New Book Offers Recession-Resistant, ‘Run-Toward-Trouble’ Strategies

CEO Imparts Lessons Learned for Creative Services Businesses Small and Large

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Author Patrick MacLeamy, FAIA, pens new book Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm: The People, Stories, and Strategies Behind HOK. Photos Courtesy of: HOK and Patrick MacLeamy. Click here for high-resolution images.

Most creative services firms lack the infrastructure to survive recessions and economic swings due to catastrophic events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.  Former CEO Patrick MacLeamy led his global company out of a triple crisis that could have easily bankrupted the business.  In his new book, Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm: The People, Stories, and Strategies Behind HOK (Wiley, 2020), MacLeamy offers clear, actionable advice to help other professional services companies thrive through recessions, leadership changes, and other potentially disastrous challenges.

Written from the point of view of an architect, the book relies on “design thinking” to guide all types of businesses to success.  “When I started as an architect, I was passionate about designing buildings,” MacLeamy remembers.  “When I became CEO of HOK, I grew equally passionate about designing a firm.  I learned some things along the way that I hope will help others design their own recession-proof firms.”

MacLeamy’s most unconventional advice is to “run toward trouble.”  Seemingly counter-intuitive, this approach prevents small problems from becoming big problems and big problems from mutating into disasters.  “Instead of ignoring problems, hunt them down and resolve them,” writes MacLeamy.  “By running toward trouble, instead of away from it, you end up clearing up controversies earlier.”

The 263-page book describes additional ways to systematically create a world-class company, strategically structured to survive economic downturns, outlive the firm’s founders, and foster a corporate culture that promotes employee loyalty.  Fundamentals for prolonged profitability include:

 

Business Development

  • Invest in full-time marketing (including sales and public relations) to secure new work before current work dries up.
  • Listen to clients—existing and potential—before talking to learn what they really want and need. Show sincere interest and you will become their trusted advisor
  • Focus on the 20% of clients that generate 80% of your business.
  • “Quality work is the best marketing—and is more important than quantity of work.”
  • Ask clients not only what is going well, but also if anything needs fixing. Give them the opening to be honest.
  • “There are no bad projects—everyone is an audition for the next.”

 

Expansion

  • Diversify by expanding locations, services, and specialties to guard against economic downturns.
  • Prohibit branch offices from competing against each other for work.
  • Instill your corporate culture in new offices by transferring a few key leaders to blend with local talent.

 

Acquisition

  • Buy (or merge with) complementary firms to gain instant credibility in a new marketplace.
  • Evaluate not just price, but also whether a firm’s operations and culture fit yours. Doing so will better assure a smooth transition.
  • Negotiate big-picture parameters first and work out details later.
  • Conduct sensitive discussions on neutral turf.
  • Stay positioned to seize opportunities—some people call this “luck.”

 

Talent

  • Structure your firm around specialized leaders to maximize efficiency and minimize power struggles.
  • Prioritize employee diversity to broaden the company’s perspective and help it better understand diverse clients—and, because it’s the right thing to do.
  • “If you can’t beat them, hire them.” Identify competitors’ top talent for possible recruitment.
  • Bring services such as legal and graphic design in-house whenever possible for closer collaboration.
  • Praise good work publicly; deal with problems privately.
  • Take good care of employees and they will take good care of clients.

 

Performance Metrics

  • Adopt financial metrics that are beautifully clear and simple so your team will understand them, embrace them, and use them to gauge the company’s health.
  • Reshape bonus programs to reward not only profitability, but other valuable factors, such as collaboration, quality of work, and client service.
  • Award bonuses to all staff levels in the office and you will earn lasting loyalty.

 

Corporate Culture

  • Reinforce or reclaim your company culture so when crisis hits, your people are prepared to make mutual sacrifices to save the firm.
  • “Collaboration inside is the best way to compete outside.”
  • Create a corporate culture that frees employees to invent and improvise to meet the company’s broad goals.
  • Seek the best ideas, regardless of their source. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”—Harry S. Truman
  • Hold “Ask Me Anything” talks to foster open communication between leadership and staff.
  • Tell and retell your firm’s stories to share the company’s values and bring people together.
  • Encourage employees to purchase company stock to build loyalty to the entire firm, not just their individual office.
  • “Do the right thing, always.”

 

Infrastructure

  • Invest in the best, most up-to-date technology. Think of it as an investment, not an expense.
  • Create a virtual firm, rather than having a central headquarters, and use technology to glue people together.
  • Simplify the accounting system so that non-accountants can understand it. “Having the right information is more important than having all the information.”
  • Form a corporation, not a partnership, and restrict stock ownership to active employees. This allows internal control of the company’s destiny.

 

C-Level Advice

  • Put clients first, the company second, individual offices third, and yourself last when prioritizing work loyalties.
  • Make improvements to top leadership first and they will filter out to the broader leadership team.
  • “Work to make the firm better, and it may well grow bigger, too.”
  • Explain why a strategy is important, rather than just mandating it.
  • Have the courage to tell the truth. Straight talk earns respect.
  • Seek full shareholder participation in major decisions, even when you don’t have to, in order to build consensus.
  • Create concrete consequences for non-adopters during major organizational shifts.
  • Name successors publicly in advance of executive retirements.

 

Other refreshing advice includes distinguishing between leading and managing.  “People don’t follow managers,” MacLeamy writes, adding that when you lead—rather than manage—your people will start putting their own ideas forward when unshackled from following orders.

Global architecture firm HOK was designed to last by founders who had survived the Great Depression.  It grew from a staff of 20 employees in a single St. Louis office into a world-wide leader with 1,900 employees working in 26 cities on three continents.  The firm’s well-known designs include the first Apple Campus, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, DFW International Airport, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and thousands more.

Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm: The People, Stories, and Strategies Behind HOK is available in print and e-book editions from Wiley.com and major book retailers.

About the Author
Patrick MacLeamy, FAIA, worked his way up from junior designer to CEO of HOK, a global architecture, engineering, and planning firm, where he spent 50 years.  A self-taught executive, MacLeamy transformed HOK from a firm that designed good buildings to one that was well-designed itself.  He is best known in the architecture/engineering/construction industry as the creator of the “MacLeamy Curve,” which advocates front-loading effort during the design process to catch errors early, a strategy that translates well to other industries.  A pioneer in leveraging technology to support design quality, today MacLeamy is chairman of buildingSMART International (bSI) and works tirelessly to advance the global implementation of open software standards that have the potential to transform the design industry.  For more information, please visit MacLeamy.com.

Available materials: review copies (hardcopy and e-book), high-resolution cover art, author portrait, author interviews, and book excerpts.