John Eisenlau builds a culture that supports his vision at HOK Atlanta Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2010

When John A. Eisenlau was a child, he used to love building tree forts in his backyard. He was constantly creating something. His love of creating led him to attend design school, and that love has never left him.

And while it’s something that he’s passionate about, Eisenlau will also argue that good design is everywhere you look and critically important to success these days.

“Good design sells,” he says. “I think there are good examples of design selling in the world right now. Look at iPods and things of that nature — Apple has their hands wrapped around it nicely. The car industry has been doing it for years. There’s no question that good design sells. People want good design. They want sustainable design. They want timeless design. So my vision begins with design.”

His vision for HOK, the $496 million international architectural design firm of which he co-leads the justice business unit and serves as management principal of the Atlanta office, tries to address how design is constantly evolving and how it can enrich not only his clients’ lives but also the lives of his employees.

“They need to be motivated and captivated,” Eisenlau says. “They need to be challenged on a daily basis, so we spend a lot of time talking about design and where the design world is going. Americans have a greater appreciation for it, whether it’s fashion or automobiles or your home or the world of electronics. There are certainly great examples of where design sells. Our vision begins with that — being good designers and being good thought leaders.”

In order to effectively do that, Eisenlau has to make sure he creates the best environment possible for employees, and he does that by offering training, building trust with them and providing a nice physical environment.

Provide training

Eisenlau is well experienced in the industry and isn’t interested in participating in long hours of additional training, but just because it’s not something he’s passionate about for himself doesn’t mean he doesn’t see excitement in others about it — particularly the younger generation of his work force.

“They’re much more motivated to learn more, to expand their skills and to reach out to any new opportunities,” he says. “It’s very interesting.”

And that’s consistent across all of the HOK offices globally. Staff members are asked to complete 40 hours of additional training in a calendar year, and those young people are eating it up.

“You have a lot of people motivated by something different than I am, and they’re not necessarily motivated by money — they’re motivated by thought, by creativity, by new challenges every day and by not being told when to come and go,” he says. “It’s a very unique mindset to manage and to stimulate.”

The additional training opportunities through HOK University offers a way to stimulate them. For example, someone may be interested in the design of one particular type of facility, such as hospitals or airports, and if that’s what the person is interested in but not necessarily working on, it gives the employee a chance to learn about that area where his or her interest lies.

“The sort of bandwidth of your employees is much broader, and the fact that it’s wrapped into a normal work year — this is not something we expect somebody to go out on a Saturday and sit around and study this information,” he says. “We expect it to be done within the normal course of the business year.”

Employees are compensated for the time they spend in training, as well.

“So you don’t have people saying, ‘I don’t have time after hours to visit my kids or my significant other or I don’t want to burn up my Saturday doing this,” he says.

If you’re not sure where to start with putting together a training program, Eisenlau suggests beginning with the basics. First, define what the skills for each position are.

“Once you define very clearly what everybody’s roles and responsibilities are, then you can offer them the proper guidance and then you can offer them the proper training modules within your organization,” he says.

Then look at what are the basic skills needed to execute on those responsibilities.

“I would probably start with getting a firm understanding of what the proper skills are to sort of execute the product that that particular business leader was producing and make sure that the skill sets were properly addressed,” he says.

For example, for him, that could be basic things, such as defining what the roles of certain positions are or going over basic safety-code issues. Then from there, you can take it up a notch.

“Develop a varied training model that addresses everything from immediate skill sets to the creative side of your business, as well, and develop those training modules,” Eisenlau says.

Once you develop training programs, then you can gauge whether or not they’re effective by how employees apply what they learn to their work.

“A simple example to illustrate would be, let’s say someone takes an HOK-U learning module on handicapped accessibility within the building, and they learn a number of features in a learning module,” he says. “Well, when the actual project that they’re working on would have a code evaluation, there would be clues as to whether or not the training module was effective for that particular individual.”

Build trust in a team

You can probably think back to a time in your career when somebody questioned the quality of work you produced or some other aspect of how you performed your job, and while it may have been frustrating to experience that, how your boss responded probably made it better or made you feel worse about the situation.

As a leader, it’s important to make sure you’re supporting your team members, which is one way to build trust with them and build a good place to work.

