Engage, empathize, empower: James Miner

Jul 18, 2021

CEO of Sasaki (Boston, MA), an interdisciplinary architecture, planning, landscape, and design firm with offices in the U.S. and China.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

Over the past 10 years, Miner has helped guide the strategic evolution of the firm. Key efforts have included rebranding, renewing the firm’s commitment to being active in the Boston design community, growing Sasaki’s commercial architecture and interior design practice, establishing a firm-wide research grant program, and adding new expertise around technology, fabrication, and digital design.

“I think there has been a renewed focus on community, and the workplace as an important source of community and belonging,” Miner says. “If we want to attract and retain the best talent, then I think we need to stand for something, and have our employees feel like they are part of something special, not just a place that has good projects or benefits.”

A conversation with James Miner.

The Zweig Letter: Sasaki recently rebranded. Tell me what it looked like before and what it looks like now and the thought process behind it all.

James Miner: At the time, I helped to oversee the effort as the chair of the executive committee. The aesthetic and most outwardly visible changes to the brand definitely express themselves through the dynamic logo, vibrant color palette, and other signature visual identity elements, but the rebrand represents more than just a facelift. We completely reexamined our positioning, our identity, our values, and our shared aspirations to derive a new way of conveying who we are to those who don’t know us as well or know us for only one facet of our business.

The underlying premise of the branding effort was to reinforce our culture of collaboration and the value that brings to our projects and to our clients. The logo itself is composed of distinct elements, which can be reassembled to create different graphics, icons or other visual symbols, which is reflective of how we work. Our value proposition lies in bringing people together from different professional and personal backgrounds in an inclusive process that ultimately leads to better design and better outcomes. So, our new brand was designed to embody this value proposition.

Our previous visual identity, which we had for several decades, featured an orange logo with supporting black, white, and gray colors. We sometimes internally referred to our logo as “Sasaki in the box” because the firm’s name was contained within a rectangle, except for the dot over the “i” which was meant to represent “thinking outside the box.” It felt staid and out of sync with the Sasaki that had emerged in recent years; and as a result, many of our communications and marketing materials read as incohesive because we kept trying to spice our branding up in our own ways. You can imagine what a hodgepodge of branding that “creativity” led to! These days, when you see a Sasaki branded piece – whether a marketing proposal, our new website launched in early 2020, GIFs on social media, signs, or environmental graphics – they are colorful and distinct, but you immediately understand them to be part of one flexible branded system. Once we got used to this branding we didn’t look back. The brand has continued to evolve with us and I don’t foresee us outgrowing it for many years to come.

TZL: How do you anticipate COVID-19 permanently impacting your firm’s policy on telecommuting?

JM: Like a lot of other companies, we had a telecommuting policy in place before the pandemic. And, also like most other companies, few took advantage of it. Historically, there’s been a stigma attached to remote work – call it “out of sight, out of mind” – that may not have been intentional, but definitely influenced people’s decisions about whether or not to work remotely. The pandemic obviously shifted that since we were all forced into a lengthy work-from-home experiment that proved to everyone that remote work is not only viable, but productive. As we’ve learned, when we’re all working remotely the stigma has vanished and it’s a level playing field.

Without all the travel that typically goes with our work, we’ve found that team leaders have actually had more time to engage directly with project work and with their teams. Even though we would prefer to do this in person, people are actually getting more “face time” than they were before the pandemic. Also, teams are getting more opportunities to engage with clients because there is no cost to adding another box on the Zoom screen, whereas before we were forced to limit the number of team members that had client interaction based on the cost of travel for in-person meetings. So, in those two ways, teams have actually been more engaged even though we are all working apart from one another.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we will be adopting a hybrid work model, allowing everyone to work remotely for up to two days a week, and three days in-person. We’re making significant investments in our new office space to enable the kinds of collaboration that can’t happen remotely, and I think people are really hungry for that while also wanting to maintain some of the flexibility that remote work has afforded. With that in mind, our office will look very different than it did before the pandemic – if we can successfully work remotely for focused, “heads down” work, then our office needs to provide space to do just the opposite. Our new space will be all about collaboration and interaction between people. That will mean fewer desks (and especially desks that are assigned to only one person), and an array of different types of open work areas, conference rooms, pinup spaces, and areas for fabrication and prototyping.

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

JM: Trust is absolutely essential – and not only does it have to be earned, but it takes time to both establish and maintain. With clients, I believe that we establish trust by first being curious, and by being active listeners. If there is one trait that tends to come to mind most often when people think of designers, its ego – and ego is not going to win anyone trust. Instead, we focus on listening and working together with our clients to solve complex problems. At Sasaki, collaboration has always been part of our ethos, and our leadership has really embraced that in a way that leads not only to more inclusive design, but better design. That’s the genesis of our renewed mission statement that we adopted a couple of years ago: “Better design, together.”

