Ilana Kohn

Good professional advice is often elusive. It might come from a trusted mentor, a members-only round table, or an informal group of savvy peers, but you have to make the effort to go out and find it. And in the last frenetic decade, who had the time or energy to be creative about building a career? In those days—now just a fond memory for many architects—keeping up with the demands of clients, staffing, and ever-evolving building and computer technologies consumed every working moment. How quickly things change. With the economy in tatters and equilibrium disrupted, now feels like the right time to revisit issues ranging from the direction and meaning of a practice to how to be more prosperous.

There's certainly a time and a place for inward reflection, yet “aha moments” often happen through osmosis, in the process of exchanging ideas with other smart, experienced people. And while social media is immediate and fun, it does have its limits. There's no substitute, after all, for a sit-down-around-the-table conversation in real time, one in which you articulate to others your philosophy, your vision and goals, and the problems that worry you at night. Face-to-face networking also opens up the possibility for a chance encounter that sparks a brainstorm or productive working relationship.

The old idea that two heads are better than one was summed up in the title of James Surowiecki's 2004 best-selling book, The Wisdom of Crowds (Random House, $24.95). Large groups of people are smarter than a few, he argues. They are consistently better at solving problems, at encouraging innovation, and at coming to wise decisions, but not because “groupthink” is at work. Statistically, a sampling of imperfect answers culled from a group will cancel out extreme errors and point to the truth. But not just any crowd can be trusted. Groups are more likely to be wise when they're composed of people with knowledge of the same subject, yet who are diverse enough to bring different perspectives to the topic at hand. This theory bodes well for the many architects who join business round tables and peer networking groups. We wondered: Where do they plug in, and what exactly have they learned?

fast-tracking success Structured round tables of handpicked firms require an intense commitment, but they also tackle executive-level issues, which is why some architects are attracted to them. Four years ago, Heather McKinney, FAIA, LEED AP, joined Rainmakers, a group of about a dozen architects that meets twice a year with consultant Hugh Hochberg, a principal of The Coxe Group, Seattle. “We are much better businesspeople because of my exposure to Hugh and others in the group,” says McKinney, who heads up McKinney York Architects in Austin, Texas. “The main point is to learn how to manage firms better, so that we can create better architecture.”

The members—in locations stretching from Hawaii and Alaska to Boston—rarely compete for the same jobs, so they willingly share trade secrets. Some members, for instance, are spearheading a task force on converting to Building Information Modeling (BIM)—knowledge they wouldn't necessarily share with a competitor. They also open their books to the scrutiny of others, comparing themselves against industry standards of efficiency and profitability. “That makes everyone want to be a little competitive, to do better than the industry as a whole as a result of focusing on it,” McKinney explains.

A big bonus is the moral support of having firms of all types and sizes on call for advice between sessions. Although all are grappling with similar challenges, the larger offices have a codified way of dealing with them. So when McKinney had to lay off a few employees early this year, she was coached on how to do it humanely and keep up staff morale. “It was a very distressing experience for me; I hadn't done a layoff for so long that I couldn't remember how to do it well,” she says. “It's helpful to share that with other people. When you ask architects in your own city how they're doing, they say fine. They're not going to tell you they're laying off six people tomorrow.” Whereas small firms like McKinney's rarely employ a human resources specialist, bigger firms do, and can suggest legal experts to turn to for guidance.

Rainmakers is one of four round tables led by Hochberg, who selects the firms carefully from among clients he's worked with for a while. He says he wants to be sure he knows enough about them to determine whether the chemistry is right, whether they'll have something to contribute, and whether the principals have honestly assessed their firm's strengths and weaknesses. The hope is that the group will develop a personal and professional rapport that allows them to be very candid.

Hochberg also looks for firm owners who have a holistic view of their practice. “The common attribute is a sense that success is not only the quality of the work, or financial, or cultural, or technological, but some balance of those things,” he says. The size of firms in his groups can range from four to several hundred employees. That makes them different from others that are based on size, such as the AIA Large Firm Roundtable. Those groups, he says, share ideas but don't become intimate, because the members are often direct competitors.

At Rainmakers, the element of diversity is supplied by a collective experience with project types ranging from houses and speculative development to institutional, public, and international work. And although each meeting has a theme, such as technology or leadership development, sessions always include a discussion about financial metrics, the specific market conditions of each firm, what's going on in the world, and speculation about what's around the bend. Often, an action list is compiled, with people assigned to follow up and report back to the group. “They're not unlike the topics I consult about, but there's a richer perspective when other firms talk about the same sorts of things,” Hochberg says.

information free-flow Ideas absorbed through industry networking usually revolve around things architects don't learn in school that are critical to business success. When Clearwater, Fla., architect Cathy Svercl, RA, started her firm, Design Freedom, she found support and the occasional client referral through AIA Tampa Bay's Women in Architecture group. “It's given me an entire world of mentors, different people doing different things at different points in their lives,” Svercl says. “We have an 89-year-old architect who is still practicing. You get to see business through the eyes of other owners.”

Local AIA and CORA groups are the most widely recognized open networking forums for small- to mid-size firms around the country. Most hold monthly seminars, offering a way to connect with other architects, keep a practice current, and rack up continuing education credits. “Last month we talked about how to deal with construction waste in a green way,” says Waltham, Mass., architect Bill Whitlock, AIA, who chairs the Boston Society of Architects' Small Practices Network. “This month the seminar is on paint color. Some subjects aren't exciting, but often those are the ones that hit the sweet spot of need.” The meetings provide the critical mass needed to attract experts and product reps who wouldn't ordinarily visit a small firm. And every December, the group hosts a lively party at a newly designed restaurant, where the architect talks about its design and construction, working backwards to show how decisions were made.

Among these architects, a collegial spirit trumps the instinct to hide private information. “I'm always surprised at how open people are, especially when they are competing with each other,” Whitlock says. “There's a guy who designs restaurants and competes with me, but we are rarely going head to head. If we are, may the best guy win. I think people realize that they get more than they give up.”

Seattle architect John DeForest, AIA, shares that view. “The value of having a peer group far outweighs potentially giving up some competitive weapon you have,” he says. The CORA chapter he started three years ago, now nearly 100 members strong, holds round tables to exchange ideas about a diverse range of topics—from juggling project and staffing demands to the origins of Northwest modernism. More recently he initiated a cross-disciplinary circle of creative leaders—industrial designers, graphic designers, filmmakers—for exposure to more eclectic points of view. DeForest, who trained at Harvard, says he missed the “creative pressure cooker” atmosphere of school and uses both groups to maintain professional momentum and perspective.

These “cells” also function as conduits for quick communication. After a client asked for the ultimate sustainable decking, he e-mailed CORA's electronic mailing list for ideas. Within hours he had five answers, including one from a city official who focuses on green design. Another anonymous poll asked local firms about their employee compensation packages. “I said that if they'd answer the questions, I'd put the results into a table and send it to whoever participated. People were so relieved to have some perspective that they were willing to contribute their inside information.” On another occasion, a new bathtub that didn't fit was speedily salvaged by another architect.