Design excellence: Kevin Sullivan

Nov 08, 2020

President and CEO of Payette (Boston, MA), a firm that values the close relationships it builds with its collaborators on the journey from design to reality.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Sullivan joined Payette in 1987, became a partner in 1998, and president in 2014. He provides strategic direction, vision, and intellectual design leadership. His body of work includes seminal healthcare, science, and campus planning projects which have been consistently recognized nationally for their attention to detail, social geometry, and integration of the landscape into transformative spaces.

“I think it is extremely important to focus on developing staff with leadership potential, especially individuals who are stronger and more talented than you are,” Sullivan says. “This makes it obvious when it is time to promote someone; you have to do it and if the firm has to change to allow it to happen, the firm changes. You have no other choice.”

A conversation with Kevin Sullivan.

The Zweig Letter: You’ve been with Payette for more than 30 years. What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen during this time?

Kevin Sullivan: Design excellence. While we have always been a design-focused firm, we have consistently continued to raise the bar on design excellence in our practice. Thirty years ago, our firm was a strong regional firm. Now we are a national firm with a high visibility design practice working on high-profile projects around the world. We are also now the most highly-awarded firm in New England for design excellence over the past 15 years.

TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?

KS: We’ve been working remotely since March 13 and plan on continuing to do so at least until the end of June. After this time and as we return to the office, working in the office will not be a requirement, especially with so many of our staff taking mass transit to work and with so many young families needing to stay home due to school, camp, and day care issues. We felt that we needed to be flexible, assist in keeping our staff healthy, and use the office more as a resource, rather than as a workplace in the foreseeable future due to COVID-19. After COVID-19, I fully expect that many more people will choose to work from home with much more frequency, and that will be fine with us.

TZL: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cashflow?

KS: We can usually predict our workload and cashflow out at least six months, any longer than that, then the margin for error is quite high.

TZL: How has COVID affected your business on a daily basis?

KS: Thankfully, not as much as I had feared when we first started working remotely in March. Initially, I was very concerned about our cash flow and projects stopping. Fortunately, this has not been as big an issue as it could have been, and we have been very productive working remotely; however, not all of our staff roles work in a remote setting. I am now more concerned about what it is going to be like in the next few months. With so many of our clients in the academic and healthcare fields, if the major universities and hospitals continue to be significantly affected it is bound to affect us, particularly new opportunities going forward. Typically, 20 percent of the annual net revenue that runs through the firm each year is revenue that is awarded in the same calendar year. I think that we may need to be more conservative as we budget looking toward 2021 if the fall shows signs of slowing down.

TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.

KS: Over the past four years we have grown the scale of our partnership by 50 percent to assure adequate overlap during future leadership transitions. New principals do not mature overnight, so you need three to five years of ramp up. This was something that we planned over time with a lot of discussion with our tenured staff. Our tenured staff is highly compensated, and many are compensated at a principal level. The most important thing is that they feel that they have influence, are valued, and get to work on interesting projects and build teams. As a testament to this approach, 81 percent of our titled staff have been with the firm for more than 10 years.

TZL: #PayetteForward. When did this hashtag come about? How is it used in marketing? What does it mean to your firm? How are you paying it forward?

KS: #PayetteForward reflects our attitude and a culture that is driven to advance and innovate continuously. Our blog reflects this attitude. The hashtag came about as we rebranded our website, worked on our AIA Architecture Firm Award Submission, and also worked on our new book, Fusion: The Performance of Architecture, which is being published by Monacelli. #PayetteForward has become part of our identity and it always makes people ask this question, which is a good thing.

TZL: Does your firm work closely with any higher education institutions to gain access to the latest technology, experience, and innovation and/or recruiting to find qualified resources?

KS: Yes, our client base are academic medical centers and academic science for colleges and universities. Because of this, we are continuously exposed to the latest technology and talent in the innovation economy. We have several staff who teach at architecture schools and we also feel that because we are a single-office practice based in Boston, which is a hotbed for both research and academia, this gives us access to the best and brightest minds.

TZL: How do you handle a long-term principal who is resting on his or her laurels? What effect does a low performing, entitled principal or department head have on firm morale?

KS: We are very, very patient. I do not think any of our principals, past or present, have rested on their laurels. From time to time, some of our principals have underperformed expectations and when the situation does not improve over time, it is addressed, but with much discussion and dialogue over time. The bigger issue is when it becomes obvious that a person in a leadership position is not a cultural fit and is no longer respected as a leader; this is the most disruptive for morale.

TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What is the biggest pitfall to avoid?

KS: I think it is extremely important to focus on developing staff with leadership potential, especially individuals who are stronger and more talented than you are. This makes it obvious when it is time to promote someone; you have to do it and if the firm has to change to allow it to happen, the firm changes. You have no other choice. The biggest pitfall is waiting too long or waiting for the perfect moment in the economy. I feel often younger principals grow exponentially when they are promoted, and the firm benefits tremendously from their growth.

TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

KS: A former mentor once told me, “Every crisis is an opportunity. Whenever you are in one of the most difficult moments of a project, don’t run away from it, dive into it. Real client loyalty comes from pulling through difficult moments together.” I always remember this advice during difficult moments and it is always true.

TZL: How many years of experience – or large enough book of business – is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?

KS: Most individuals who are promoted to principal at Payette are promoted based on potential rather than their portfolio of clients. Design talent, marketing savvy, and business acumen are all part of the equation. There is no magic age, but I would say typically people are promoted on average in their mid- to late-40s.

TZL: Payette received the 2019 AIA Architecture Firm Award. Please tell me a little about the project that provided you with this honor.

KS: This is an award that recognizes design excellence and contributions to the profession over a 10-year period. We were honored with the award for our innovative approach to design, the FUSION of Design and Performance. The Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex at Northeastern University is the embodiment of this concept and was featured in our submission. It is an iconic building defined by its organically shaped solar veil and a cutting-edge culture for science within. It also received a 2019 AIA COTE Top 10 Award as one of the top 10 most sustainable projects in the world, along with the Harleston Parker Medal, awarded to the most beautiful building in Boston.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

KS: We have been talking about diversity for a long time and measuring our progress across the practice in terms of our leadership, design staff, new hires, within our typologies and firm-wide. We are 177 people that hail from 32 different countries, 22 states, and we work in 20 different countries. Currently we are 45 percent women/55 percent men and 28 percent of our staff are minorities. We are extremely proud of our progress and we have become a very different firm from the one that I joined more than 30 years ago. We believe that diversity is essential to innovation and that a great idea can come from anyone at any time. It is part of our secret sauce, at least that is the part that I can share with you.

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