Trust has to exist within an organization, not just with clients. The efforts we’ve undertaken over the past year, particularly around gender equity and anti-racism, have exposed gaps in trust that we needed to first understand, and then bridge. That is something we’re still working on, and it has required being more vulnerable and empathetic as a leader.

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

JM: As I mentioned earlier, we’ve taken on recent efforts to focus on and better understand these issues, both in terms of gender and race. From a gender perspective, Sasaki actually has more women than men on the whole. The problem is that there have been considerably more women than men among our employees with 10 years of experience or less, while there are far more men than women among our more senior employees. This creates a gap in role models for women seeking to advance their careers at the firm, and also a sponsorship gap for emerging female leaders, as anecdotally and statistically people tend to mentor and sponsor those of the same gender in greater numbers. This mentorship and sponsorship gap has led to retention challenges and a continued imbalance between men and women at the top levels of firm leadership, in spite of the fact that we have promoted more women to the role of principal than in the past. As a result, we’re focusing on improving sponsorship across gender boundaries, making space for different voices and styles, and making it safe to acknowledge gender bias and how it has shaped traditional definitions of leadership.

We’ve also committed to being an actively anti-racist organization. It’s important to state that this is a commitment that will need to span many years and decades if we are to make real change. That being said, I’m excited about some of the things we’ve started to do, especially in our work alongside the Sasaki Foundation which has centered its work around the idea that the “power of design belongs to all of us.” One way the Foundation puts its vision into action is by working closely with community partners to bring the firm’s expertise in design to grassroots projects and initiatives through its community design grant program. One project that has come out of this program has been the G|Code House in Roxbury, Massachusetts, which provides a living/learning environment for young women of color to learn how to code and pursue careers in tech. The Foundation also supports the SEED Program (Summer Exploratory Experience in Design) which is a paid internship program for high school students in underrepresented communities to learn about the field of design. In the past, SEED students have helped to design pop-up voting places and mobile classrooms. The idea is to expand awareness of the design profession as a career choice to more people of color, thereby helping to expand the pipeline of talent for a stubbornly homogenous design industry. We also engage with middle school kids through a design mentorship program also run by the Foundation. I am excited to see these programs grow at the Foundation, and for the firm to take on similarly impactful efforts going forward.

TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.

JM: With everything that has been going on over the past year, the biggest lesson learned is that it is essential for leaders to engage others in managing change. One example has been our upcoming office move – we’ve been in the same location just outside of Boston since the firm was founded in 1953, and now we’re headed downtown. It’s not the first time we’ve had a discussion about moving downtown, but we never made the move because the culture shift was always perceived to be too disruptive. This time around, the pandemic provided a set of unique circumstances that made this the right time for such a move on many fronts, but the culture shift was still a major element of concern. I was trying to figure out how to navigate through it all, when it suddenly made sense to me that I didn’t actually have the right tools to get it done. There were others better equipped to hear the voices of concern, and make sure those concerns were understood and valued. By relinquishing control, I observed different styles of engagement and communication than I might have employed. It didn’t take long to realize that giving up control did not mean giving up my job or role as a leader – in fact, it was quite the opposite. I now understand that leadership can be more than about taking control or responsibility for managing change, it is about recognizing who can be most effective at leading different change initiatives at different moments in time, and providing them both the agency and support they need to succeed.

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?

JM: We don’t have strict guidelines. We’ve had principals named in their 20s, and we’ve been expanding the role of leadership so it’s not dependent upon being a rainmaker. The goal has been to establish a partnership that is made up of a constellation of talent that strengthens the collective and incentivizes collaboration. Under the traditional “seller/doer” model, there is a tendency to create silos because firm leaders can work independently from one another – they don’t “need” each other to succeed. But new generations of leadership want to work together, to share credit, and to build their practices together. And because of that, those being promoted to principal tend to fill a particular need within the partnership that is more about that individual’s skill set than about their years of experience or book of business.

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

JM: I’ve always been a fan of alliteration since it makes things easy to remember – so here are my Three Es: “Engage, Empathize, and Empower.”

TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?

JM: I predict this will be an even more important question this summer and fall, as the economy recovers and people shift their thinking from staying employed to staying engaged. We’re recommitting ourselves to our values, and making sure that our actions consistently align with those values. I think there has been a renewed focus on community, and the workplace as an important source of community and belonging. If we want to attract and retain the best talent, then I think we need to stand for something, and have our employees feel like they are part of something special, not just a place that has good projects or benefits.

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