The writing’s on the wall Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2007

Andy Cohen has a crystal ball. Actually, he has quite a few. And although he may refer to them as “clients” in the vernacular, their prophetic abilities are no less astounding.

As one of three executive directors at Gensler, Cohen looks to the customer to predict the changing needs of a demanding marketplace.

“We have client speakers that are telling us what’s happening within their industry,” he says. “We have client symposiums. We’re constantly listening to how the market’s changing and shifting.”

Such soothsaying has paid off for the design firm as the Los Angeles office of the San Francisco-based company grew to 350 employees with 2006 revenue of $72 million.

Smart Business spoke with Cohen about how to get your staff to buy in by writing on the walls.

Q: How do you motivate your staff?

You really have to set a long-term strategy that people really buy in to. And it’s not just top-down; it’s bottom-up.

Meet with all your key people immediately, understand their goals and aspirations, and really listen carefully to the business strategy. Then set a key framework or vision with your key leaders of where you want to be 10, 20 years from now.

Q: How do you get buy-in from your staff?

Communication is the key. Do a lot of brainstorming sessions. By having these sessions and eliciting everyone’s response, everyone buys in to that vision.

Literally document it on a huge piece of paper. We write on the walls basically, and people put their ideas up on a big piece of paper. That document becomes the script for setting in motion the next steps of the vision and the strategy. Everyone gets a copy of that banner.

We have what we call all-staff meetings, where we’re grouping all staffs together and sharing the strategies with them. We have a lot of different videoconference calls around the globe where we’re constantly sharing ideas and strategies.

The key is to have open transparence and communication with the entire staff. When you have a firm of 3,000 people in 30 cities around the globe, it’s hard to walk the floor. We have many meetings a year where we bring different groups of people together from around the firm to strategize.

Again, it comes back to this communication thing — of constantly getting out with the troops, listening to them, understanding their goals, and then repeating over and over again what we aspire to be and where we aspire to go.

Q: How do you analyze the marketplace?

In the different markets you’re involved in, meet with the industry leaders. I like Jack Welch’s statement, ‘You want to be No. 1 and 2 in every field you’re involved with.’

Listen to the industry leaders. Go to specialty group symposiums that are talking about industry trends so you’re really understanding what the leaders in the industry are doing.

Q: How do you recognize business opportunities?

The world is in constant change right now, and there are a lot of different kinds of opportunities that are coming as it becomes more of a global marketplace. We only enter markets where we truly can have a competitive advantage and make a difference in that market.

I would urge a CEO to not go into a highly competitive field where it’s a marginal-at-best level of success.

Q: How do you make sure you hire the right people?

Usually someone who joins the firm, they might go through two, three, four interviews with different groups of people in the office that are handling different areas just to make sure that we all feel comfortable that they meet our criteria for hiring.

It gets cumbersome at times because it slows it down, but you really need buy-in from the people that you’re hiring to make sure that they fit within the culture.

Q: How do you create a unified culture across several offices?

You truly have to have what I call a ‘one-firm firm’ culture, where a client’s able to pick up the phone, and if they’re calling Shanghai, they’re getting a very similar response as they are in Los Angeles.

Even though it crosses cultural lines in different countries, our culture and our brand needs to permeate everything we do and everything we touch.

Q: What advice would you give a new CEO?

It’s about wanting to make a difference in whatever field you’re in, with passion and energy, really wanting to make a difference, to set the bar really high.

It comes back to our mission statement — to redefine what is possible. Redefine what is possible in your field. Look at it differently and create your own niche and create your own differentiation, and mentor and coach those people to aspire to be what they want to be.

HOW TO REACH: Gensler, www.gensler.com or (310) 449-5600