Guide and lead: Rayburn ‘Jake’ Donaldson

Oct 11, 2020

Managing partner at Method Architecture (Houston, TX), a firm that practices ego-free architecture, creatively solves problems, and provides unparalleled customer service.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

As managing partner, Donaldson takes a hands-on approach and oversees every aspect of the firm’s operations including master planning, design, business development, and strategic planning. Under his leadership, the firm actively pursues new markets, technologies, and sustainable design solutions for its projects.

“My job exists to help guide and lead, but also to be a resource to my team, staff, and partners,” Donaldson says. “I’m the most fulfilled as a leader when I’m helping someone else succeed or reach a goal – that’s what really gets me excited. I hate thinking of myself as anyone’s boss. If you work at Method and need a boss, you are probably with the wrong company.”

A conversation with Jake Donaldson.

The Zweig Letter: Can you explain what “ego-free architecture” means?

Jake Donaldson: Our ego-free culture permeates everything we do and allows us to keep the people and the challenges at the forefront while keeping the blame, the credit, and unproductive worrying in the backseat. This core value allows us to stay focused on productive brainstorming for solutions when we have staffing issues, project challenges, and external threats beyond our control – like COVID-19.

TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”

JD: I participated in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program in 2016 and that was a turning point for me, personally. Since then I’ve been very intentional about how I choose to spend my time each day, most of it spent working “on the business” creating or fixing process issues to run more smoothly. It requires a lot of self-discipline and perfecting the art of delegating, which is the key to getting out of the weeds. I spend a lot of time thinking about why certain aspects of the business aren’t working like they were intended and who the best person is to fix it.

TZL: Artificial intelligence and machine learning are potential disruptors across all industries. Is your firm exploring how to incorporate these technologies into providing improved services for clients?

JD: Innovation, technology, and disruption are constant topics of conversations for our firm. We recently realigned our principal level focus so that one leader is solely focused on innovation and technology. Each year we invest time, money, and focus into experimenting with software and hardware that’s new or that we see possibly disrupting our industry. We make time to daydream about the what ifs and allow ourselves to go down the rabbit hole.

TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?

JD: I believe the most impactful leaders are servant-minded. My job exists to help guide and lead, but also to be a resource to my team, staff, and partners. I’m the most fulfilled as a leader when I’m helping someone else succeed or reach a goal – that’s what really gets me excited. I hate thinking of myself as anyone’s boss. If you work at Method and need a boss, you are probably with the wrong company.

TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?

JD: We’ve had good success implementing the R&D tax credit for the past three years. It required a lot of time classifying and coding staff efforts on the front end but has paid great returns for us. Our industry, in general, spends a ton of time doing research, exploring technology and innovation, doing planning studies, and other qualified endeavors.

TZL: What are some key tools for keeping the flexibility of being a small firm and balancing it with large reach?

JD: We’re obsessed with our company culture and how we maintain a flexible, dynamic, and fun setting – both internally and externally – even as we grow larger. Getting bigger has afforded us many opportunities like winning more dynamic projects, but it comes with more responsibility, policies, and other corporate elements that we’ve always resisted. We believe that as long as we’re intentional about the organizational changes we make along the way, stay focused on our core values, and keep people at the heart of everything we do that our culture will naturally evolve in a way that works for us.

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?

JD: Aside from technical training you’d see at any firm, we also invest in leadership coaching and training. Mentorship and people skills development is a key part of our succession planning. We have found that if someone is a culture fit and good with people, you can teach them everything else they need to know.

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?

JD: We’ve partnered with a number of universities on their internship development programs. This is really a win-win because their students get valuable, real-world experience and we get access to some great talent pool and develop relationships early so that when they graduate, we’re already a known commodity to them.

TZL: Before being managing partner at Method, you were a principal at Three Square. How is your position different now? What stands out the most?

JD: The greatest difference is that I went from one person making all the decisions to a larger operational leadership group planning, strategizing, and making decisions together. This approach aligns much better with our ego-free culture, allows for content experts in various fields to take ownership of that area of expertise and allows us to carry a bigger burden, collectively, instead of it being on any one person’s shoulders.

TZL: When you identify a part of your business that is not pulling its weight in terms of profitability or alignment with the firm’s mission, what steps do you take, and what’s the timeline, to address the issue while minimizing impacts to the rest of the company?

JD: We take a very data-centric, direct and transparent approach to help us identify problems and brainstorm on solutions. The key to adjusting departments, teams, or business lines that are not hitting targets is to avoid demoralizing the people working hard in those groups. Oftentimes it’s a process-related failure, not related to any one person. But as far as timing goes, there’s no time like the present to fix a problem; they don’t age well.

TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

JD: As we have gotten savvier with our data collection and analysis over the past few years, we’ve been able to really dig in deeper to our project financials, overhead, and true project costs. We learned the hard way that we had several jobs and clients that we were losing money on when it was all said and done. It’s sobering to see a number in red at the bottom of a spreadsheet after putting your blood, sweat, and tears into a project. But it’s also really motivating to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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