As the economy slows down, commissions dry up, and firms start thinking about layoffs. The 2007 chair of the AIA committee on leadership education (and vice president of Kiku Obata & Co. in St. Louis) discusses ways that employees can keep their jobs and come out on top.

What's the focus of the Committee on Leadership Education?

It's really looking at leadership as a core value or function. We're fairly new, only two years old. We just got our full status a year ago.

Congratulations. What is the committee working on?

I'm heading up the professional development subcommittee, and we're working on a new tool called "Living Your Life as a Leader: Your Personal Leadership Plan." Leadership is something you can achieve at any point in your career. We identified four key phases: the spark when somebody gets into the issue; initial engagement; active engagement; and lifetime engagement, where senior members become mentors of the future generation. The ideas are applicable whether you're looking to become a leader at your firm or president of the United States.

What are architects saying to you in reaction to the economy right now?

It's really mixed. Some firms are really starting to feel it, but here in the Midwest it's different. We haven't had to lay anybody off, and things look okay for the rest of the year. Another one of our committee members had a slow first quarter, and they laid people off. Now they're really busy again, and they've got everybody working overtime.

Credit: Stefan Hester

I've been hearing more and more about layoffs. What strategies can younger architects take to hold on to their jobs?

One thing is investing in professional development-look at the architecture profession going forward, the change in how we're doing things. It's critical for all of us-and in particular for younger architects coming out of school-to show a willingness to continue to learn. I don't think we learn half of what we need to in college. And that gap is probably widening.

What would be good areas of concentration for continuing education?

One is leadership, of course, which you get little of in school. Another is technical skills-the transformation with BIM. What's going to happen to the profession if that does take hold? What skill sets do people need? Another key issue is integrated practice. Firm owners are expecting more and more out of their team. Even though the idea is that everyone's working together, there's going to have to be somebody at that table that's a strong facilitator who can get people to work together.

What else can a younger architect do?

We asked people what held them back from leadership roles, and they said, "public speaking." In architecture, you can have the greatest design in the world, but if you can't present it, you may not be able to sell it. Ninety percent of this is being able to sell your idea to the client.

How does mentorship factor in here?

Younger architects should be seeking that out-pushing for it. Showing initiative is important for a younger member in a firm. In a downturn, companies are looking for people to take up more work-which is not necessarily good for staff-and to be able to manage and multitask.

What are some other characteristics of the invaluable employee?

Companies want to work with firms that understand their business needs, ones that don't just say, "You should pay for it because it's beautiful." That broader perspective, beyond architecture, is becoming really important. We look for employees to multitask and work across disciplines. You have to understand our bottom line and the client's bottom line-the return on investment. Another thing that quickly comes to mind is innovation. In a downturn, you have to offer something unique to the company-looking out for something new and analyzing the future. Just doing the CDs can be outsourced.

Gotta be a leader.

There's also the issue of followership.

Followership?

In order to have leaders, you have to have followers. And in this day and age, followers can have as much power as a leader-just look at the influence of the internet. Younger people may think, "They're talking about leadership. That means I have to own the firm or become mayor of my city." But leadership has a lot of levels, and to be an engaged follower is important to a democratic society.