Can someone really be too young to be a leader? On Friday, January 17th, SMPS New York’s Leadership Committee gathered a group of AEC professionals to share their insights and personal strategies that they’ve used to inspire action in both themselves and their teams. While our industry has evolved to become more collaborative, leadership remains a tool that motivates design teams to contribute to something greater than themselves. Whether it be revitalizing existing infrastructure or envisioning improvements for communities, inspiring leaders are needed to foster motivating environments that allow people to feel safe in order to engage in authentic ways to solve complex problems.

While the term leadership seems straightforward, every leader defines it differently, and those definitions are often personal. How do you inspire people to follow the path toward your vision? How do you motivate your team to perform at the level where the set goals are achieved? Moderator Ivy Slater and panelists Jonathan Ninnis, RA; Michelle DeCarlo, PE; Mike Aziz, AIA, LEED AP; Sarah Salem; Satpal Kaur; Ambar Margaridar; and Christina Magrans provided their perspectives and tips on what it takes to become a successful young leader.

Before we dive into some of the key takeaways, I’d like to first extend a special thank you to our program sponsor ARUP and to Inscape for hosting this leadership lunch. Here’s what I learned:

Communicate Clearly

As a leader, your role is to guide your team to success—and this all starts with communication. Communication is about exchanging information; sharing your goals, ideas, and strategies consistently to ensure your team stays on track to complete tasks and big projects. Whether delegating responsibilities or setting expectations, it’s important for those around you to clearly understand your vision so that they can help turn that into reality.

“It’s not just about what you say, it’s how you say it. Sometimes you need to change the way you are communicating in order for those around you to understand,” said Satpal Kauer, Architectural Designer at HLW International.

With communication comes the art of listening. An impactful leader not only expresses their ideas but is also truly receptive to feedback with an open mind.

“Listening is essential and has played an imperative role in the growth of my business,” said Jonathan Ninnis, Principal and President of OC Development Management. “The more you listen, the better you understand the strengths and the weaknesses of those who are working on your team. By listening, you’ll be able to adjust your management styles for each team member in order to work more efficiently and be more successful in the long run.”

Embrace Various Perspectives and Finding Common Goals

Great leaders learn to embrace multiple perspectives and learning styles.

“It is important to understand other peoples’ perspectives and where they are coming from in order to tailor your strategies and goals,” said Michelle DeCarlo, a Director at Jaros, Baum & Bolles. “You don’t want to change everyone’s ideas nor should you—people’s diverse perspectives are what makes us have good teams. Figuring out that your weaknesses might be someone else’s strengths can help you understand your team members and encourage better collaboration amongst teams,” she adds.

A challenge leaders are often confronted with is finding a common goal amongst a diverse group of people that lead multiple teams.

“In order to encourage people to surmount what could be determined as an obstacle is to go out there and meet people at their level and to hear what they are saying—make people feel that you actually understand what they’ve said,” said Sarah Salem, Councilmember At-Large at City of Poughkeepsie.

Encourage Trust and Collaboration (Regardless of any Titles)

Oftentimes, we are conditioned to having and providing an answer confidently and quickly — and it’s usually a key sign of competence and leadership. Sometimes, though, leadership means admitting that we don’t know everything. “As a young leader, I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask questions and that you ultimately earn trust by doing so,” commented Christina Magrans, Vice President at CallisonRTKL. “You don’t need to have all of the answers, all of the time. By asking questions, it allows you to stay focused on the bigger picture and as a leader, that’s your responsibility to your team and to your organization.”

On the same note, just as leaders don’t always need to have the answer, they should also encourage their teams to learn through asking. Or, more specifically, learning through failing. “Encourage people to fail, to be honest about their mistakes, and to not be afraid to admit what they don’t know,” said Ambar Margarida, Principal at Spacesmith. “For example, I am working with a young designer coming up with ideas for a stair and he mentioned that he had a great idea, but wasn’t completely sure about it. To encourage him, I had him test out his ideas and let him know that I would come back and review them whenever he was ready to present them. Or even in terms of client engagement, sending emails, speaking up at meetings. I encourage people but then I am always there for them if something goes wrong—I create a safe environment for my team by holding myself responsible if any mistakes were to happen. I find that if they feel comfortable, they work more efficiently,” she adds. 

Mentor and Sponsor Those Around You Through Authentic Connections

Mentoring can have a positive impact on your team and your organization, and is often key to retaining young employees and empowering teams to do their best work. More specifically, leadership mentoring allows your team to see what great leadership really looks like. By showing your team how to lead by doing, you are providing the tools they need to lead.

“In addition to mentorship, I strive to sponsor my team by advocating for them and their goals,” said Mike Aziz, Partner and Director of Urban Design at Cooper Robertson. “Both mentorship and sponsorship are critical for success. As a mentor, I provide guidance that allows my team to learn the tools they need to succeed as a leader. On the other hand, as a sponsor, I do my best to push my team into the spotlight with the goal of helping them think of themselves beyond a support role, and because of this they naturally grow into the leadership role.” 

Establishing mentorship or sponsorship with your team is all about the connections that you make, and allowing your team to feel comfortable in that environment. “If I could give advice to my younger self it would be to make authentic connections,” remarked Magrans. “Make people feel safe—make them feel that they want to spend time with you and they want to work with you.”

Balance is Key

Balancing a variety of tasks can be tough, not to mention all of the new responsibility that comes with a leadership position. Managing does not necessarily mean doing everything yourself, but empowering your team to grow alongside you as you assign and delegate new and exciting projects—this also shows your team that you have confidence in them. Team members want to feel that they are given the opportunity to build on their skills while making a contribution to the team.

“Don’t be afraid of changing your path and listening to what your passion is telling you. It wasn’t until I found something that made me feel like I was contributing and others were benefiting from that contribution that I was able to find my voice and make it heard,” comments Salem. “Never be afraid of the answer no and never be afraid to change your direction.”

Every minute counts—every minute is an investment not just in yourself but in your workplace, and you have to use that investment wisely,” said Aziz. “So how do you prioritize your investment? Balance is key here, and empowering your team is one way to keep the momentum and make strides towards your goals.”

Share the Glory

As the saying goes, “a leader is only as good as the team behind them,” and inspiring leaders are team-oriented and happy to share the success and credit for a job well done. By sharing the success with their team, leaders can effectively inspire respect and admiration for not only the project at hand but for the team and the organization.

“One thing I’ve learned is the importance of sharing your success with your team,” comments Kauer. “It motivates people to want to continue growing alongside you.”