Big Interview: Warren and Mahoney Architects – part one.

Warren and Mahoney

John Walsh, from the Diversity Agenda, sits down for a chat with John Coop – Managing Director and Sarah Coleman – Group, People and Culture Officer at Warren and Mahoney Architects, a Diversity Agenda member.

In the first of our two-part Big Interview, John and Sarah discuss their roles within Warren and Mahoney, the scope of diversity, and the future generation of architects and how they will shape the profession.

Sarah, yours is a relatively new position, isn’t it?

SC: Yes. About two years ago the board of Warren and Mahoney decided to create some executive positions, mine included, to lift the strategic capability of the people here.

Is workforce diversity, or diversity in general, part of your remit?

SC: Absolutely. My first task was to develop a diversity and inclusion strategy, even before we defined our people strategy. The board had recognised the issue was more than about just diversity and inclusion, it was about talent management as an organisation – about how we attract, recruit and retain the very best talent when good talent is hard to find.

John, you were on the Warren and Mahoney board during the discussions that led to Sarah’s appointment. What was the prompt for her role from your point of view?

JC: There was a range of forces at play. First of all, I’d say that to develop a policy about diversity and inclusion you first have to learn how to think about it and talk about. That’s because the mode everyone is in – the status quo – can be quite persuasive. There was definitely a recognition, going back some way, that we needed to change and that we did not have the right balance within the practice, in terms of the team or the firm’s leadership and ownership. Diversity of gender had long been an issue I felt we needed to be more pro-active about. Had I and others of my generation been doing enough about this? Probably not as much as we could have or should have. That’s that power of the status quo.

There were some important drivers around fulfilment for the wider team. There was a desire for greater diversity within the team so that that people might have a broader group of colleagues to work with.

“I know what working with a group of strong-minded white men looks like and feels like. I’ve done that for 25 years, and I didn’t want to do it for another 25 years.” – John Coop

Sarah, diversity has various facets. Everyone probably thinks of gender, but there are all sorts of differences – ethnicities, cultures, belief systems, sexual orientations, social classes. How broadly do you interpret the Diversity Agenda?

SC: What we’re trying to achieve is diversity of thought, which is broader than just gender. It brings in all the elements you mention. We want diversity in all its forms here. But we need to have an inclusive environment as well. You can have the most diverse organisation, but if people don’t feel respected and supported you’ve won only half the battle.

Yes, you can be ‘diverse’ without being necessarily inclusive.

SC: We did inclusive leadership training for that very reason. You bring in diverse views because you understand the importance and the benefits of having different perspectives, but if you don’t listen to people and allow them to be themselves, they feel excluded and go quiet or even leave.

JC: Having a diverse team is a challenge and having a strongly inclusive culture is an equal if not greater challenge. There are many ways in which a firm like us, or the wider profession, can be, for want of a better word, parochial. In our practice now there are interior designers and there are architects, there are men and women, South Islanders and North Islanders, Australians and New Zealanders. Putting teams together across geographies and different contexts is a vital part of doing our best work. There’s a really strong business proposition around inclusivity for us because if you are being exclusive it’s likely that you’re not able to be competitive.

Are clients or would-be clients expecting a variety of people in the room when they talk to an architectural practice?

JC: It’s quite jarring if you turn up to a client meeting and realise you might have got it wrong. I think there is an expectation of having a broader set of views in the room. At least, that’s a working assumption – that you need a balanced set of opinions to achieve quality outcomes. It is an interesting topic because some of the strongest architectural outcomes often come from people with a very clear vision.

Yes, architecture has a strong authorial tradition, and the architect gets the acclaim.

JC: That’s right, the hero is an individual. Maybe that’s still something to be celebrating – we do need heroes. Does inclusivity lead to a flattening of the debate and of the work, or does it lift it up? I think we all would probably feel it lifts it up. There’s a balance, probably, to strike.

The question of ‘fit’ – it’s shorthand, isn’t it? Blokes in architectural practices employ other blokes of a type they know. They understand where they’ve come from, know where they went to school. But for a range of other people, you have to put some work into it. It’s not shorthand anymore. You have to put some effort into getting to know and understand people. That takes time and commitment.

