Building blocks Featured

11:12am EDT March 1, 2011
Chip Bullock, managing principal, Atlanta, HDR CUH2A Chip Bullock, managing principal, Atlanta, HDR CUH2A

Throughout his career, Chip Bullock always envisioned creating a collaborative, team-based approach to architecture and engineering in order to get the best possible facility designs.

So when he became managing principal of the Atlanta office of HDR CUH2A, a $286 million integrated architecture and engineering firm, he wanted to realize his dream.

The problem is, people think in different ways.

“Architects and engineers come from two completely different backgrounds and approaches to solving a problem,” he says. “Architects like to explore problems until the last minute before they settle on a solution, while engineers love to solve a problem through a series of prescribed steps in a very efficient manner.”

If he could bring people together, he thought he could realize his dream.

“Great architecture and engineering is a fusion of those two approaches, so [I want to] try to help the architects understand more of what drives the engineers and help the engineers understand more of what drives the architects,” he says.

But the differences in approach to problem-solving weren’t the only obstacles he faced.

“We have a matrix organization, which has its pluses and minuses over a top-down kind of organization, but it often can lead to confusion about who’s responsible, who’s accountable and how to get things done,” Bullock says. “I seriously wanted to make an improvement over the current situation.”

He wanted people to work together and reach higher quality levels. He also hoped employees would have an experience they valued, and he wanted to raise the bar on projects so clients would rave about their work.

Bullock had seen what this looked like in previous organizations, and he thought if he could take a different approach to training, it may just be achievable.

“I knew that I needed to do this for the viability of this office,” he says. “I wanted to take it to a higher level. There wasn’t a training program out there that I could just take off the shelf. I had really been thinking about how to train people to be critical thinkers, how to express themselves in a way that allowed a free flow of communication and problem solving. … I knew there had to be a better way to do it than we were doing presently.”

So he set out to hire a consultant, have an initial program and then build a larger program from there so he could achieve his vision.

“I recognized the power of bringing in expert leadership trainers for myself, my lead team and my project teams. I set to develop a scalable training program that would allow me to improve myself, my people, our service and, in time, allow me to implement my vision.”

Hire a consultant

The first thing that Bullock did to work toward his grand vision was to bring in consultants to help lead the charge. He says if you want to build a successful training program, then this is a key.

“Definitely [have] a face-to-face interview, references and direct conversation about what your expectations are and exploring how flexible they are on creating a training program that’s customized to the approach that you envision but being open to their professional advice at the same time,” Bullock says.

When you talk to someone you want to potentially bring in to your organization, communication is crucial.

“You have to be a good listener,” he says. “You have to make your points very concise and to the point.”

These conversations in the interview process are key because it helps you start building a relationship with that person and helps you know if you can really collaborate with that person.

“You really want it to be a professional collaboration that’s really right for both parties,” he says. “You really need to know where that person is coming from and (if their style of approach) will be compatible with the culture that you have. The biggest mistake somebody can make is to have a mismatch of personality or styles that would hinder the program.”

Bullock suggests that you ask open-ended questions of that person to see how they respond. These open-ended questions will give you the most opportunity for learning.

“Get that person to tell about their successes and failures with training programs,” he says. “I would ask about what their motivation was to be in that line of consulting.”

He says to be very careful in how you phrase your questions so you’re not giving away what you’re looking for in the way you ask it.

“A lot of people start off with answering the question they’re going to ask before they ask the question, which defeats the purpose,” he says. “I always go into something like that with a list of things I’m after prepared in advance, and I always frame them in a way that can’t be a yes or no answer.”

Lastly, Bullock says to look at the nonverbal cues when you’re hiring someone. Often, these can be a good indication of someone’s personality.

“Eye contact and body language are certainly very important ways to gauge a person’s interest and ability for creating a program,” he says. “For example, do they lean toward you or away? And are their arms crossed or open? It’s really good to be a student of kinesiology as it applies to the workplace. It’s probably the most important thing one’s going to do, so the more upfront one can be on good interview skills for picking a consultant, it’ll be the smartest investment you’ll ever make.”

Have an initial program

Once he brought his consultants on board, Bullock didn’t jump cherry-bomb style into the pool. Instead, he just dipped his toe in to check the temperature.

“The first step was to go through the individualized training with the consultant on leadership skills, which was a good way to gauge the consultant for their suitability for the bigger picture program that I had in mind,” Bullock says. “Being a cautious buyer and not wanting to risk everything all at once, I really wanted to gauge how well we could work together to test drive what they had to offer.”

The consultants led an interactive, eight-person leadership workshop with Bullock and a diverse group of people. The group participated in soul-searching exercises that pushed people to reflect on their own skills, but the program also paired those exercises with real-life assignments for the group to do with their staffs between sessions. Bullock says the combination approach allowed him to connect with people in the office in a completely different way than he had previously.

He says it was also important for himself to participate in this initial session, not just because he wanted to see what they had to offer but also to learn about himself.

“Put one’s greatest effort into understanding oneself better and understanding how you come across to your colleagues, overcoming your blind spots, building your effective communication skills and working to really understand others,” he says.

Through these sessions, Bullock learned that he has a tendency to speak over people’s heads and that he needs to simplify his language sometimes.

“This training program allowed me to synthesize everything I had learned from that academic approach in a true leadership setting,” he says. “Really, the key was the more things you can do to relate to others effectively, the better you have a framework to communicate and, more importantly, the more you understand yourself, then you build this great foundation that you need to learn to work with and understand others.”

