Case study: Learning and development at HLM Architects

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Technical people can lack soft skills, so architectural firm HLM created a L&D strategy that mixes both

The organisation

HLM Architects was founded in 1964 by three students. The company has grown impressively over the years. In 2012 it set out a strategy to diversify its business and in 2013 two British brands joined the group – Llewelyn Davies and Sidell Gibson – operating independently alongside HLM. 2014 saw the launch of its specialist interiors brand 33. Today HLM has eight offices around the UK and two overseas, with individual design studios in central London, Sheffield, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, UAE and South Africa.

The challenge

The acquisition of new brands should spur a long hard look at current culture, values and processes. And so it was for HLM Architects when it became one of the few lucky firms to expand during the recession.

“We thought: who are we now, where are we going as a group?” recalls HR director Karen Mosley. “We’ve all worked together for a million years so we brought in a consultant.”

This process uncovered a lack of structured career and development pathways. Managers weren’t being given the tools and support to hold career conversations with their teams, reports Mosley, exacerbating the fact that such skills don’t necessarily come naturally to some in architecture, or might not have featured particularly prominently in their own development: “Historically [architects] have come out of architectural studies; learning how to design great buildings but not actually learning anything on the social skills side of things.”

The other challenge facing any sector involving highly specialist technical skills is how to promote and reward those wishing to remain focused on the technical side of things. “Historically we’ve pushed people and we’ve ended up with a mediocre manager and lost a fantastic architect,” says Mosley. “I think we’ve lost really good people in the past because they’ve been thinking ‘where can I go? I’m not interested in management.’”

Tied into this is the succession challenge posed by the nature of architecture as a sector, where companies are typically headed up by long-standing founders. “Succession planning is a big thing for architects,” confirms Mosley. “It was often the founding partners set [the firm] up because they’d won a project. That’s what happened with HLM. If you’re not careful then when they leave, all that knowledge goes.”

The method

HLM decided to formalise and standardise career development and L&D through launching its HLM Academy.

Behaviour and skills frameworks were developed to outline what HLM needs to do to be successful (technical skills) and how it wants to do it (behaviours). The firm defined four key areas: Leaders of Excellence, which covers operational, productivity and process efficiency; Leaders in our Field, which regards innovation and thought leadership; Leaders of Business, which covers business strategy, sales and networking; and Leaders of People.

Definitions of different levels of success for each stream were also devised, so that colleagues can be rated along a scale of: leading self, leading others, leading growth or (the highest rating) leading the future.

Crucially, however, the emphasis is not on everybody having to perform strongly in all streams to progress. “Depending on what drives you, this dictates where you’re going to pop up. What we used to do is say ‘well unless you tick all of these boxes you’re not really going to be an associate’,” says Mosley.

The whole process starts when a new hire is made, with an online profiling tool of 20 questions. “That helps determine what their decision-making style is,” explains Mosley. Development up a certain career path is supported both by ‘The HLM Way’ (a set of core behaviours designed to drive the company’s vision) and a set of learning resources, support and workshops mapped to each path.

The L&D focus at HLM has become much more about self-directed interactive learning, supported with face-to-face sessions. “You do your three online sessions with loads of resources and go on a workshop at the end of it,” Mosley says. “We’ve sent people on workshops previously and they didn’t really know what they were going to get out of it. They actually have projects to do before they go now so they’re much more prepared.

“The one about storytelling was about: how would you present your ideas to a client? They’d maybe come with a presentation they were struggling with. Then they’d feed back how it went and what changes they made.”

A non-protective approach is key, so resources don’t need to feature HLM branding for example. Mosley adds: “Anyone can go in and look at these things. We’re not saying ‘because you’re at this level you can only watch that now, or take part in that’. It’s 70% learner-led.”

‘Academy champions’ are being used to bed in the programme, ensuring the system achieves its goal of standardising processes across HLM’s many locations. “We have one from each office who comparative tests it all the time. They chat to each other and feed back ideas to us,” says Mosley.

The result

A year in, and career and development conversations between staff and their managers have drastically improved, feels Mosley. “People aren’t having to have these difficult conversations because it’s almost a self-realisation among those being managed that ‘this is where I need to be,’” she says. “From the manager’s perspective, they say ‘I thought that was going to be a really hard conversation but people are coming saying [they] can see there’s a future for [them]’. And people like that we’re placing equal emphasis on design as well as management.”

Feedback suggests the academy is definitely starting to deliver on one of its main aims: to focus all employees’ minds on their personal development, regardless of seniority. “To start with we had quite a lot of cynicism. Then the feedback from people was very much ‘I thought I was the finished article but now I realise I’m not,’” says Mosley.

The self-directed learning aspect of the academy is also picking up steam. “I’ve had people coming and saying ‘can I write a module for the academy? I feel I’m an expert on this area and I want to get everyone up to the same speed’. That’s fantastic,” she adds.

The ultimate measure for Mosley though is retention, which sits at an impressive 88%. “It’s slightly higher than previously,” she reports. “You can look at that during the recession and think it’s because people had nowhere to go. But maintaining that rate is impressive.”

Ensuring the people management, soft skills side of things is brought to the fore for those who’d like to major on this will be critical to HLM’s success going forward, says Mosley: “If they’re interacting with someone at their level in another organisation they’ve got to maintain a good relationship. Otherwise it’s only senior people who have the contacts and they end up leaving with those. So we try to keep it connected all the way through so we don’t suddenly lose a client.”

The path to architects being better at the social side of things shouldn’t just start in the world of work though, feels HLM. Future projects include working with universities to influence course curriculums “so rather than just teaching people the academic side it’s about being able to communicate with your client, being able to listen”.

So for HLM and hopefully the wider industry, a more people skills-focused, but also individualised, future of learning is firmly in motion.

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