“I go to bat for my team first of all,” Eisenlau says. “If their performance is challenged or the profitability is challenged or somebody wants to pull somebody off of one of our projects and move them on to one of our [other] projects, you need to look after your people.”

It’s important to seek out truth in those situations and back your people. It also helps to get to know your people.

“As a leader of your team, you have to stay very close to your people,” he says. “You have to sit with them, you have to be with them, you have to laugh with them, you have to go out and have a drink every once in a while. It’s very important to get to know them.”

Eisenlau is baffled by people who work remotely, because it’s too hard to do this very thing.

“Being with your team and being connected to your team yields the best success,” he says.

If you’re not sure how to start building relationships with people, start with a basic question.

“I’ll often start with what they’re working on,” he says. “Are you comfortable doing what you’re doing? Are you heading in a direction with your career that you want to go in?”

These kinds of career questions can lead to learning if they’re satisfied or not in their current role, but they also open the door for more personal questions as you build that trust.

“I don’t think you should, as leaders, ever underestimate the importance of the environment that you work in,” he says. “Recognize people. Be kind to people and recognize them and talk to them. Make them feel like they’re part of the whole. People get disenfranchised really easily when they just don’t feel like they’re part of the team.”

Beyond that, the last part of building trust is to make sure you’re sharing information with your employees.

“You need to reveal information — that’s one thing I’m learning as a leader,” he says. “Transparency of thoughts and ideas is very important. People want to know. People want information. This is an information-based world. You will not get people to trust you if you are hoarding information and not being honest about the information. I don’t care if it’s good news or bad news — put it out there.”

It’s also important to put it out there in a timely manner and not after the rumor mills have already begun to spin.

“Put it out there quickly and make sure you have your facts straight,” Eisenlau says. “People admire you for that, and they trust you for that as long as you’re clear and honest. It’s the people who hold information at bay and don’t disclose it — that’s where the trust, certainly in a creative environment, really starts to break down.”

This is particularly important if your work force is composed of younger people, as the new generation of workers wants to know information.

“People want information, and they want to know what’s going on,” he says. “They want it accurate, and they want it quickly, so if you’re running around hoarding information or you don’t have all your facts straight or you’re too fearful to put that information out there, that’s not a good success story.”

Create good physical spaces

Eisenlau is the kind of guy whose friends have stopped inviting him over for get-togethers and parties.

“It always intrigues me how people live or how they want to live or they aspire to live,” he says. “Friends don’t invite me over anymore, because I’m a little outspoken usually about their homes. I’m the kind of guy that takes my physical environment pretty seriously and my work environment and so forth, but I think it really shapes you.”

He says it’s important as a leader to provide a good physical work space for your employees.

“The place is important and needs to be aligned with the goals of the company,” he says.

For example, as a design firm, employees should be connected to the community, and his employees don’t want to work in the suburbs, so it makes sense for their office to be in an urban location instead of on the outskirts.

You also need to look at the way your office is set up and arranged.

“Your conference rooms, your lobby, your work spaces, it needs to be fun, and it needs to be light-filled — there’s no question about it,” Eisenlau says. “People just respond better.”

Look carefully at your break area. Does it promote socialization or does it discourage such activity?

“I’m not talking about the old, dank coffee area,” he says. “It needs to be glass, with a nice view, possibly with a nice library with a lot of current periodicals nearby. Make it a stimulating space. And your lobby needs to be a reflection of what you do, too.”

HOK’s is slick, modern and has a very contemporary feel — all of which reflects the company’s vision of being on the forefront of design.

“When people come to the office, it leaves them with an impression, and it should be a reflection of your office — kind of like someone walking into your living room at home,” he says.

What you don’t want is disparity between who your company is and how you present yourself to others. For example, perhaps someone you work with is extremely traditional in their actions, their work approach and even in how they dress, but then you go to their home and it’s very modern and sleek — there’s a clear disconnect between who you thought they were and how they live.

“It just amazes me when you see someone’s physical environment that may be spot on to the way they behave or it could be completely different from what you would have expected,” Eisenlau says.

Don’t let anyone coming to your office be blown away by how you present yourself versus how you actually conduct yourself.

“Your physical environment is very important,” he says. “It says a lot about your company. It will contribute or it will negatively affect the productivity and the creativity of your team.”

How to reach: HOK Atlanta, (404) 439-9000 or