Surprising truths about building a learning culture (one firm’s story)

By Rich Friedman

The rate of change is moving at an increasing speed. Technology continues to change the way we design, build and run projects and our firms. In this article, we’re telling a story that we hope will inspire you to decide what kind of culture you want to build and be bold about going after it. It’s the story of how one firm has gone all-in on creating a culture of learning and innovation. They’re doing it in a way that is sometimes at odds with conventional wisdom – and growing a profitable business at the same time.

The big why: innovation + a growth mindset

Turner Fleischer (Toronto, Canada), a 150-person architecture firm specializing in private-sector projects, is determined to be on the forefront of technology and education. This is their strategic priority, and over the past several years, they have been rewiring their firm culture from the inside out to achieve it.

As they’ve grown from 61 people to 150 in the last 10 years, Turner Fleischer has built a young and culturally diverse team. More than half of the firm’s staff is under 34, and many have received their professional degrees outside of Canada.

“You need young people if you want to be a technologically advanced firm,” says CEO Ellen Bensky. “These talented individuals know tech, but they don’t always know the ins-and-outs of the industry. And they don’t have the luxury of a gradual learning curve by moving from one project to the next, because we need them up and running sooner than that.”

Turner Fleischer decided the answer was to launch a robust in-house program that offers critical learning and professional development credits for free. Not only would this help younger staff upskill quickly, it would also provide opportunities to build teaching and presentation skills and develop internal subject-matter experts. Since its inception in 2015, TF Academy has exponentially grown and in its current Spring/Summer semester is offering a total of 60 individual teaching sessions, spread over 18 courses, 22 electives, and 7 workshops.

Encouraging teaching and learning

At TF Academy, internal and external teachers deliver courses that are vetted and refined through a 10-step committee approval and development process meant to support teachers and ensure that the courses are effective and engaging. The firm encourages staff, at all levels, to propose, teach and take courses. Participants are not graded. There are no exams. Courses are not required for advancement and do not define a set career path.

“We want presenters who want to teach and share their knowledge authentically,” says Bensky. “I want people who are there because they want to learn. If we had requirements and grades and exams, it would change the whole dynamics of the Academy.”

Early on, the firm found that printed course materials were not as effective as active, hands-on, discussion-based learning. They evolved feedback systems to understand what was working and what was not. TF Academy now covers a variety of topics such as risk management, construction administration, condominium suite design, Photoshop, even a virtual reality class that prepares staff to understand and deliver VR experiences. The program also includes Partner-led architecture tours with external guest experts, which conclude with dinner, where the conversation continues. This year, at staff request, they’ve added a Health and Wellness stream with teachers sourced from the firm’s extended family.

Capturing and sharing wisdom

As a strategic priority, Turner Fleischer continues to roll out learning initiatives that are helping to build professional skills and personal connections, increase staff self-confidence, realize subject-matter experts, and help employees discover new interests.

The firm offers a three-month work shadow program three times per year to help employees better understand the work their colleagues do. Anyone can participate, and all levels of the firm are engaged. For example, one partner chose to shadow a seasoned REVIT expert to learn more about REVIT and gain hands-on experience. Technical staff have shadowed marketing staff and project managers have shadowed project accountants. After the shadow is complete, both parties present to the firm on what they’ve learned.

To tap into the valuable experience of the firm’s veterans, Turner Fleischer created a formal Practice Advisor role to provide coaching and insight for younger staff. Anyone can sign up for coaching sessions with one of the firm’s Practice Advisors, who also take staff on site visits to increase their understanding of projects and post relevant information on the company intranet, Newton.

“Practice Advisors are a way to give staff permission to have those vital interactions with senior staff, and to make it easy for them to do that,” says Bensky. “We’ve seen that drawings become very intentional once you go on site and can see how things are built.”

Members of a staff led development team “Automation Nation” lead drop-in software coding classes at lunchtime, while departmental teaching helps develop specific job-focused skills and knowledge. The firm has nine fulltime dedicated staff in a Digital Practice Department, which recently hired its first full-time programmer and has just completed the construction of a standalone technology lab for learning, complete with a 6-screen video wall for BIM coordination and a virtual reality space for client presentations.

Newton is a repository for more than 450 documents sharing knowledge on everything from drawing standards, the phases of a project, to how to lock up the office after hours. It is also a hub that includes a social media-style interface for posting and commenting on shared information. One popular feature is recorded video conversations with a Practice Advisor who recently retired.  Anyone was able to request a conversation – topics included what makes good architecture, project coordination practices, and hand versus computer drafting – which are recorded and edited down to 15-minute clips.

Learning has become a marketable differentiator in recruiting and retaining staff. It’s also sorted out who is a good fit and who would be happier at another firm. “It’s the number-one reason that people leave,” says Bensky. “If you are someone who has a fixed mindset, working here is going to feel overwhelming. For people who love to learn, we are the perfect fit.”

Developing a true learning culture – like deploying any large-scale cultural change – requires leadership to be integrally involved and needs to engage staff from the bottom up. Here are a few other lessons you can take away from Turner Fleischer’s experiences:

  • Don’t delegate it. Too many leaders delegate knowledge sharing or other culturally significant programs to HR, IT or marketing. At Turner Fleischer, principals are teaching and learning. They are job shadowing others, coaching and involved in deciding how learning programs are run and what is being offered.
  • It’s not always about utilization. Turner Fleischer employees don’t worry about whether attending classes will hurt their utilization because the firm does not set utilization targets. “If you let go of control, you will still have the utilization,” Bensky insists. Even with unbillable learning hours on the books, staff productivity – and firm profitability – remain high.
  • Be willing to invest in what matters. Successful learning programs require investment, and a well-managed budget. Turner Fleischer has streamlined the administration time and cost of TF Academy every year, moving from registration via business card and manual attendance to an automated registration system and QR-coded badges.
  • Define your ROI appropriately. The success of learning initiatives is not always measured in numbers and reports. In some cases, that data will not be easy to track. At Turner Fleischer, more confident employees, higher quality deliverables and more effective client interactions are part of the ROI, says Bensky. “If you are attuned to your culture, you will know whether it’s working,” she says. “If you are aligned to the goals, you will know if you’re meeting them.”

What’s most important to the culture of your firm? Is it baked into your operation? Tell me what defines your firm’s culture and what you’re doing to cultivate that at rich@friedmanpartners.com or (508) 276-1101.


Rich Friedman, President of Friedman & Partners, has worked in and consulted for the A/E/C and environmental consulting industries for more than 25 years.

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