The effort to identify what marks out tomorrow’s leaders reveals that all routes to success are different. HLM’s Delia Harmston has honed her skills in large and small practices
Is leadership a matter of nature or nurture? Are you born to lead or, if given the right conditions and training, can leadership skills be cultivated and encouraged? The answers to these questions often remain elusive in architecture. The upbeat aspirational tone of professional literature and training can seem far removed from the hard graft and economic vicissitudes of practice. In order to ascertain what the reality might be on the ground for individuals, I approached three large practices, Robin Partington & Partners, HLM Architects and Make, and asked them each to nominate a member of staff to interview, who has recently stepped up in practice.
In the course of these conversations what immediately became apparent was there is no single career course. Each individual has had their own distinctive route: whether it has been a matter of working their way up in a newly founded practice or well-established firm; or they have shifted gear by making a move from a small to large practice or by just by sticking with a single employer; for some it has been a matter of accruing experience and proving their worth over time and for others recognition has come early in just a handful of years. None of the practices share similar structures or comparable position titles. All of them are heavily invested in learning and development, but training and mentoring vary greatly in approach and the degree to which they are formalised.
There are, however, common denominators among these individuals that mark them out from their peers: they have all excelled at project-based leadership; they all have a natural aptitude for working with people, both internally and externally; and they are all positioned in practices that are a perfect fit for them culturally.
Here we focus on Delia Harmston of HLM Architects. Further interviews will be published here shortly.
To the coalface and back
A position at HLM Architects in Sheffield has brought Delia Harmston full circle. She first worked for HLM as an architectural assistant in 2001 after completing Parts 1 and 2 and an MA at the University of Sheffield, before leaving to go to Self Architects, where she qualified. Fourteen years later, Delia returned to HLM as an associate.
Delia’s moves from large to small practice and back again have been entirely deliberate. Having received several job offers when she left HLM in the early 2000s, she chose to cut her teeth at Self Architects, a small practice in Sheffield. She recognised that it would give her more opportunities to work across projects and give her more contact with clients and planning officers. Without the services and support functions of a bigger firm, the role required her to undertake everything from marketing to contractual matters. In a small practice, ‘you are on the coal face, doing everything yourself’. By 2006, Delia had been promoted to an associate architect with the firm. Having kept in touch with HLM ever since she left, in 2015 she approached the practice which was expanding and on the lookout for talent. It snapped her up. HLM director Nick Beecroft remembered her from among the many students he has employed over the years: ‘She made an early impression with her personality and her skills and natural talent’. He elaborates: ‘We often see people who are excellent architects with no interest or no skill for management, or vice versa. Delia is from that very small group of architects who are equally skilled in both.’
At Self Architects, Delia found a brilliant teacher and mentor in founding director Mike Self. He guided her through projects, recognising her potential and helping her to build confidence and ‘learn to be me’. Informally over lunch, they often talked more widely about life – something they continue to do to this day. At HLM, Delia has benefited from a more structured training scheme. In 2015 HLM launched The Academy, a professional excellence programme, devised, as explained by director Karen Mosley, ‘to provide all employees with the opportunity and resources to reach their full potential’. At the heart of the academy she explains, ‘is a skills framework which describes all the competencies required to make individuals and the business successful, and a behaviour framework which outlines how we do things around here. The academy is centred around HLM’s core values of people, quality and clients, giving support and development to the right people at the right time, helping everyone to achieve their goals and build strong relationships both internally and externally.’
As part of the formal instruction available through HLM’s academy, Delia has been provided with access workshops and training routes. Psychometric testing has boosted her self-awareness while profiling has helped her understand the strengths and weaknesses of those around her. Soft skills may come naturally to her, but she also recognises the essential part formal training can play in people’s development: ‘The academy allows that complicated thing to have structure and for people to talk about where they might want to be.’
The HLM academy is facilitated by the fact that HLM is ‘a very conversational place’. People are friendly, helpful and passionate. This helps with ‘the complicated work world of the architect where there are so many different specialisms’. As an associate at HLM, Delia leads teams and runs projects, and helps the associate director run the Sheffield office, which encompasses management, staff and bidding work. It might be a university framework bid or an educational project in the Middle East. She is also part of the development sector at HLM, undertaking work with developers and commercial clients.
It was HLM’s positive culture that attracted Delia back. Even though as an individual she does not define herself as a woman in practice and has encountered no specific issues, she likes the particularly good gender balance at HLM. In her previous job, she was sometimes the only woman professional. At HLM there are strong female role models, filtering down from board level: directors Caroline Buckingham and Karen Mosley; and associate directors, such as the Glasgow office manager Lorraine Robertson, and Lucy Plumridge, who leads HLM’s education sector.
Like our two other interviewees, it was through a complex project that Delia proved her worth at HLM. Nick Beecroft describes how, on her return to HLM, ‘we threw her in at the deep end, working on a 1000-bed accommodation scheme, the scale of which was beyond her experience. But she coped admirably, managed a happy team and submitted a very high-quality planning application which has just gained a full consent. Delia quickly became an integral part of the management team in Sheffield and through career development and movement in the business, I can see her leading our biggest office in the very near future.’
Helen Castle is consultant editor of Architectural Design and head of professional programmes at the RIBA
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