The Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program Continues to Build On Its History of Success
Advancing Architect Leadership: The Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program Gives Young Architects Essential Skills to Enhance Their Management Abilities
When Ryan McEnroe and Sean Stadler started the Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program (CKDLP) in 2013, they envisioned a program that would provide young architects with leadership skills that could not be learned elsewhere. Their friend and colleague Christopher Kelley, who is the program’s namesake and inspiration, was an architect and active participant in the American Institute of Architect’s (AIA) Washington D.C. chapter. As the former chairman of the AIA National Young Architects Forum, Kelley’s most pressing concern about his industry was finding ways for young professionals to learn communication and leadership skills that are critical to the success of any architect.
Kelley recognized that a typical education for young architects does not include effective leadership techniques, so he set out to establish a new opportunity for young professionals to enhance their skills. After Kelley tragically passed away from a heart attack at a young age, McEnroe and Stadler decided to finish the job their friend started. Kelley’s goal of building a more comprehensive program for architects to learn skills that are not taught in school became a reality when the Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program was founded in 2013 in Washington D.C.
“Christopher would have whole-heartedly been 100 percent in on developing this program and making sure it was successful,” Stadler said. “He was witty, smart, energetic, really dedicated, and creative, and I really enjoyed working with him because he was passionate about design and passionate about helping emerging professionals in their careers.”
Unlike other programs designed to help young professionals, the CKDLP is one of the only programs in the United States designed specifically to help architects to become leaders in their profession. Seven years after its inception, the CKLDP has ballooned from just one local chapter in D.C. into a national organization with 10 regional host chapters across the country: AIA Albuquerque and New Mexico (joint), D.C., Colorado (Denver), Detroit, Georgia (Atlanta), Houston, Indiana (Indianapolis), Kentucky, Miami, and St. Louis. Participants in the program must be within their first 10 years of licensure and each chapter accepts 16 scholars per year.
A Different Type of Program
When accepted into the program, scholars must first undergo an introductory “boot camp” session where they learn more about the program itself. After this preparatory session, participants are assigned into pairs to plan the course’s monthly sessions. With meetings taking place over an eight-month period, each pair of scholars is responsible for putting together one session for their fellow classmates. An initial framework for sessions is provided by the chapter’s chair to help guide scholars, but the process of planning a session is one of the program’s most unique challenges.
“That’s a big part of leadership in itself. Actually developing that session is leadership,” McEnroe said. “We usually get the scholars out of their seats, out of their comfort zone and almost in a theatrical manner, get them in front of their peers selling themselves on why they matter.”
Session planning requires several weeks of work for scholars. Not only must they create an engaging presentation and discussion for their classmates, but they are also tasked with gathering sponsorship, making lunch orders, finding speakers for the event, building an outline, and finding a venue, among other responsibilities.
“We wanted to have the scholars finish the program and say ‘Gosh, that was exactly what I wanted it to be’, because whatever was in their minds is what they created the program to be,” said Stadler.
“It’s everything we weren’t taught in school,” said Jennifer Miller, President of the CKLDP Indiana chapter and Browning Day Associate.
Topics for these sessions range from the art of negotiation to community involvement. Scholars are encouraged to discuss these subjects in-depth with each other while actively participating in each session so they can apply the lessons they learned to their own careers.
“By being surrounded by colleagues who come from so many different backgrounds, firm sizes, and areas of expertise, you have a chance to ask the questions you never could have asked and learn things from each other,” said Teri Coates, Past Chair of the AIA|DC CKLDP and founder of Canvas Architecture and Development in D.C.
McEnroe and Stadler knew that an increased understanding and awareness of industry happenings allows architects to thrive in the industry. Because of this, they wanted to create an atmosphere at meetings that forces scholars to listen and respond to perspectives unlike their own.
“This is not a program that you’re going to come in and sit down and get your 45 hours of continuing education credit done,” McEnroe said. “You’re actively engaged in the conversations every month.”
The Application Process
Only 16 professionals are accepted into each class per year, so potential scholars must fill out a comprehensive application for a chance to join the program. Applications require a letter of interest, a resumé, one to three letters of recommendation, and answers to three short-answer questions regarding the applicant’s opinions on challenges in the industry today. These questions are:
- What do you feel are the three most significant issues and opportunities facing the profession today?
