How would YOU respond?

Sep 09, 2016

A Q&A might be just what the doctor ordered if you want to shed new light on your career and the choices you’ve made along the way.

A start-up company I’m mentoring here in Reno profiled me in their online database. The start-up is a networking company set up to help people in the commercial real estate industry connect with each other and with resources. I sent a copy of my bio and answered a few supplied questions, which challenged me to think a little differently about my career. The questions and my answers follow, but I suggest that in addition to reading my responses, you formulate your own answers.

Has the profession of architecture been as much fun as you thought it would be when you started your training in the field?

I’ve always had fun in everything I do. In architecture, I’ve noticed many of my colleagues and competitors over the years take themselves way too seriously. Particularly with clients, I’ve looked for ways to inject fun in our relationships. It’s why we’ve always ended up as good friends. Here’s an example: When shopping for stone in Europe with a client and our contractor, we teased each other about gargoyles, as in “That one looks just like you!”

When it came time to install the stone skin on the building, I commissioned a gargoyle to look just like our client. We secretly installed it above a dining patio on the second floor and had a champagne reception to unveil it. Everyone had a great laugh and, when my client retired, the owner of the building removed it and gave it to her as a retirement present. I love staging pranks that put a smile on everyone’s face.

What’s the coolest project with which you were associated? What made it special?

The cool projects are too numerous to mention, but the thing that made each of them special was our commitment to using design to enhance our client’s business performance. One very special one was a call center which had a terrible employee turnover rate with an average longevity of less than six months. The client told us we couldn’t spend a penny over the budget, and anyway, the client said, “Call center jobs are lousy, and no one is doing it as a career.” We didn’t allow the negativity to influence us, and a few special design features at no extra cost got longevity up to 11 months. While I would have liked that figure to be higher, the client was thrilled because the reduced cost of recruiting and training had more than paid for the facility.

Another example of a special project was an airline terminal at LAX in Los Angeles. The client’s goal was to increase market share over its two biggest competitors. The result was a market share increase of almost 20 percent. We did it by carefully analyzing passenger experience within the terminal and designing renovations that were truly responsive to what passengers told us they wanted. For me, that’s what makes a project special and brings great client referrals.

What’s the single most important lesson about leadership that you seek to impart?

A leader “aspires” and “inspires.” People watch the leaders in their organizations and, if they think the leader’s aspirations are worthy, they’ll work hard to help the whole organization to achieve them. The leader’s role is to inspire everyone – not just fellow employees, but subcontractors, suppliers, even the planning commission – to support his or her vision. I did this by learning what each of the stakeholders was trying to accomplish, weaving the aspirations together to make it a collective vision.

How do the skills involved with good architecture apply to effective leadership?

Architecture is a highly collaborative team sport. Because an architect has no authority over the contractor and subcontractors who are executing the design, the architect must create an atmosphere of trust and respect. Without that, little gets done, and nothing gets done right. Every business leader should adopt an attitude of humility and respect for every member of every team, inspiring an atmosphere of trust and commitment to achieve excellence. I think we all face that same challenge, regardless of our businesses.

If you had a mulligan on one decision you made in your life, what would you choose to do over?

Early in my training, I made the decision to shift from mechanical engineering to architecture and then to associate with a small firm that mirrored my values and operated in a manner that allowed me to do my best work and realize my potential as a leader. I’ve never regretted that decision or my path. I’ve been very lucky to be surrounded by incredible people who challenged and supported me. They gave me the knowledge, experience and confidence to make quick and mostly wise decisions, oftentimes under pressure and with potentially costly ramifications. While I don’t have one decision that stands out as a do-over, I’d say a strength taken to an extreme can become a weakness. The ability to make on-the-fly decisions quickly and confidently is a requirement in our business, but there are times, both personally and professionally, that a thoughtful pause is advised.

Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at

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