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The Learning Company

Symmes Maini & McKee Associates fosters a collaborative, intellectual culture through a series of education and training programs.
Ara Krafian, SMMA's president and CEO, came to the firm at age 28. Offering educational programs, he says, is key to cultivating leadership.
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Every company looks for smart employees. But Symmes Maini & McKee Associates, an architecture firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, goes the extra mile to continually stimulate its employees' intellect once they have arrived. The company regularly invites academics and other experts to train employees in the latest industry practices, and it pays for employees to hone their expertise by taking courses at local universities, including Harvard and MIT. It also boasts its own set of educational programs, including knowledge groups in area such as sustainable design and a mentorship program that annually matches principals with junior employees.

SMMA's emphasis on education and training, says Ara Krafian, the company's president and CEO, is rooted in his belief that intellectually engaging work leads to higher morale. The company strongly encourages its employees to develop thought leadership in design for sectors such as life sciences and education. To further encourage knowledge sharing and connectivity, the company in 2009 reorganized the office into interdisciplinary units. Architects, engineers, and designers now sit together and regularly collaborate.

The company also has a strong track record of homegrown leadership. Krafian has been with SMMA since 1991, and none of the firm's board members have been with the company for fewer than 12 years. Last year, SMMA reinforced its commitment to leadership development through LEAP, a yearlong program for department and project managers, who receive evaluations from their direct reports and attend workshops to address any weaknesses in their management skills.

By virtue of these practices, SMMA has been able to thrive even as the construction sector has severely diminished. Over the past four years, the firm has steadily grown, posting revenue of $29.3 million in 2010. Krafian spoke with Inc. senior reporter April Joyner on the company's approach to fostering a stimulating, collaborative culture.

Why did you decide to organize the office into interdisciplinary groups?
A lot of firms are very competitive: if you're not on the project that's getting attention, then your contribution isn't meaningful. Ours is more a culture of winning and losing together. I think the relocation has elevated our game substantially. For people, their work becomes something more than just their technical discipline. A mechanical engineer will not only be worrying about how to flow air through a building, but what type of system is most appropriate for kids in a K-12 building. Also, I think it's interesting. That's the quality of life piece.

Although a collaborative culture has advantages, isn't there also an upside to a competitive culture, in that it pushes employees to produce better work?
A culture of niceness shouldn't be confused with a culture of laziness. We as a firm are very hardworking. I think there's always individuals trying to outdo each other, to do the best they can do. We work in comprehensive teams, so there's cross-discipline involvement. The architects, the engineers, and the site planners are constantly striving to keep up with each other. It's a more healthy approach—nobody wants to disappoint.

Are employees permanently assigned to groups, or do they rotate?
People move around. We try to make it not so often, so that the feeding and caring for one another by learning has time to happen. My aim is to have half of the staff dedicated to a group and the other half move around and shift to where there is the most workload, but it's not quite that mathematical now. We have project leaders who are thought leaders for their industry, so they stay in the same group. Our goal is for people to be able to develop a level of respect and trust for their colleagues. We don't want anyone to have a consultant type of gig.

Do employees in other departments also work collaboratively?
Well, you can't push finance onto the floor. Some things have to remain secure. We thought about pushing marketing onto the floor, but we decided not to at the end of the day. Having five or six people spread out across an organization wouldn't be as effective, so we ended up keeping the department together. There may be a time when we relocate them, depending upon the project and need.

Do people come to the firm already having expertise or interest in a particular industry, or is that something you seek to foster internally?
We certainly do foster it within the company. We have outside people come in to do lectures on specific areas of practice, and we send employees to offsite courses. Recently, we had a member of our life sciences team take courses at Harvard to become more expert on a particular lab type. But we look at it in a variety of ways. The most prevalent example is our internal mentoring. Very senior architects typically focus on an industry type, and they in turn teach our younger employees.

What qualities do you look for in new employees?
You're looking for the entire person. Obviously, they have to be qualified, to do the things that need to be done. I think in all cases they have to share a belief in our mission statement and our value statement. Some people don't like the idea of integrated collaboration. I'd say 75 to 80 percent of people probably don't want to work in our environment, and I wouldn't want them here. But for the 20 percent who do, it's a great place to stretch yourself. We're turning away more people than we take in.

Do you like to hire young employees?
I always like to bring young people in, to give them freedom and allow them to challenge things. I like not to pull out the academia so quickly. In school, you're meant to stretch out your mind, to think about innovation and creativity without any preconceived notions of solutions. You're more apt to be experimental. When you've designed ten labs, and you start the next project knowing this is your eleventh lab, you become stale—you approach everything very similarly. We like to develop a lot of ideas, test modules and do things differently. We like people who push us.

How do you approach leadership development? What qualities do you look for in a manager?
Most of our people have been here a long time. I'm not just bringing someone in here and saying, "You're in charge." I'm allowing them to perform and watching. I'm looking to see if they're providing quality and fitting into our culture. Are they influencing things internally and externally in the industry? I think those are the keys. We want our most talented people to be the most senior people. It can't just be that you have the right attitude and you're hardworking. We still need the most talented people to lead the organization. But we're not bringing in management from the outside. We rarely do that, if ever.

Is that why the company invests so much in education and training programs?
It's just the culture we have—it's a learning culture. Obviously, we have lots of tools in place to encourage and teach leadership skills, whether through classes outside the company or doing things inside the company. For me, it all comes back to this: you're on Earth for a certain amount of time, and you want to enjoy it. That doesn't mean putting your feet up on a chair. It means challenging yourself. You want to make money, make friends, build respect, learn something, contribute. All that has to come together in your personal life and your professional life.





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