Empowering talent: David Keith

Feb 26, 2023

Design principal and CEO at Hanbury, a firm that is a global resource for its clients that specializes in higher education, civic, and commercial environments.

By Liisa Andreassen

Keith has centered his career around creating environments that promote great people, integrated design approaches, and innovative design leadership. He believes that architects and planners are great problem solvers and that, together, great things are possible.

“Empowering talent is great business,” Keith says.

A conversation with David Keith.

The Zweig Letter: How do you balance leading the firm and projects too? Any organizational management strategies that you find work better than others?

David Keith: In preparation for Nick Vlattas’ retirement, we divided up leadership roles to create a variety of leadership and strategic teams. Last year, we decided that we wanted to include more voices at the table, so we expanded our teams to include leadership and strategic “councils” that provide a diversity of voices from a variety of experience levels and focus areas to complement our leadership and strategic team leaders. This has proven to be a fantastic move. It provides growth opportunities for many of our younger staff while also understanding firsthand many of the priorities and concerns of our co-workers. It has also relieved some of the leadership time commitment from top leadership, allowing more time for strategic project, mentorship, and firm initiatives.

TZL: What concerns you most about the future of AEC? How is your firm working to address those concerns?

DK: Our profession has a difficult time keeping the best and brightest. Most architectural businesses have one to two outstanding leaders who have success, but often don’t know how to grow their next generation of leaders. Because of this, the profession has become over-saturated with mega-firms which typically have uninspiring or unsupportive environments for creative freedom. Many of our most talented people have a difficult time finding where they fit in. To attract and keep our talent, we need to be more relevant – adding intrinsic value to every client, project, and initiative we lead. We must be artists, managers, cost-experts, presenters, caretakers, and leaders. We must lean into everything we do.

To address this, we’ve developed a growth strategy that’s based on finding extraordinary leaders. This requires in-depth knowledge of each employee’s strengths, goals, aspirations, and personal challenges. This knowledge is gained through assigning each team member challenging assignments with every project, formal performance planning discussions, and informal interactions.

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

DK: Client trust is fragile and at times can be armor-clad. Perhaps the most important way we earn our clients’ trust is through clear communication, listening, and responding nimbly, accurately, and creatively. Once trust is earned, they’re our best advocate. However, the way to ensure that trust continues is to perform at our best when times are tough. These are our best opportunities to show them what makes us tick.

TZL: You’ve been firm president for a little over five years. What springs to mind as an accomplishment that you’re most proud of? Why?

DK: Embracing the firmwide culture and expertise that existed prior to me joining Hanbury and focusing our firm to be a talent-based one. We’ve brought in additional design and market leadership and grown the firm three-fold. While we are now in multiple locations, the culture is “OneHanbury” and it contrasts many of the large firms that seem too interested in corporate growth, expansion, and growth of stock value to focus on each individual’s potential within the firm.

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

DK: I’ve been working closely with Höweler + Yoon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the Karsh Institute of Democracy at the University of Virginia. The company is relatively young – it was founded in 2004 – however the impacts of their work, research, unique variety of projects, and contributions to educating the next generations of young architects are remarkable. I believe their practice is a model of what’s possible, not confined by pre-conceived norms – stretching the possible while not taking unnecessary risks on unlikely outcomes.

TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?

DK: Talent is key to success and motivated talent will always be successful. I’ve been a student of the profession for many years. Starting as a design architect, I believed that good design would be the best business model. However, over the years I have come to understand that good design is essential, but those that thrive have more – they provide something for their people, their clients, and the community that is sought out. I think the ability to design with ideas that stretch our clients’ reach, to tell clear stories that elevate the ideas around the project, to have the ability to deliver those ideas within the framework provided, and to have fun doing it is a pretty great way to practice.

TZL: Tell me about the Legacy programs. How did they come about? What do you hope to get out of them? How do they relate to the concept of a “living company?”

DK: Our Legacy programs are very unique. They were developed to create better connections to address the “Why?” of what made us get into the profession in the first place. For many in the profession, school is the best time of our careers. We’re challenged to think broadly, to see things globally and to collaborate with others. This spirit of exploration is the foundation of the Legacy Programs and each one contributes to our culture in a different way:

  1. Jane C. Rathbone Design Retreat. Annually, about 10-12 employees are selected to travel abroad and immerse themselves. The travel is curated to include visits to significant architecture in the region as well as visits with notable architecture firms. Most of the trips are to Europe and often are collaborations with universities with overseas programs. Destinations have included: Riva San Vitale, Genoa, Copenhagen, Shanghai, Zurich, Venice, Barcelona, Bilbao, Egypt, London, Brazil, and Lisbon. As the program has visited locations around the globe, the photography, sketches, and rich experiences are shared with the broader firm in special presentations. These shared experiences influence all of our projects.
  2. The Nicholas E. Vlattas Summer Scholar Program. Over the past five years, we’ve expanded this program to include an immersive, two-month long project that the scholars curate and lead. We provide housing, training, design trips, and special project opportunities to ensure the program is attractive and open for a diverse student population nationally and internationally. The program engages and nurtures the entire firm and their research projects often engage with our local communities and the design community. The program has attracted more than 60 scholars from 26 prestigious schools of architecture. This past year, we had more than 125 applicants for 10 positions.
  3. The S. Michael Evans Design Medalist. This program invites distinguished members of architecture, design, and planning academia to engage with our staff for several weeks during the summer. The program supports our belief in lifelong learning, research, and continuous growth. Each medalist provides an opportunity for Hanbury to benefit from an academic lens while providing an opportunity for professors to connect to the profession. Medalists spend time presenting their work and research, critiquing work, and delivering lectures.

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?

DK: For us, the “no jerks rule” prevails. Architecture is a tough profession that requires a lot of human interaction, skill, patience, and experimentation. We’ll never be perfect, but we have incredible talent, so we’ll always be really good. To attract the best and brightest, we have to provide opportunities for them to lead. Sometimes this puts them in a position to experience something unexpected. Most times they over-perform, but at times, they can make mistakes. As firm leaders, these are our most important moments. Our leadership always responds to these challenges with support, guidance, and mentorship. We never beat-up people for their mistakes.

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?

DK: In my experience, ownership transition is the biggest pitfall. In small- to medium-sized firms, first generation owners tend to hold onto the large share of the firm and seldom groom the next generation of owners. In larger firms, there are often surges of success and growth around markets or a robust economy where multiple leaders contribute in meaningful ways. This can create an enormous burden on the next generation of leadership to be able to pay-off the shares of the retiring leadership that benefit most financially from the rapid growth. I’ve seen first-hand how improper preparation has led to a sharp downturn of a very successful firm. Firm leadership roles should not be transitioned based on those who can afford to “pay to play” or longevity. Rather, they should be merit-based. Hanbury has benefited from a transition plan that included transitioning to an ESOP. We are now a 100 percent ESOP. 

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