From the Chairman: Do you work ‘with’ or ‘for’ your organization?

May 13, 2013

Don’t we all want to be part of an organization that we are thrilled to be a part of; that makes us proud? I often get chills when I think back on my early career with Gensler, particularly the frequent nightmares I would have about being fired. And why, you may ask, would such vivid images haunt me in the middle of the night? From my very early work experiences, I somehow got the idea that I didn’t want to work “for” my employer. Somehow, that connoted a “master-servant” role. I much preferred to think that I was working “with” the people in the organization. Somehow, I felt that the organization would perform at a much higher level if we all felt we were part of a team, as “partners” in a way, albeit by no means equal partners. Let me describe how unequal. In the early stages of my career it was all I could do to understand all the things I didn’t know. Once I’d identified my shortcomings, I could develop a learning agenda. My problem in those days – I didn’t know what I didn’t know! A cold bucket of water was thrown on me one evening by a wonderful professor from a business school across the Bay from San Francisco, whom the firm had enlisted to teach us young, business-naïve architects a thing or two about running a profitable enterprise (heck, unless Art counted the money in the bank every day, we would never have known whether we were profitable or not). Glen Strasbourg, our very demanding instructor, told us that we’d better get used to pursuing continuous learning throughout our careers because of the half-life of our knowledge. Having come out of the university assuming we’d been fully educated, he assured us that half of the knowledge we had stuffed into our heads and applied to our profession each day would be superseded by new information, processes, materials and so forth within a period of time (a half-life of around 10 years in those days; under three years today). The problem, he said, was that we wouldn’t know which half it was going to be. So, I don’t mean to suggest an arrogant attitude toward the role that my desire to work in partnership with my colleague assumed; simply an approach in which, no matter how inexperienced I was, I took responsibility for what I was doing, not just orders for what to do; in which I owned the tasks I undertook, exercising the initiative to learn how to do it well and sharing the responsibility with the entire team for a project’s outcome. The highest performers I’ve encountered in my career have been those who adopt this attitude; those who are deeply engaged in the tasks they undertake, as if it were their own firm. This brings me back to my nightmares. Certainly, there were many times throughout my career when I went to sleep at night knowing full well that, whatever task I owned as part of what we were doing together, I was in way over my head. I felt personally responsible for the success (or failure) of whatever we had undertaken. To a great degree, that’s the responsibility that the person who is working “with” a firm instead of “for” the firm feels. By the way, if you’re continuing to grow as a professional, becoming more successful, thereby taking on increasingly challenging projects as a firm, and if your personal role evolves into unknown territory (I began at Gensler as a junior designer, becoming successively a project manager, a studio director, an office director, a member of our management committee, a board member and, finally, our CEO as we grew from a handful of people in a single office to 2,400 people in 25 offices around the world) those nightmares about being out of your depth can continue to haunt you. A final observation: People who work “with,” not “for” their organization are not bashful about noting what’s working and what’s not. They do, however, learn to walk that fine line between complaining to their pals (or even their superiors) about what’s wrong and being able to engage in a meaningful conversation about what to do about it. Their point of view is consistently presented as, “These are some things we can be doing to make our enterprise better – for our clients, for the many people we rely on to accomplish what we do for our clients, and for the people in our organization.” Conversations that take this point-of-view are to be encouraged (and should be cherished) by leaders of any enterprise. Don’t we all want to be part of an organization that we’re proud of, that we thrilled to be a part of, that contractors, building officials, lenders and everyone else involved want to work with (and recommend to others), and a firm that clients seek out and tell their friends about? That’s the performance difference between a command-an-control (“you work for me”) attitude and a “we’re in this together” partner relationship between people at all levels of the organization. Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with ZweigWhite and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310) Issue # 1007 Originally published 5/13/2013. Copyright© 2013, ZweigWhite. All rights reserved.

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