Aidea Philippines’ Jojo Tolentino on Developing Architects
Tolentino refuses to use 'protégé' to describe Aidea's promising talents. He calls them 'young leaders.'
June 14, 2017
Interview and introduction by Miguel R. Llona
Photographed by Ed Simon
It is ironic that while the story of Jojo Tolentino inspired this BluPrint issue, the man himself refuses to use the word protégé to describe the people he wants recognized. He prefers to call them ‘young leaders.’ The reason for this is the way Aidea trains and develops its promising architects—the firm strays from the usual style of apprenticeship, where young employees are mere receptacles of whatever wisdom senior architects are willing to impart. Tolentino explains: “Our system is very different. It’s decentralized. We give them as much autonomy and as much freedom as we can. We guide them, but for the most part, they make the decisions.”
Editor’s Note: In 2015, BluPrint published a special issue called From Peer to Protégé in which the editorial team asked some established architects to cite young and promising talents that have caught their eye.
BluPrint: Can you tell us about how your own mentors and sponsors helped you to become who you are now?
Tolentino: I have to say that I consider myself fortunate because I worked with people who treated me well. Never in my career have I had problems with a boss of mine. In the Philippines, I worked for Engracio Mariano, then I worked abroad for foreign architects in HOK and John Lei, then I returned in Manila to form RMJM. I had people who guided me along the way. All of them gave me the opportunities that I needed.
But the thing is, I was also hungry for opportunities. At a very young age, they would let me handle big projects that gave me exposure, and they even sent me abroad to study. One time when I was working in Hong Kong, we had a Philippine client, and my employer decided to give me the project. I was 27 or 28. At first, they were a bit worried because I was too young, but eventually they said, why not, because I’d already proven that I can deliver. That was a big breakthrough for me, and I was able to secure more work from this local client.
If it weren’t for that opportunity, I wouldn’t have discovered that I can connect with clients and land projects for the company. It’s really been my good fortune that I was always on their good side. Maybe because I always wanted to take on more responsibility—I always wanted the difficult and problematic projects. Yung mga ayaw gawin ng iba, ako yung gumagawa. It came to the point that whenever there was a problematic project, my boss would assign it to me. [Laughs]
But why embrace the difficult projects?
Because they’re challenging. To me, it’s fun, it’s not a burden. It’s like running a company. Some see it as a burden, but me, I enjoy it. From time to time, you have to put out fires, appease a client who’s complaining, and keep your staff happy and engaged… All of these are the burdens and responsibilities of the head, but I find satisfaction in it, in the same way that I find satisfaction in securing and finishing a big project, and hearing from people that they learned from the company.
You must also have contributed to the careers of your sponsors.
I would think so. Because our team did well through our combined efforts, many of my superiors were able to elevate their careers within the organization. In that sense, we contributed in a small way to their career advancement. I would like to think that because we did very good projects, they enjoyed fulfillment in seeing a project built, and more importantly, in pleasing our clients. For an architect, that’s the ultimate satisfaction, a happy client. Maybe on the business side, they made more money because we were more efficient, and because of our effort, their happy client gave them another project. [Laughs]
Let’s talk about the protégés you’ve named. How did you develop them? What is your ultimate goal for them?
Because of Aidea’s set-up, which is more corporate, we couldn’t just identify one or two individuals, but a group of people who we feel form the next generation of leaders of the company. The old-fashioned way of doing it is you have one or two talented young architects, then you nurture that person until he or she develops into a senior designer. We’re doing it differently. We identify a group of promising young architects, fast-track them, give them training, then put them in leadership positions.
How do you identify people with potential to be future leaders of the company?
First of all, they display the right working attitude. You can be very talented, but if you don’t have the attitude that fits our culture, then you won’t work out here. It’s important for us that they be low-key and modest, and embrace the personality of the firm.
They also show leadership and design potential, of course. In other words, we need them to be holistic—we don’t want people who are good at design but bad at the technical side, and vice versa. We’re preparing people to assume leadership positions, di ba?
Loyalty is also important when determining future leaders, but we define it differently…they have to be loyal not to a person, but to the firm. At the same time, they also have to have an opinion, they don’t just accept status quo. We encourage our people to share their ideas in a constructive way. Most important of all, they always need to innovate themselves and eventually, the company. The goal for them is to be leaders of the studios. [Note: The design arm of Aidea is composed of seven studios that function as small design firms, each headed by a studio head who acts as principal.] But having achieved that already, the next goal for them would be to eventually lead the company one day.
Many of our young leaders are home-grown, meaning they’ve been with the firm for at least 10 years. They started as trainees, stuck with us during crises, so when it was time for them to assume leadership positions, it was easy because they were already exposed to how we do projects and how we ran the office. Each of them has their own strengths, and when you combine all those strengths, the net result is something bigger than the sum of the individuals. We have people who are very strong in design and management like Rex (Ocampo) and Alma (Raquepo-Palisoc), some are strong in client relationships like Ric (Reyes) who’s the head of corporate planning and marketing, and so on.
Most of them start out shy, which isn’t surprising. Ang Pinoy, mahiyain by nature. We’re very talented, but we just don’t want to flaunt or show how good we are. In Aidea, the way we expose them forces the issue—they’re put in a situation where they have no choice but to just deal with it. We force them out of their comfort zone. And then they realize na pwede naman pala! For example, si Susy (Martin). She was very introverted when she started out, but we saw the potential, so we forced her to deal with foreign clients until she developed the confidence and the skills, and now she can do things with minimal supervision. And now she’s training the next batch of young leaders.
