When Gensler’s founder decided to retire two years ago, everyone said leadership needed to choose a successor just one person to lead as CEO. But the architectural design firm’s next generation of leaders disagreed. They didn’t believe that choosing one leader was best for the firm and the direction it was going with its global initiatives.
“There was nobody who was going to be able to stand in [Founder] Art Gensler’s shoes,” Executive Director David Gensler says. “Nobody has the founder’s equity that he has. The fact is, nobody can run this company as a single individual the way that it was run by Art. It’s too big, too complex, and it’s too big of a burden for any individual, and the reality was he wasn’t running it himself. We all lived with the myth that he was running it, but we were a team underneath him that was running the company.”
With the backing of the senior managers and the board of directors, three people were identified who would take on the role of executive director: David Gensler, the eldest son of the founder, along with Diane Hoskins and Andy Cohen, both long-time employees of the firm. The three would jointly run the firm and each have a particular area of expertise. Gensler focuses on finance and operations, Hoskins on practice and professional development, and Cohen focuses on design excellence and client development.
While many greeted this decision with skepticism, and the three often differ in opinions, they always talk it out to ensure the firm succeeds and grows.
“It’s like a marriage,” Gensler says. “You’re either committed to making it work or you fail. And a lot of these kinds of leadership teams struggle I would probably say all of them struggle, and some of them fail. The fact is that the leadership of one is not necessarily a perfect model either.
“By having three of us, we connect to a lot more people than if there was just one of us,” Gensler says. “There are different aspects of each of us that are maybe more comfortable for any one individual to connect to.”
When the three executive directors began, they sat down and discussed a host of issues that would help the firm succeed in its global expansion efforts. While they agreed many things were important, three of the more crucial elements were grooming future leaders, creating unity and maintaining a long-term view of the business.
While they’re only in their second year as top dogs, they’re making strides in these areas to ensure success.
Part of growing means preparing people to take on additional responsibilities.
“The biggest challenge a second generation has is to make sure we grow and develop the third generation of leaders,” Gensler says.
The first key is setting them up to succeed. With more than 300 employees in the San Francisco office, it could be easy for them to get lost in the shuffle.
“That scale is hard for an individual to find their way in it,” Gensler says.
To combat that, employees are structured in units of 20 to 30 people.
“There’s opportunities for leadership development within that kind of organizational unit that allows people at every level to realize opportunity,” he says.
It’s also critical to invest in employees so their skills don’t stagnate. Gensler says the firm spends a tremendous amount of time and money on continuous training programs, sending people to industry events, and other initiatives centered on registrations and licensing for particular disciplines.
Transparency offers the third key to molding leaders. When employees can see, challenge and participate in decisions and problem-solving, it helps them understand the company’s processes as opposed to their niche responsibilities.
“We try to foster team development and opportunities within a team activity by exposing how we’re doing things,” Gensler says. “We make visible what the contract is, what the project plan is, how we’re managing that, how we’re performing at each interval and how you deal with things when they’re not working. That team-based environment is where the bulk of people’s development and learning is going to happen.”
While it can create uncomfortable situations when people challenge the leaders’ decisions, as a whole, it benefits the organization.
“It creates a greater level of trust and a much better opportunity for development,” he says. “What happens when you open up the kimono and show people what you’re doing and how you’re doing it? They’re going to question you, but they also, at least, don’t have to suspect some nefarious, malicious process or methodology or agenda.”
Gensler says leaders have to put aside their concerns. “People have to overcome two things,” he says. “One is fear, which, by allowing participation that they lose control, and by making it transparent, they create more problems than they solve.”
As employees grow and learn, they also have to be given additional responsibilities. At Gensler, employees must be with the firm at least a year before they can earn the first of three possible ascending titles, but it could also take years for people to earn any of the titles.
“You have to walk through that process of becoming an associate, senior associate and a principal,” Gensler says. “That encourages people to get a greater understanding of what it means to be a leader in this firm and play a role at every level.”
He also avoids having strict criteria for promotions and instead fosters discussion about people’s leadership, expertise and contributions to the firm during the year. This allows everyone to advance.
“What you expect out of somebody who’s a few years out of school versus somebody who’s 20 years out of school and has a huge body of experience is different,” Gensler says.
“Dad, why do you have to go?” Gensler’s youngest daughter asked as he tucked her into bed the night before he left for another business trip. “I really want you to stay.”
“It’s not easy to do something great,” he explained to her. “I have to work hard because I’m part of a firm that’s trying to do something great.”
