From the Chairman: Finding management & leadership talent

May 02, 2014

Search outside the firm or groom from within? To this author, the answer is obvious.

I wrote last month about a position description for an office leader. But where do you look for the talent to fill those leadership and management roles? I’ve heard too often lately, “We pirate them from other firms.” And I certainly see a great deal of that going on. The “head-hunting” business is very active today as firms grow in response to expanding business opportunities. I have some biases on this subject that I’d like to offer:
  1. Poaching from other firms will only work if the person is unhappy where he or she is. If you base your offer on money or title and the person is willing to jump ship for those reasons, they’re probably not the right person. More important is the potential cultural fit. Are they better aligned in their values and culture to your firm than they are where they’re currently? If so, the match can succeed. If not, it will be a bust. If you poach from others as a pattern, though, you will alienate your competitors, and they will bad-mouth you. This does no good for your brand.
  2. Define the role you’re recruiting for. Nothing is worse than a lack of alignment between what your new leader thinks they’re supposed to be doing/held accountable for and what you expect. Even worse is when the expectations of the new leader do not align with the expectations of those being led. Carefully define the expectations for all parties. Do it in writing, talk about it, review how it’s going at least monthly during the first year.
  3. Cast to the person’s strengths. Very few firms do any kind of formal assessment of an individual they’re hiring for a leadership role, depending instead on credentials and “feel” from the interviews. Several diagnostic tools are available. I like StrengthsFinder from The Gallup Organization (; DISC (; and Caliper ( Any one of these will give you excellent insights into a person’s strengths and blind spots. I would not hire a person, nor advance someone from within today without a rigorous evaluation of who they are, what leadership skills they have and the style with which they will deploy them. This will help you to cast them well – to not have unrealistic expectations of them, and to shape the way in which they will work to suit their individual personality. There is no “Mr. Wonderful” or “Wonder Woman.” Each of us is unique and rather than expecting your new leader to shoehorn into the job description you’ve written, tailor the role to fit their strengths and take care to surround them with the complementary talents that fall outside of their passions and skills to be sure the whole job gets done.
  4. Do immersive “acculturation.” No person from outside your firm can step into their new role and act as though they’ve been a part of your firm for the last decade. However, for them to be successful for you, for themselves, and for the people they’re leading, you’ll want them to behave in a way that continues to build upon your unique brand. This requires a significant program of immersive acculturation. I’ll write about that next month.
  5. Accelerate promising people. When Gensler first appeared, we had no ability to attract senior leaders from other firms. They simply weren’t interested. “Why would I want to join a start-up?” Architecture and engineering are not like technology, where one can go from start-up to IPO in 18 months and line people’s pockets with cash from stock options. Our only choice was to throw tremendous responsibility onto young people who showed promise, often bypassing more senior folks, even though they had significantly greater time in grade. Art started the firm when he was in his 30s; I became a vice president before I was 30 and started a new office in LA when I was 32; Jordan Goldstein became the managing principal of the very large Washington, D.C. office when he was in his 30s. We took many chances and expected young people (I was scared to death by the responsibility I carried versus the experience I had) to rise to the occasion. History has demonstrated the high success rate we had following this strategy. Yet, as firms mature, they risk falling into the trap of making only “safe” choices, i.e. someone with proven experience.
  6. Grow from within. The best strategy is to build a pipeline from within, filled with high potential people that you spot when they’re young, spend the time to nurture, mentor and expose to experiences. These are people you’ve allowed to take risks and accept responsibility. They may stumble a few times, but you’re there to dust them off, help them learn from their mistakes and to grow into strong potential leaders. The challenge is that if you groom people to be leaders and you don’t continue to grow to allow them to step into a leadership role, they’ll leave and lead somewhere else. But this tends to be a self-fulfilling track – as you groom them, they’ll build your business for you.
I suspect that you’ve probably guessed that I favor option 6. 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 #1054, originally published 5/5/2014. Copyright© 2014, ZweigWhite. All rights reserved.

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