SC: We don’t always get it right. I’m saddened when I see some people leaving who I know we haven’t done our best by in terms of the culture we’ve had. One of the things we have changed, which has had a big impact, is that we now have more diverse recruiting panels – we have different faces meeting recruits. We have a buddy system. We try to help people coming into the business by giving them someone who they can go to, and who can take them out for coffee and tell them how things work.

John, do you think younger people coming into the practice are different from your generation in their expectations of the workplace, their careers and how people treat each other?

JC: Yes, and I suspect they’re educated differently. There was a somewhat masochistic culture at university. It was a pretty tough environment at architecture school, and I would say a couple of generations of architects took that into the workplace. Now we definitely see people who are values driven. They’re more conscious of what they seek and what they want. They’re driven by sustainability; they’re educated through studying in teams; they’re more readily collaborative. What they look for is a team of talented people to be part of, rather than seeing other team members as competitors.

SC: We’re starting to get more questions in interviews around diversity, inclusion and sustainability. Previously, I was in a law firm and, without a doubt, people would ask us about diversity and inclusion, what were we doing, how many women did we have, how many different ethnicities, etcetera. I’ll reiterate what John said – there’s a lot of research about the younger generation wanting to work for organisations with a sense of purpose. So, we really need to be showing what good we’re doing in the community. To John’s comment about collaboration, the command and control method of leadership just doesn’t wash anymore.

I know it’s not a competition but there are various groups that come under the rubric of diversity. A Pākehā female graduate who attended a private school and went to university as a matter of course may have challenges, but so may a young person from a Pasifika background in South Auckland, coming out of a low decile public high school and with a family with no experience of tertiary education. The architectural profession has a gender issue, and it has class and ethnicity issues as well. You can seek to attract to your firm the people who are there to be attracted, but can the profession effect more structural change?

SC: I think we definitely have a role to play in reaching people earlier on as they’re choosing careers.

JC: We can only solve so much, but I do think we can reach a long way through how we talk about the work, the profession and the experience of being an architect or a designer. In a way, it does come back to that hero thing. The traditional model of promoting a career in architecture is quite hierarchical and project orientated: ‘Here is the architect and the building they’ve designed’, as opposed ‘Here is the team and the positive impact they’ve had on a community’.

A few years ago, the Institute of Architects produced a ‘Shaping Our Places’ manifesto. That was an interesting step because it started to articulate the architectural profession in new and different ways, as helping to shape and evolve our communities in better ways, with reference to health and wellbeing, placemaking, identity and belonging. That was a different type of language. If you don’t necessarily aspire to the ‘hero’ pathway, because it may not resonate with your principles or culture, then a broader message is going to be more appealing – ‘I can help myself and further myself, but I can also help my community. I can help the planet. I can have a wider impact.’ Another thing is that people now look to have an impact early in their careers. They don’t imagine waiting for 30 years to do that.

How do you accommodate that impatience in a firm?

JC: It is an interesting challenge. The old model for an architecture career was that you steadily worked your way up. Conveniently, the profession’s leaders held to a truism that architects don’t do their best work until they’re in their sixties. That hierarchical model and perspective on careers is being disrupted in all sorts of professions, all around the world.

So younger generations of architectural graduates and practitioners don’t necessarily want the slow ascent on the career escalator – associate, senior associate, principle, partner, and then, perhaps, by the time you’re 55, director?

JC: You’re pointing at me when you say that! Some young people, depending on their personality, background or culture, will be comfortable with the traditional pathway. And that’s cool – we’re inclusive here, so we have to recognise that pathway. But we also have to recognise the shooting star model. If you don’t recognise talent, in whatever form it takes, early enough …

Then the shooting star shoots through.

SC: That’s right.

JC: You can’t put true talent in a box. It will just fly anyway, and it either does that here or it does that somewhere else.


Part two of this Big Interview will be released soon.

Thank you to John and Sarah for taking the time to talk to us. If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch

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