Empowering people: Greg Matthews

Sep 25, 2022

President and CEO of Cushing Terrell, a multidisciplinary firm that empowers creative designers to discover imaginative, responsible first-of-their-kind environments.

By Liisa Andreassen

As president and CEO of Cushing Terrell (Billings, MT), Matthews says he’s fortunate to lead an incredibly talented team of architects, engineers, and design professionals who pride themselves on always improving. With more than 25 years of experience with Cushing Terrell, Matthews previously served as co-lead for the firm’s healthcare design studio, which gave him a keen sense of how much people matter in the design equation. His team members, clients, and partners are top priorities.

“At the end of a project, we have an amazing building to show for our hard work, but it’s the relationships I’ve built along the way that truly stand out,” Matthews says. “For me, it’s always been about the people I work with to bring a project to life, as well as the people who will use the building and the benefit it will bring to the surrounding community.”

A conversation with Greg Matthews.

The Zweig Letter: When did you first know that you wanted to be an architect? Did it turn out to be what you first envisioned?

Greg Matthews: In high school, I had an amazing drafting teacher who talked a lot about architecture, and I fell in love with the idea of using drawings to communicate ideas and bring them to life. During the summers, I worked for a construction contractor, and I vividly recall sitting around the rough-framed house we were building and hearing the carpenters talk about the poor quality of the drawings. I remember thinking I’d like to be part of this process and create great designs that were a pleasure to build. It turns out the summers I spent in the construction field provided me with some of the best education for my career as an architect. I was able to experience the process from a contractor’s point of view. My career has been everything I had imagined it to be – creative, collaborative, and an opportunity to envision a building and see it realized. It’s a very rewarding experience.

TZL: As firm president, what’s one of your top goals for Cushing Terrell in say the next five years? How do you plan to get there?

GM: Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed the incredible impact our firm’s growth has had on the creation of new opportunities for our people, which is key to meaningful careers and the long-term retention of our talent. One of my top goals is to ensure both happen: responsible firm growth and opportunity creation. To get there, we’re looking at growth opportunities through bringing on top talent who can help open new doors, growth by investing in and building our vertical markets, growth of our firm’s knowledge through our knowledge-management-driven culture, and growth by breaking down geographic boundaries through embracing remote work.

TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?

GM: Our design process and culture prioritize the user experience. In our client relationships, this means being responsive, communicative, and enthusiastic at every touchpoint. In our deliverables, this means considering how our clients’ clients will be using and experiencing the spaces we imagine and create for their use.

Ultimately, it comes back to our mission to forever improve. We approach our work confidently, but humbly, knowing there’s always more to learn. Constant curiosity and an emphasis on research keep our teams on top of innovations, trends, and challenges, so we can always think ahead in terms of design decisions. Our clients trust us to bring new ideas to the table and to challenge the status quo.

We also stand by our work. We take responsibility for each choice, outcome, and relationship. We’ve seen this result in many long-term relationships with clients who know we’ll always be there for them.

TZL: You’ve been with Cushing Terrell for more than 25 years. What’s one of the most memorable experiences/accomplishments you’ve had there to date?

GM: Most revolve around the feeling of creating something beneficial with a team – colleagues, clients, and construction partners. At the end of a project, we have an amazing building to show for our hard work, but it’s the relationships I’ve built along the way that truly stand out. For me, it’s always been about the people I work with to bring a project to life, as well as the people who will use the building and the benefit it will bring to the surrounding community.

TZL: Who are you admiring right now in the AEC industry? Where do you see thought leadership and excellence?

GM: There are many. I’ve drawn inspiration from Henderson Engineers for their ability to pull the curtain back on industry insights and best practices in a way that feels approachable, even for non-technical audiences. Their leadership is also very present and engaged. Perkins+Will is another one I admire because they’ve managed to seamlessly blur the lines between design excellence and sustainable design, showing that they are one in the same and giving industry professionals something to aspire to. Additionally, I would be remiss not to mention a leadership collective I’m involved with, which comprises eight partner firms, all of whom I can trust to help workshop even the most difficult leadership scenarios. I learn from them every time we meet. We know there are big challenges to address and we have a responsibility to work together.