Build a bigger program

As he went through the initial program, Bullock started to put together the larger training program that would help him achieve his vision.

“As I went through the program, I was looking to see what parts of it were scalable to my direct reports and how could I creatively use this training program at the project leadership level,” he says.

He would bounce his ideas off of the consultant so they could collaboratively create the next-tier approach for his direct reports and how they could implement a project-based training program.

“Being a firm believer in advanced planning, I laid out plans well in advance of the opportunity to actually implement it, so the approach was refined over a series of iterations and collaborations with the training consultant,” Bullock says.

The main element of training that changed was instead of getting all of the information you could ever need to know all at once, employees started receiving training right when they needed it.

“We give people skills on a just-in-time basis, not a training program that’s a download of information that you’re hoping you can remember in a week, a month, a year later,” he says. “It’s a combination of core skills and ongoing coaching and support as projects are delivered.”

Now, new employees come in and they have a day and a half of general, core-skills training, but from there, employees receive training on specific project types or issues just ahead of when they’ll encounter them. These additional training sessions are typically half-day to three-quarter-day sessions.

“I want this to really connect with the actual doing of the work, so we schedule them around key milestones in advance of the milestones, so we have a chance to work out solutions for the inevitable challenges that come in delivering large, capital projects,” he says.

As employees moved forward, when new problems came up, those would be considered for future training courses.

“In the early stages of, particularly, the project training sessions, we get everybody to chart out what things went wrong that created a problem,” he says. “In almost all cases, they were things that could have been avoided. Once we knew where those pitfalls (were), we could really focus on developing an approach that kept everybody focused on a positive future and positive outcomes, because we already knew where things were going to go wrong. If we know where things are going to go wrong, we can have a plan to help mitigate those things.”

As these programs have developed and grown over the past two-plus years, Bullock is seeing a clear difference at the firm.

“Where people might have promised to get something done and came up with an excuse when they didn’t get it done, they’re much more open to saying what they need to be successful in getting the thing done in advance, so we can find a solution to the problem,” he says. “One goal of the training program was to eliminate excuses to readily foreseeable problems that, if they were discussed in advance in the right setting, we could have a much better outcome.”

The training programs have helped increase client satisfaction because employees are more proactive about problems than before, and the programs also helped people understand elements of other people’s jobs, which has created the collaboration that Bullock dreamed of.

“The most gratifying part of my job is when I can see people self-initiate that exploration of solving problems together in a collaborative way,” he says. “When I realize that an engineer is talking and drawing the way an architect would and an architect is talking and solving a problem like an engineer, the end result is really better than either party could have come up with on their own.”

Establish your vision

Bullock was able to create a strong training program because he had a very clear vision of where he was going. But what if you don’t know where you’re going?

If a client came in and told Bullock to design him a building, the first obvious question would be to ask what kind of building. Knowing the kind of thing you’re trying to create is critical — a hospital is different than a research laboratory and a house is different than retail space. So if Bullock didn’t know what kind of project he was trying to create, he wouldn’t be able to design it.

In the same way, if you don’t have a vision of what you want your organization to be, then you can’t create any program or goal to get you there.

“Having a strong vision is really paramount in this,” Bullock says. “Having a dream to create a new culture is very rewarding, it’s very demanding.”

First identify what it is you want to create or change in your organization so you know what you’re working toward and then define how to get there.

“Have no fear of going down that path,” Bullock says. “To create a vision, it’s really important to find your vision in terms of the commitments and what they mean to you personally in very clear, simple terms.”

In Bullock’s case, he knew that he wanted to create a firm that could blur the lines between architecture and engineering to create the best designs, and that was his career ambition — not just something that if it got done, then that would be nice. His passion comes through to his team.

“It’s more than just buy-in,” he says. “It’s really driving home and enrolling people in the vision and getting them to commit that they’ll be there to make it happen.”

But most people won’t commit if they don’t know what’s in it for them, so one of the keys to establishing your vision is to make sure that people understand their own individual role in making that vision happen.

“You also have to make sure that people understand that there is a place for them to fit into the vision and that they’re a very important part of carrying it out,” he says. “It can be as simple as first writing it out and get it to the place where people can understand it in such clear, simple terms.”

How to reach: HDR CUH2A, (404) 815-1212 or

The Bullock file

Chip Bullock

managing principal, Atlanta


Born: Chattanooga, Tenn.

Education: University of Tennessee in Knoxville School of Architecture

What was your first job as a kid?

My first job ever was working for a commercial woodworking, fence and sign company, where we built very large, heavy-timbered wood constructions for commercial clients. I worked with heavy machinery, lots of heavy manual labor. I learned really quickly that there wasn’t any room for creativity on my part in that kind of job. My boss would tell me, ‘I figured out exactly the most efficient way to do this — you don’t need to think about it; you do it the way I’m telling you to do it.’ My boss happened to be a retired Lockheed engineer.

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I had two lines of thought — I either wanted to be a road construction civil engineer like my grandfather, or I wanted to be a mechanical engineer that designed high-performance automobiles, and my third choice was an architect. I chose architecture because I liked to draw so much.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I’ve ever received is you’ll only get one chance to make your case for a change order, and only a fool would be willing to attempt to argue about the end result after that. That was my grandfather, who was the road-building construction contractor.