Are you hands-on with the training and development of these young leaders?
Yes, I personally talk to each of them. I tell them what the plan is, and together with the senior people, we go over their career plans one by one, and we make sure that their direction is clear. We try to do this quarterly, sitting down with them and discussing their path.
I’m very particular with how we map the careers of our people, because I believe that people will stay because they see a future with the firm. If they don’t see a future for themselves here, even if you pay well, wala. That’s why we started an in-house university. We give them regular tests, we judge their performances in projects, customer reviews, reviews of their supervisors, reports of their peers…so the way we evaluate people is also holistic. The plan is not only for us to teach them, but also for them to ask themselves whether this is the right career path for them. If they feel that they are in the right career, then we will prepare them the best that we can so they can become good architects and designers. Part of it is technical competence, but also more importantly values formation, training in professionalism and critical thinking.
Does helping others grow in the profession contribute to your own growth and advancement?
Yes, because we have plans to grow…our vision is to constantly grow the firm. And to grow a firm, you need leaders, people who will help you run the company. You cannot do everything on your own. There should come a time when they can run the firm on their own. If they have the desire and vision to start their own firm, put up with the demands and pressure of running one, why not? We don’t mind. But if they want to stay here, we will prepare them to become good leaders of the company. That’s my ultimate fulfillment, that one day, all of these young architects we’ve trained will run this firm better than me.
What would turn you off from taking someone in as a trainee?
If they are not team players. Personally, I don’t want people who are self-centered, who only think about their own agenda. We want leaders in this company to be team players, to be good at developing their teams. That’s very important for me. Second, we don’t want people who are in it for the money. Again, it’s a profession. We should enjoy being architects. Money is a consequence of good work. We also don’t want people who are in a hurry to develop, because the profession takes many years of training before you become successful. The way we see it, in order to be a good architect, you have to spend at least 10 years doing projects and reporting to a more senior person, because you’re trying to develop your skills both as a designer and as a leader. So we want people to be patient, dedicated, focused and passionate.
I believe that good leaders should also be good followers, so if you’re not a good follower during your younger years as an architect, you won’t likely be a good leader. There’s a tendency for people not to follow rules, or there are people who see na sila lang ang tama, they don’t want to listen to people’s opinions or entertain other people’s ideas. That’s a big no-no.
How has this group of young leaders earned your trust?
Speaking in general terms, we want people who are willing to do things beyond their job description. For example, if a situation asks for them to rise to the occasion, take on bigger responsibilities, or if there’s a crisis, we would not need to urge them to respond to the situation, they would just respond. Walang tanong-tanong. To us, leaders should have that attitude, and the young leaders we’ve chosen exemplify that. For example, when they see that there’s a young architect who needs advice, there are two ways of reacting: they can just let them flounder, or they can offer help and let them know that there’s a better way of doing it. Of course, they do the latter. We encourage our people to have that proactive and constructive attitude, helping out people so they can do it right the first time.
What is your legacy, and what do you hope your protégés do with it?
I don’t think about legacies but just want them to be good architects. I want them to be good professionals, because that’s how we prepare them in this company. Nothing more. Sakin lang, if they go out on their own and start their own firms, I hope that they also treat their people well, that they also spend time and share whatever they make for the welfare and development of their people, because that’s how I was treated as a young architect. It’s like family, you know. If you come from a happy family, or a family that’s very close to you, you do the same to your children and hope that they do the same with their own families. To me, it’s very important that we, as elder architects, should see it as our responsibility to train and develop the younger ones, because they’re the future.
Hearing from the young leaders:
He challenges us all the time, adding more responsibilities to our plate and trusting that we can deliver. When I joined in 2005 as a junior architect, I started with small interior projects. Eventually, my projects became condos, office buildings, then master planning. Palaki nang palaki. He keeps exposing you to different projects, and through that exposure, you learn a lot. Another way that he challenges us is when he “reorganizes” teams. Once you’ve grown comfortable with your team, he’ll shuffle everything so you’ll be working in another studio. But this time, you’re in a higher position, with a different set of responsibilities. -Fenelon Sabat
As a boss, Sir Jojo makes an effort to know everyone by name. He once even asked new hires to wear nametags! He feels awkward when people greet him in the elevator and he can’t recall their names. When he’s needed, he doesn’t hesitate to work overtime with everyone else, even on Saturdays, and he’ll cut his holidays short if necessary. Despite his hectic schedule, he doesn’t show any hint of exhaustion from work. He’s very enthusiastic, and it rubs off on us. Best of all, he never asks his people to do things he’s not willing to do himself! -Giselle M. Favila
What I admire most about Jojo, and what I’ve emulated since, is how he handles crises. He never gets angry. Most people tend to fight or blame each other when they encounter problems or when they’re stressed. Jojo is solution-oriented—he asks how should we move forward when mistakes are committed. That attitude of always being positive is something that I’ve emulated, and it would be good for other architects, especially the young ones, to do the same. -J.D. Rex O. Ocampo
This story first appeared as “For the Future” in BluPrint Special Issue 1, 2015. Edits have been made for Bluprint.ph.