- What are the specific skills or knowledge you hope to gain from your participation in CKLDP?
- How do you define leadership, and how have you demonstrated leadership skills to this point in your career?
McEnroe said these questions are designed to allow candidates to speak freely.
“We want to give the applicants an opportunity to speak from their heart and this is one of the few parts of the application where we can interpret who the applicant is as a person, rather than who they are on paper”,” McEnroe said.
Answers to these questions allow the program’s managers to gain insight into the backgrounds and goals of their applicants. McEnroe said they focus on candidates who understand both their strengths and their weaknesses, and while an applicant’s leadership potential is taken into account when forming a class of scholars, leaders of the program also search for professionals who demonstrate an open mind and affinity for leadership.
“We make sure that we have a really robust group of people coming from different perspectives to create a strong cohort,” said Claire Dickey, the current AIA|DC CKLDP Chair and Senior Associate at Perkins Eastman D.C.
The most stimulating discussions, according to scholars who finished the program, occur when participants are able to hear a variety of viewpoints.
“We’re trying to get a broad group of people and backgrounds to really help influence these different topic presentations,” Miller said.
Coates, who was once a scholar in the program, said the CKLDP’s one-of-a-kind approach helped her become the leader she is today.
“It’s definitely a network of people that I wouldn’t have without the program,” she said.
Coates compared the comradery she sees amongst her fellow CKLDP scholars to the bond formed amongst college students during their time at school. In a time of growth, learning, and vulnerability, Coates said the relationships that scholars form through the program are long-lasting.
“You can always pick up the phone and call those people you went through the program with,” Coates said. “It’s a pretty cool experience to feel like you have family on a different level within the profession.”
Benefits of the program extend beyond personal relationships, though. Statistics show that young professionals who participate in the program are more likely to get involved in leadership positions after their graduation. After going through the program, 87 percent of scholars are promoted within their firms. Among the 16 scholars from the first CKLDP class in 2013, four went on to become principals within their firms, three of which becoming the youngest principals to date in their firms.
Additionally, 65 percent of scholars take on new leadership roles within the Institute after the program and 35 percent take on new leadership roles within their communities. These statistics show that after participating in the CKLDP, scholars consistently go on to become more impactful members of their society.
“I think the best part for me was just taking that time to get out of the office and truly reflect on the specific topic of the month and how I can potentially bring it back to my firm and improve what we’re already doing,” Miller said.
Continuing to Evolve
While the overall mission of the CKLDP has remained consistent since the program started, the specific topics discussed by scholars evolve as the industry advances. Subjects that may have been pressing in past years are no longer as relevant to modern professionals, so leaders of the program constantly update course curriculum to reflect changes in the industry.
“What was relevant in 2013 is not necessarily relevant in 2020, so we don’t want to make the curriculum so rigid that it can’t move,” McEnroe said. “But we want to provide enough of a framework that it doesn’t become a complete catch-all where you can do anything.”
As the program extends into more states, newer chapters are looking to replicate the success of the original D.C. chapter. Indiana’s chapter, which started in 2018-19, is starting to see the effects of the program. Last year, four new firms put scholars into the program.
“More firms around the state are aware of the program now and are seeing the benefits of it,” Miller said.
Programs like CKLDP require commitments from both the scholar and the company where the scholar works. Scholars are tasked with hours of work outside of the office, so companies must be aware of this time commitment and support their employee. In D.C., organizations like Gensler, a global architecture firm, contribute greatly to the success of the program.
Jordan Goldstein, FAIA, FIIDA, Principal and Global Director of Design at Gensler, said his company’s financial commitment to CKLDP is inspired by the unique opportunities the program presents young professionals, as well as the dedication that Kelley showed to developing leadership during his time at Gensler.
“All of us at Gensler recognized the importance of the program from its initial inception,” Goldstein said. “Not only did the program honor Christopher’s memory, but it also created an incredible learning platform to nurture the next generation of industry leaders. We committed our personal time and Gensler funding to help support the program’s growth.”
Miller said the Indiana chapter is broadening its potential applicant pool by allowing more professionals to apply. Instead of recruiting only architects, Miller said the program is now open to designers in general, following the lead of more established CKLDP chapters. Professionals who work in landscape, urban planning, interior design are now welcome to apply, as well as other design professionals. Applications for this year’s competition will be released this month.