Be honest. Don’t puff up yourself or your credentials. Explore the nature of the job and, more importantly, the idea behind the company.
You can read many stories about how to get a job and grow your business. Mine is just one of many. The business I’ll describe is an architectural, design, and planning practice, started in 1965 by Art Gensler.
When I joined the firm in 1969, I was employee No. 2, and it felt like a start-up. I had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a master’s degree in architecture in 1968, relocating back to the San Francisco Bay Area in the middle of a recession. There were no jobs for architects, so I went back to work for a developer in Marin County where I had spent a year between college and graduate school. I enjoyed the breadth of experiences I was having but knew that, if I ever really wanted to be an architect, I had to fulfill an apprenticeship working for a licensed firm.
At this time, I lived in a four-plex built in 1895 that my friends referred to as “rodent heights.” My landlord owned a small, vacant piece of property on Corinthian Island in Tiburon. Most of the properties there were so small – the size of postage stamps – that they were given away with newspaper subscriptions to the San Francisco Examiner around the turn of the century.
While a few were grander, with views of San Francisco Bay, the one my landlord owned looked over downtown which, at the time, was a railroad yard. Its configuration was a long, slender triangle that went from 35 feet wide at the top to three feet wide at the bottom. It was mostly a 2:1 slope (very steep), but the wider section of the property was even steeper, greater than 45 degrees. In addition, the lot was located between the one-way street that exited the island and Main Street below.
He said, “You’re a young architect. You can figure out how to build something here, right?” Sure, why not? He was going to pay me for my efforts.
It required that I hang over the cliff in a boatswain’s chair tied to an oak tree holding a surveyor’s pole and getting an outrageous case of poison oak, to get measurements. A friend who was the surveyor on the development site I was working on north of San Rafael, managed to do a topographical map of the site. When we checked the boundaries against the deed, the lot was not where it was supposed to be. The exit road from the island ran across the property and down into Main Street. A young lawyer friend in Tiburon, along with the surveyor, concluded that this would require a quit-claim action with the city and a quiet-title action to realign the lot to conform with the curbs that defined the two streets.
That led to many meetings with the city council, the planning commission, and the architectural review board. The big question was, “If we approve this, is it a legal lot and what kind of protests can we expect from the neighbors, since this was always thought of as just a shoulder between the two streets?”
My little team and I secured a “final” hearing with the city council. I came in with a model and lovely drawings to be confronted by protestors from Corinthian Island carrying picket signs claiming that we were going to kill someone if a house were allowed to be built on the property. By the end of my presentation and the vote of the city council, our plan was approved to everyone’s surprise.
The surveyor, the lawyer, my landlord, and I went off to a local bar to celebrate. As we compared notes about the hearing, a big guy on the barstool next to me kept bumping into me. I finally offered him my barstool, as well. He turned and said, “You were in the city council meeting tonight; that was a great presentation. What do you do?” I explained my circumstances and he said he had a little architectural firm in San Francisco. He said they were hiring and that he’d like to talk to me. It was Art Gensler. We set an appointment for an interview.
He didn’t show, but he called and apologized profusely, saying he was with a client and clients always come first. Instead, he invited me to his house up on a hillside in Tiburon looking toward the Golden Gate Bridge.
Up until that time, my idea of success in life was to join Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the most highly respected firm in the nation. But they were not hiring. Nor was anyone else in town. As Art and I sat outside his house, we drank a bottle of wine and talked about the future of the profession of architecture. We were in complete agreement which, I think, surprised us both. As we wrapped up, he offered me a job and I joined Gensler about two weeks later, commuting in to San Francisco every day on the ferry with Art, giving us a lot to time to talk about where to take the firm.
I’m not sure it would be possible to replicate that story, but I’ll provide a few thoughts. First, be honest. Don’t try to puff up yourself or your credentials. Explore the nature of the job and, more importantly, the idea behind the company with the hiring manager or leader. Ask lots of questions and be thoroughly forthcoming with the answers you give. Never fake it. If you’re joining an organization that is headed in a certain direction, learn what that is and if that is where you want to go. Decide if, by the nature of your interests and skills, you can (and want to) make a contribution to achieving those ends. If you aren’t aligned, move on to the next opportunity.
Thirty-four years later, we had grown to 2,400 people in 25 offices around the country with a few overseas, and I had been president of the firm for seven years and CEO for the final three. We had grown dramatically without a merger or an acquisition and the firm today is 50 percent larger than when I retired. I’ll explain how and why that “no mergers, no acquisitions” strategy was so important in my next article.
Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at email@example.com.
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