Look toward the future: Joe Greco

Jan 02, 2022

President of Lord Aeck Sargent (Atlanta, GA), an architecture and design firm with a history of creating environments people want to use and preserve.

By Liisa Andreassen

Greco has served as president for Lord Aeck Sargent since 2010, but he’s been a practicing architect since 1985. He continues to be connected to the design practice which is in alignment with a company culture that embraces collaboration.

“LAS recently made a conscious decision to look more intently toward the firm’s future,” Greco says. “We work hard to incentivize and provide leadership opportunities for the next generation and we prefer to do that from within the firm rather than bringing in new senior people when possible.”

A conversation with Joe Greco.

The Zweig Letter: As a Georgia Tech undergraduate, you received a scholarship to attend the Fontainebleau Study Program at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. What is one of the greatest things you learned from that experience that still influences you in your practice today? Why?

Joe Greco: The opportunity to study abroad for an entire year had an incredible, lasting impact on my perspective about design in general – particularly with respect to architecture and urbanism. The exposure to different cultures, languages, values, history, and design at such a formative age is something I’d encourage for any student, but especially for one in a design discipline. It brings a degree of humility, respect, and open-mindedness through a broader context that’s hard to duplicate any other way. Living a year in Paris gave me a firsthand introduction to a density and richness of urban space in a way that transcended the specifics and shaped a lifelong appreciation of cities and human interaction through design as a whole.

TZL: How do you anticipate COVID-19 permanently impacting your firm’s policy on telecommuting?

JG: We are in the process of implementing a hybrid work approach that combines remote work with in-person office (and virtual) collaboration. The pandemic taught us that we can be effective working from anywhere, but also that there’s a critical missing aspect of firm culture that is best promoted with actual, in-person human interaction. We created a roadmap for a return to the office at a “grass roots” level through a Work Future Committee. That committee took input from all levels within the firm and examined what COVID taught us about our practice, our work efficiency, and our culture and how we could positively take and apply that knowledge going forward.

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

JG: Lately, it’s been more on the business than in the business. The last couple of years have been challenging for a variety of reasons, but we’re very excited about where we are headed. While we’ve all persevered through COVID, it’s been much more difficult to bring our culture forward and to integrate new talent. It’s probably two-thirds on and one-third in these days.

TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?

JG: The clients’ trust is paramount. Design, by its nature, is a big challenge. We’re always inventing something new and improving upon something we did previously. Architecture is really a series of prototypes that are by definition “flawed” in some way. Most of our clients realize this, but overwhelmingly we try to make them part of our process of Responsive Design. This collaborative, multi-disciplinary process demands client engagement and usually through that process there are opportunities to align vision and prioritize and build that critical level of trust.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

JG: We’ve had a lot of very frank, recent conversations on this topic. I certainly won’t say we have the diversity/inclusion puzzle “solved” but we are taking active steps to recruit and promote more diversely. There’s a legacy aspect reflective of previous generations’ disparity in architectural education and some of that is beginning to self-correct. However, the firm leadership recognizes that simply waiting for it to happen naturally isn’t enough, so we’re examining avenues for intentional outreach and engagement to try to become more representative of the population as a whole.

TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?

JG: We offer a generous benefits plan with a solid, recently-improved 401(k) match, a robust medical plan, and excellent maternity and paternity leave opportunities. We have good, collaborative office work environments, strong professional development, and a nice, family-friendly, highly social firm culture. Unfortunately, COVID has impacted the benefit of this last grouping significantly, but we’re in the process of getting these rebooted as we begin to return to the hybrid work-office environment.

TZL: You became a principal in 2000 and then firm president in 2010. Did you strive to be president? How did that evolve?

JG: To be honest, not particularly with respect to taking on the role of president. Lord Aeck Sargent had long been a very collaborative, collegial firm that embraced different voices, finding common ground and building consensus around our key business decisions. As LAS evolved from the founding partners’ structure as a company (initially adding other principals/owners – and then later at the CEO level), I felt we needed to find a way to approximate that original ethos, but as a larger firm that was continuing to grow. I wanted to use a different model, one that embraced the new broader organization. In response, we created a management team structure that was both focused on the operations of the business and was involved in the delivery of design. As someone who was deeply involved in design and in the business of architecture, this structure better fit our culture as well as my talents and interests and allowed me to maintain a connection to our design practice through having the time to remain actively engaged on projects.

TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.

JG: LAS recently made a conscious decision to look more intently toward the firm’s future. We work hard to incentivize and provide leadership opportunities for the next generation and we prefer to do that from within the firm rather than bringing in new senior people when possible. We aren’t a company that churns through people in a haphazard, knee-jerk manner and we tend to first look to try to find the right alignments for people to be successful. That isn’t to say that hard decisions don’t have to be made from time to time; it’s always a struggle to find the right balance. I’m fortunate to be leading a company with other partners who embrace the firm-first mentality and who are genuinely more concerned about the success of the firm above short-term personal gain.

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?

JG: We do some of this by actively partnering with institutions of higher learning. We’re involved in some university “pilot projects” and have done a number of facilities that rethink old paradigms – especially in the realm of science, preservation, and sustainability. We’d actually like to do a lot more of it on the technology side. One of LAS’s core design markets is higher education – from teaching and research to student life and everything in between. We have several staff who are active faculty and have sponsored some scholarship and intern programs in the past. We’ve found this to be a successful way to identify young talent.

TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?

JG: I would certainly agree. Fortunately, LAS has been at it for a while; we have some good processes in place and are now multiple “generations” in. One key is to make it a “normal” part of the firm’s business process and evolution. There’s a delicate balance between having smooth, predictable transitions while offering sufficient growth opportunities for leadership and ownership within the firm year after year. The biggest pitfall to avoid is forgetting that this needs to be an ongoing process and that many different batons need to be passed incrementally along the way. We’ve made a recent commitment to broaden the firm ownership this year and are in that process now. 

Click here to read this week's issue of The Zweig Letter for free!

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.