TZL: Your firm is committed to social action. What’s something you’re working on now that illustrates this commitment?

GM: Our offices have always been involved in initiatives that support our communities – everything from STEM programs and mentorship at local schools to annual fundraising for our favorite nonprofit organizations. Each office has its own commitments, which have become traditions.

While this continues, we’ve also formalized a pro bono social action program so we can take on larger projects in new and unfamiliar communities as a firm, pulling in multidisciplinary expertise from across our locations. We officially launched the program in February, announcing that in addition to providing pro bono design services, the initiative will focus on action around diversity, equity, and inclusion; community service; charitable giving; and sustainable design.

Outside of fostering community connections, our projects offer professional growth opportunities for people at different stages of their careers. We’re excited to embark on two nominated projects this year – one for the Girl Scouts of Montana and Wyoming; and another for the American Legion in Big Timber, Montana.

TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?

GM: Our firm culture embraces the idea of maintaining a work-life balance, and early in my career, I learned the importance of this. I also know that balance is different for everyone. For me, my family is my life, and when I’m not working, I spend a lot of time with my wife and our two daughters. They understand and wholeheartedly support my career and the heavy pressures that come along with it. They also understand that my work and family time are not always separate – the lines get blurred at times and I’m working hard to be present in the moments that are meaningful for both.

TZL: I see you’ve joined a program – the Carbon Neutral Firm Program. What did it take to get on board? Are there specific milestones to achieve?

GM: Our involvement is the direct result of our team members serving as advocates and supporting industry organizations committed to making positive change. Through a grassroots initiative to create more sustainable materials libraries, our interior design team became involved with Material Bank®, the largest material marketplace in the architecture and design industry. Due to our commitment to responsible material sourcing, we were invited to participate in the Material Bank® Carbon Neutral Partner Program. The goals of the program are to reduce the environmental impact of shipping product samples, provide tracking and annual metrics for partner firms, and provide custom solutions and education.

Material Bank® purchases carbon credits to offset emissions from every shipment, and we’ll be growing our use of the resource while gaining a better understanding of our sampling footprint. Our goal is to be mindful of the products we specify and continue to reduce and consolidate packages. During the 2021 pilot phase, we placed second among the partner firms in terms of packages saved, and we were one of the smaller firms in the program.

TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?

GM: During a recent Cushing Terrell leadership retreat, this was a high-priority topic. Today’s work world is vastly different than it was two or three years ago. Remote and hybrid work options require different management skill sets and tools to ensure their direct reports have what they need. Some of the tactics we’re implementing include:

  • More time for managers to connect with remote individuals and teams.
  • Ensuring supervisors fully understand their role and live out company culture, which embraces flexibility.
  • Enabling clear and consistent, two-way communication that puts a high value on listening.
  • Continuing to make career path trajectories clear and professional development opportunities available, with dedicated time and dollars.

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?

GM: We have an incredibly fortunate position as a design partner for university clients, which results in specialized insights and knowledge. The research we engage in as part of the design process as well as other collaborations with academia gives us a keen understanding not only of what students need in an educational environment to be successful, but also what new hires will need in the workplace to continually learn and grow. Because of these close design partnerships and our recruiting efforts, many of our own interns come from these universities.

We pride ourselves on a design process that begins and ends with research. Some of our current efforts are with the University of Texas at Austin, Ohio State University, and Illinois Tech. Our teams are collaborating on learning more about everything from psychology in architectural design to how ecofeminism and intersectionality are impacting the future of retail.

Universities are known for pushing the boundaries, and our relationships with these clients and partners put us in close proximity to the next generation of students who are influencing the future and pushing the advancement of design and sustainability.

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

GM: In our 84 years, we’ve had about six generations of ownership. We’re continually identifying new leadership potential and have a process to elevate these individuals. New associates are named each year, and this group plays a key role in shaping the firm’s future. From this group, associate principals are named and then principals, thus ensuring a generational transition with increasing levels of responsibility, ownership, and influence.

Transition planning is not something you think about periodically. The greatest pitfall is to not plan and failing to have a program in place that helps grow, empower, and inspire strong leaders.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?

GM: Empowering people. 

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