The grow’s in the know Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2007

It is said that you don’t know a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. Ask Adrian Cohen and he’ll tell you that you don’t know a business until you’ve walked a mile in every position at the company.

Since being hired fresh out of college in 1974, Cohen’s advanced through every role at Widom Wein Cohen O’Leary Terasawa — from print boy to designer to project manager. Now, as president, CEO and managing partner of WWCOT, Cohen has put his intimate understanding of the architectural design firm to good use, building trust with his 170 employees and leading the firm to 2006 revenue of approximately $25 million.

“You need to know every part of your business in order to lead it,” Cohen says. “If you don’t, you have to talk to people, find out what they do and really hear what they’re saying.”

Smart Business spoke with Cohen about trust, autonomy and how to foster employees’ personal growth.

Q: How do you grant employees autonomy?

At every level, there has to be delegation and trust. If you micromanage, you’re really never successful because people then lose their interest in whatever job they’re doing.

You know what their strengths and weaknesses are and basically delegate everything you can based on their strengths. If you know someone is going to be a great, creative designer, just let them go and let them explore ideas.

Just because I’m the CEO of the company doesn’t mean that I’m smarter than everybody else. The thing that makes me smart is if I can see that someone is better than I am at a certain aspect of the practice and trust them and let them do that job.

Opening up that opportunity that people feel that they’re working for themselves is really what allows us to grow because now you have all these individuals who hopefully feel that they have their own practice, and they’re working really hard to do better projects and bring projects to the office.

Q: How do you build trust with your management team?

In order to trust somebody, you need to know them well. It shouldn’t be blind trust. It should be trust based on what you know their abilities are.

I generally attend the project meetings. I try to personally attend key meetings to gauge how the project is going, to see if there’re any changes that we need to make in terms of our approach. That’s really how I know.

I’m also involved in the billing, so I see what progress we’ve made on the project and how we’re doing based on the fee that we have. Usually, you see if the project is going smoothly or if there are some challenges up there that we need to work on.

Q: What one thing can prevent growth?

A company that doesn’t provide opportunities for personal growth.

No matter what kind of industry you’re in, people want to grow. No one wants to be stagnant. When you get up in the morning and you don’t want to work, you’ve got a problem.

Make sure that every supervisor in the firm knows that part of their job is to provide opportunities for the people they supervise.

We have a performance review, which takes a very interactive approach. We have specific forms in which we ask the employee to not only talk about their performance and how they rate themselves, but what needs do they have that are not being met and what can we do about it.

At the end of that employee review, you develop a plan for the next year in terms of not only if they need any improvement in their performance, but also, you identify their needs and growth desire. That plan might include specific training on an area that they want to grow in. That might be going to conferences or seminars or those kinds of things.

The only way (the company’s) going to grow is having those very unique individuals that have an ownership in the company. And by ownership, I mean actually feeling that their personal needs are being fulfilled.

Q: What else do you do to foster personal growth?

One of our senior partners here, he spends a lot of time teaching our younger people. We have classes like a university class that’s done in a long lunch hour, and we invite people to come in and talk about a particular subject that’s important to our profession.

That is part of the personal growth, understanding more and more of what is happening in your chosen career. It gives you an understanding of the entire operation. It also enforces everybody to work toward the same goal because they understand the big picture.

HOW TO REACH: Widom Wein Cohen O’Leary Terasawa, (310) 828-0040 or