oriented employees thrive on taking calculated risk. Where initiative really matters is when people already have the basics well covered.

Humility. Nobody enjoys working with arrogant know-it-alls. Star employees own up that they don’t know what they don’t know. They reach out for training and mentoring.

Vision. Visionary employees see beyond the basic job description. While they have personal ambitions, their main interests are growing and improving their firm. Star employees see the big picture instead of fulfilling only expected requirements.

Values. It’s in every firm’s best interest to have employees who value integrity, honesty, and respect. Star employees uphold basic principles, creating a standard for a comfortable, ethical work environment.

Recruiting Stars

In their book Aligning the Stars: How to Succeed When Professionals Drive Results, Jay W. Lorsch and Thomas J. Tierney highlight 18 professional service firms. They found that in enduring professional service firms, there is a high level of alignment between stars’ needs and firms’ strategic goals. This alignment transcends business cycles and leadership successions. It exists when partners behave in a manner that is consistent with the firm’s strategic needs -- when everyone is pulling together toward the same long-term goals.

How can firm find stars in a crowded sea of applicants? One creative recruiting method was used by Chicago-based StudioGC. The architectural firm partnered with the University of Illinois School of Architecture to create a building information modeling boot camp at the school’s annual job fair. According to StudioGC founder Michael Gilfillan, “Understanding the economic situation and lack of opportunities, we wondered, How can we give these students real-world skills without it costing us a lot in resources?” The job fair proved an ideal forum to find students proficient in Revit, give students additional advanced training, and allow the firm to get a close-up look at prospective employees.

In another example, New York-based Hart Howerton established a fellowship program to provide a select group of students a summer internship combined with three weeks of self-directed travel. As part of the application process, candidates submit a resumé, brief portfolio, and two essays. One essay addresses how the proposed internship project will benefit a firm whose focus is designing complete environments and one must describe the applicant without using words or letters. The latter tests applicants’ creativity and has elicited responses that include photos, drawings, montages, computer graphics, and more. Of the 40 applicants this year, two recipients were selected. According to Howard Kozloff, the firm’s fellowship administrator, “This program uncovers candidates who exhibit independent thinking, professional skills sets, and a sincere passion for and interest in design.” A number of finalists have joined the firm since the program’s inception.

Some firms are more direct. In its college recruiting literature, California-based MVE & Partners states, “We actively recruit recent graduates from some of the best universities and schools of architecture in Southern California who have a habit of producing impressive, energetic, and experienced groups of designers. We look for individuals with strong design skills, are creative problem solvers, can analyze and synthesize, and possess solid computer, model-making, and drawing skills.”

In general, recruiting stars is a more lengthy process than hiring average candidates, but it’s worth the investment if you’re hiring for the long haul. Here are four key things to consider:

Being a recruiter, I may sound self-serving to advise that you start with a great recruiter. But I contend that the best recruiters are plugged into the most talented people, are objective, and will give the best return on investment. Having an established relationship with a recruiter you trust gives you an ambassador in the marketplace and gets you first dibs when stars or those with star potential crop up.

Get to know the candidates. Look at them as you would a prospective marriage partner. This process of matching a star candidate to the right opportunity in your firm may take three to six months. Too many firms lose star-level candidates because they’re trying to put an A-level candidate in a C-level job. Most stars are looking for more out of their careers than drafting reflected ceiling plans.

Ask for five to 10 references. Every candidate can come up with three. Only the good ones have an abundant supply. One candidate I know said simply, “Here are all the people I’ve ever worked with or for. Call any of them on the list and ask them anything you want.”

Find out what it will take to woo the candidate besides compensation. Stars have different needs than other employees. They want to feel valued, connected, indispensable, and part of the big picture. They want challenging responsibility, ongoing professional development, and continuous growth.
Keeping Stars

Many firms have slashed salaries and benefits over the past two years simply to stay afloat. But with the economy on a slow rebound, firms are beginning to hire more aggressively to meet pent-up demand. Star employees at all levels will find a new crop of career options from which to pick. As a peremptory strike, now is the time to involve your star performers in candid discussions about their satisfaction. Otherwise, the next meeting you have might be their exit interview.

At a general level, what can firm leaders do to create an environment conducive to retaining top talent?

Ensure effective managers. It’s been said that people leave managers and supervisors more often than they leave companies or jobs. If managers contribute to a lack of clarity about expectations, performance, feedback, or compensation, employees will feel undervalued and frustrated.

Encourage feedback. Whether it is through an anonymous suggestion box or an organized feedback program, the ability of employees to speak their minds about anything related to the firm enables them to feel they have a say in their destiny and may result in some great ideas for the firm.

Encourage participation. In one firm, an internal proposal specialist asked to go along on a client call where she knew the client. That established relationship enabled the firm to obtain much more information about the client’s needs and eventually to win the project.

Encourage fairness. If people observe preferential treatment due to religion, race, fraternity or sorority affiliation, or alma mater, for example, they will look for someplace that’s a better fit.

Ensure value. Someone in the firm should know about and recognize personal milestones -- marriages, births, marathon races, charity events, illnesses. Acknowledging such things goes a long way in ensuring employee retention, especially in recessionary times when salary increases are rarer.

Creating the optimal combination of knowledge, creativity, personality, and technological skill must, by necessity, be a somewhat ambiguous process. Yet within the architectural arena, there exists an opportunity gap that can only be narrowed through honest, ongoing collaboration between the academic community that prepares graduates and the professional world to which they are then entrusted. While there are conflicting opinions about the concept of creating stars within the architectural arena, all parties agree on one thing: Like eagles, stars don’t flock. You have to identify them one at a time.

Kerry B. Harding is president and chief recruiting officer of The Talent Bank Inc., an executive search and human resources consulting firm headquartered in the Washington, D.C., area.

Copyright © 2010 by Greenway Communications