That commitment is something he prioritizes as he and his team strive to maintain the company’s “One-firm firm” mentality, which isn’t exactly easy with 2,600 employees in 30 offices around the world.
“We are one firm in many locations,” Gensler says. “We’re not a franchise with a lot of different offices that share our name. We’re not a federation. We are, in fact, all connected and share a destiny.”
To keep people connected, the firm hosts a conference call for every office each Monday at a time that allows all the U.S. and London offices to participate during business hours. But when the Asian offices grew larger, they needed to be in on it, too, so someone’s going to have to sacrifice some sleep.
“Now we have to say, ‘Guess what, Asia? You guys get to get up in the middle of the night and participate in the call because we don’t have a solution of how to avoid that,’” Gensler says. “Somebody’s got to get up and draw the short straw.”
While it’s not ideal, they do it because they know it’s important for the firm.
“This community that we have in our firm is incredibly passionate about maintaining our culture, and we all know that there’s a price to be paid to do something great,” Gensler says.
Leaders have to also create unity for the next levels of leadership, too. Gensler hosts two major meetings each year one for all principals and one for practice area leaders.
“Twice a year we’re getting together roughly 100 people to connect them physically as large groups to share what they’re doing and renew their relationships,” Gensler says.
Then to further foster communication and interaction, Gensler suggests having employees work with people in other offices regularly. He says 20 percent of the hours on everyone’s time cards come from working with people in other offices.
It’s also crucial to reach out to younger people in an organization to connect them so they feel they have a place in the company. The firm groups one or two dozen younger, rising employees to work on a task together.
“That binds them together in a way that you can’t get if you say, ‘Well, yeah, I share the same business card as that person,’” Gensler says. “You’ve actually touched that person. You’ve talked to them. You’ve gotten to know them, and you’ve worked with them. That happens so much every day that it really holds us together.”
Beyond communication, companies can create unity in the way they reward employees. While many businesses award bonuses only to those offices that do well, Gensler takes a different approach by rewarding everyone.
“The bonuses are based on the firm’s profitability and then influenced by the region, the office and your individual contribution to the firm’s success,” he says. “It’s not formulaic. It’s based on judgment calls. We believe that formulaic, objective-based bonus compensations drive this kind of territorial type of behavior, so we rely on a subjective assessment by the leadership.”
This helps every employee keep the firm’s overall best interest at the forefront of his or her thoughts.
“An office that’s really having a great year is helping an office that is having a bad year,” Gensler says. “Recognize that offices will have ups and downs in this very cyclical industry, so that shared destiny of being in it for the benefit of the entire firm and recognizing that we benefit when we help our brothers and sisters in another office who are struggling really drives a whole cultural paradigm and a behavioral paradigm that holds us together.”
Keeping the long-term view
During the Sept. 11 attacks, Gensler was the chief operating officer and visiting the London office. He watched the office television for hours in horror, but it wasn’t until later, back in his silent hotel room, that he realized that as COO, he needed to organize the company’s response and deal with the resulting issues.
“I was experiencing this tragedy on a personal level,” he says. “It took me a few hours to realize I had to think about the long-term future of the firm and what my job was. That happens every day, on a much less traumatic scale I get pulled into a problem here or there, and I can’t allow that to completely take over my life. I have to make sure that I prioritize my job for this firm.”
To do that, leaders need to call each other out and constantly remind themselves and each other of their duties.
“You fail every day, but you try and come back to the fact that that’s your job,” he says. “I get pulled down into the weeds all the time.”
This constant self-check helps keep a longer view instead of focusing on the current quarter.
“If you take the long view as your guideposts and you develop a set of values that you aspire to, if you make mistakes, you can always come back to what the vision for your firm is,” Gensler says. “If you articulate that and communicate that and share that among your people by saying it, it doesn’t make it so, but it makes it visible. If you’re willing to admit that you’re going to make mistakes and we’re trying to achieve this together, I think every organization can weather the failure and achieve (its) ultimate goals.”
Gensler involves all of his people in hitting the mile markers along the road to success by communicating the vision and building on the organization’s DNA. That path has helped grow the company to $528 million in revenue for the fiscal year, which ended March 31.
“This firm has this kind of grassroots entrepreneurial spirit that says you can do anything you want, as long as it’s responsible, it’s consistent with our mission and you have a personal passion for it,” Gensler says. “By creating that sense of opportunity for people to pursue their personal passions, with that long-term vision that we have, is a way that grows this organization organically.”
HOW TO REACH: Gensler, (415) 433-3700 or www.gensler.com