Improve Your Firm, Hire for Culture Fit
Illustration: Michael Kirkham

What should architecture firms prioritize when scouting for new hires? For Dattner Architects, a New York–based firm focusing on civic architecture, pinpointing their ideal characteristics in a job candidate was a matter of finding the answer to one specific question: What, exactly, anchors an architect to their practice?

In thinking about recruiting candidates to Dattner—and, more specifically, ones just starting their careers—human resources director Mary Beth Lardaro singles out the sense of purpose that also played a major role in her decision to join the firm.

“Recent graduates are looking for meaning in their work, they’re looking for a sense of connection, they’re looking for a belief that they’re doing something for the greater good,” she says. Tectonic shifts around work-life balance and office culture in the last decade, as well as shifting ideas about compensation and advancement in the workforce, are molding firms’ thinking as they staff up for the future— and strategize around not only how they’re going to find candidates that are good fits both in terms of technical skills and firm culture, but also how they’re going to retain them.

“It’s something that we get asked in every interview: What’s your firm culture?” says Seth Anderson, AIA, a principal at Ascent Architecture and Interiors in Bend, Ore. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, the result of turnover due to poor culture fit can cost an organization 50 to 60 percent of an employee’s annual salary. Giving candidates a satisfactory answer to the culture question can be the key to finding the best fits for a given firm—and keeping them.

What Skills to Prioritize?

Several of the firm owners and principals interviewed for this story said that, when it came to hiring mid-career professionals (as opposed to recent graduates), it was becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified candidates with experience. “Our strategy has been to hire and train ourselves,” Anderson says. “That’s not always easy, both in terms of the training period—the time it takes to get people qualified—but also just because we are in need of some of those more experienced individuals, and they’re harder to find.”

David Cheney, AIA, a principal at Washington, D.C.–based architecture firm CORE Architecture + Design, has a similar perspective. “I think what we’re finding right now, particularly in the last six months, is that it’s becoming increasingly competitive to find good talent,” he says. “Everyone’s hiring, making the pressure even greater. And so to do that we’re trying to find people … who can anticipate our clients’ needs the best. We don’t know what those are until it happens, so the more flexible [candidates] are with the way they work, the better.”

While technical skills and strong portfolios are always going to be necessary, Anderson and Cheney both emphasize the importance of adaptability over an abundance of experience with, say, one specific type of software.

“We’re not really limiting ourselves to certain people who only have certain skill sets,” Cheney says. Strong basic skills, however—like knowing how to draw by hand— will always be important.

“We still want to see a lot of sketching and artistry. People who have the strongest overall portfolio have a strong drawing component as well,” he says.

Simon Goodhead, an Atlanta-based principal consultant with the Coxe Group, a Seattle-based company that works nationally with architecture and design firms around issues of leadership and management, says that he has observed firms placing more of a priority on “non-technical skills”—that is, communication, business development, and leadership. They understand that they’re going to be able to train more technical skills based on the firm’s needs. Similarly, Lardaro says that Dattner is always on the hunt for team members who will both produce compelling designs and effectively communicate with the client about them.

Both Cheney and Goodhead emphasize that new hires—not just Millennials, but also mid-career professionals—are coming in with increased expectations about learning opportunities and career advancement.

“There are people coming in with the expectation of being able to progress quickly,” Goodhead says. “We’ve seen that the firms that have been particularly successful are looking more at the competency of individuals, and allowing advancement based on that competency, and aligning it with the overall strategic goals of the firm.”

CORE has also made an effort to give its staff more outlets for skill-building and networking. “[Newer hires] have had opportunities to join more professional organizations, meet more people, take on more responsibilities a little bit quicker,” Cheney says.

One of the specific ways that Dattner is seeking to contribute to public discourse is through design and ideas competitions, such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s design competition to overhaul LaGuardia Airport. They’re interested in hiring designers who will be able to successfully navigate these types of challenges, but Lardaro admits that it can be hard to suss out those qualities in the recruiting process.

“That’s really something that we’re looking for: designers who are thinking big in terms of what the workplace will be like in 20 or 50 years but are also able to focus on the micro-level of ‘What does that mean for each of our projects— whether a building, master plan, interior fit-out, etc.—even down to the details?’” Lardaro says. “Hiring people who can design at a variety of scales is really important to us.”

Looking to the Long Term

How are these individual considerations going to be beneficial to the future of the firms in which they’re implemented? With a workforce that has stronger communication, collaboration, and decision-making capabilities, the hope is that even though firms may experience increased internal complexity in the next 20 to 50 years—around technology, around expertise, and around specialized skill sets—a team that knows how to collaborate effectively will be able to overcome any obstacles, despite potential deficits in individual areas.

“With that collaboration, there’s a greater need for hiring for fit—those being values, compatibility, culture, and collaboration ability—and how to connect across different skill levels and experience,” Goodhead says.

All forward-thinking firms are going to be investing in new technology, but experience in those areas can be learned on the job. Fit and a willingness to share ideas, many seem to think, is the more innate and intangible X–factor.

“You can train people into a role,” Goodhead says. “You can’t train them how to fit in with a group of people.”