Providing opportunities: Mitch Smith

Mar 20, 2022

CEO and chairman of the board at MG2 (Seattle, WA), a global architecture, design, construction, and branding studio.

By Liisa Andreassen

As one of the first 20 employees to join MG2, Smith quickly rose from project manager to CEO and chairman of the board by honing the craft of architecture. He perfectly balances delivery excellence with a design mindset, driving kinetic transformation long into the future.

“You can’t wait for a specific opportunity to arise to develop your staff,” Smith says. “You have to continually invest in and provide opportunities.”

A conversation with Mitch Smith.

The Zweig Letter: Your online bio says that “you push boundaries.” Can you tell me more about that?

Mitch Smith: I push organizational and individual boundaries; it’s truly a yin/yang approach. A great example of this is the evolution of our Shanghai office. Since its inception almost 20 years ago, I’ve worked closely with the team to fundamentally understand how we can support our clients across Asia and help them drive growth. This has translated, advanced, and molded our offering to support the jurisdictional and cultural intricacies of our work overseas, and emboldened the team to really begin pushing boundaries for our clients.

TZL: You have a vigorous intern program. How many interns do you hire? From where? How many have turned into new hires?

MS: Each summer, MG2 offices around the country host a group of design interns. The program includes educational presentations, social events, and design competitions to elevate their understanding of the profession and to test their problem-solving skills. It’s also structured to allow interns to collaborate directly with MG2 architects and designers on real-world challenges.

For the last two years, we evolved our programming to virtual, creating our Student Connection series that allowed anyone over the age of 18 – student or otherwise – to participate remotely. We were thrilled to see engagement from across the globe.

Typically, we aim to hire around two dozen interns a year. We often hire high-performing interns into full-time roles after graduation. Today, we’re proud to have several employees who originally came on board as interns who are now more than 10 years into their careers, as well as many more in various stages of their professional journey.

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

MS: Fundamentally, the recipe is a simple one. Trust doesn’t just come from good intentions; it comes from an ability to say what you’ll do and then do it. Having the knowledge and experience to deliver above-and-beyond results, time and again. Optimization of speed, repetition, and efficiency. Candor and transparency in communication are a foundational part of that.

TZL: Can you tell me exactly what “human-centered design” means and illustrate it with a project example or two?

MS: The idea behind human-centered design is to invite the perspective and insight of the people we design for to inform the design, outcomes, and experiences we strive to achieve. We’re creating spaces where people live, work, and play so this is a fundamental piece of why diversity in perspective, background, race, gender, orientation, etc. are critical at MG2. The more diverse the voices at the table, the more equitable and inclusive the solutions will be.

Our Crossroads and Rose Hill projects are great examples of human-centered design expressed in our work. In both instances, we’re evolving outdated, urban-based shopping centers into walkable, sustainability-minded, multi-family communities. They’ll feature green spaces, varying amenities and will be accessible via multi-modal transportation. Destination-worthy spaces whose composition can positively change the lives of their residents, visitors, and surrounding neighborhoods is human-centered design in action.

TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?

MS: You need knowledge, expertise, and the passion to invest in research, learning, and expanding your ability to solve problems. That constant desire to learn and grow drives the practice forward, whether from a design or technical standpoint. It’s a constant. And it must also be coupled with great people.

Confident leaders know that they don’t have all the answers. Early in your career, you’re seeking answers and certainty. But ultimately, it’s about being nimble and adaptable. The world is changing quickly and yesterday’s solutions may not be the answer to tomorrow’s challenges.

TZL: MG2 invests in its leaders while focusing on their career, health, and wellness. Please tell me about some initiatives that work to meet this end.

MS: Early on, we identify people with leadership potential and provide support during their evolution. I greatly enjoy watching people step into new roles and embrace the accompanying challenges and responsibilities.

You can’t wait for a specific opportunity to arise to develop your staff; you have to continually invest in and provide opportunities. We have initiatives of all sorts, including extensive leadership training, EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion), coaching programs, free LinkedIn Learning access, and countless professional development benefits, including yearly training budgets and certification fee coverage.

We offer opportunities to volunteer on community projects with partners like Seattle Design Festival and The BLOCK Project, yearly student internships and events, and the ability to participate in our Emerging Professional Series – a program that provides everyone at MG2 the ability to explore tools, knowledge, and processes from across our firm.

To round everything off, we offer work-from-home flexibility and health resources for mental, physical, and emotional well-being through our firm’s comprehensive benefits package.

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

MS: We’ve been focused on this for years and have given much attention to the way we recruit and how we elevate our people. In 2020, MG2 partnered with the Global Diversity Collaborative: an organization that uses the results of effective collaboration to help companies transform into the workplace of the future, and helps leaders envision the possibilities of diverse, equitable, and inclusive businesses.

We’re just about to publish our revised EDI Strategy which maps out the outcomes we’re striving to achieve in the next three years. Together, we’ve developed a roadmap that defines our strategy to advance diverse talent in the firm; provide continuous EDI learning and understanding, evolve the MG2 culture to reflect EDI, and engage the profession and the community in support of EDI and social justice issues.

Today, we’re focused on what will have the greatest impact on our profession, and in our practice; a targeted effort to change the representation of Black architects in our profession. The imbalance is so historically pervasive, and we know we need to dedicate efforts wholeheartedly to how we engage in education relative to architecture programs, HBCUs, and even primary education. In that light, MG2 has recalibrated all our giving efforts toward those centered on EDI, including revising strategies for the MG2 Foundation. This has extended to our commitments with scholarships as well as design and arts organizations.

TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leaders are great people managers?

MS: Our managers are the lynchpin. Through the years, we’ve provided leadership coaching and structured resources to our managers, giving them the tools to effectively connect with and support their staff and pass their knowledge on to the next generation. Empathy is a huge part of this equation, as are candor, transparency, and consistent communication. This is why even when managers are really busy with project work, it’s even more critical for them to prioritize connecting with their teams. Our managers embody our “people make the place” mantra; they reiterate to their staff the importance of taking paid time away, putting mental health and family first, and asking for help when it’s needed.

Working remotely has presented an interesting challenge to our managers, as it negated the “water cooler effect” and opportunities for impromptu check-ins. To help emphasize the importance this year, a manager’s ability to positively affect their team's effectiveness and retention will be a line item on every leader’s performance review. This ensures we continue to be attentive and nimble.

TZL: Sustainability is built into your firm’s culture. When you set out to design the plan for MG2’s formal framework for sustainability, tell me a little about how you got there.

MS: The integration of sustainability in our practice has been an evolving strategy for MG2. When it came time to formalize a framework and start documenting our intentions in design with data-driven precision, there was buy-in from all sides.

We knew from the get-go that the effort needed to be all or nothing: We couldn’t just settle on a handful of sustainability-centric designers, teams, or projects; the entire firm, our contractors, and our clients needed to be involved. Initiatives like an annual internal waste and energy audit at our Seattle office keep our own habits as a firm top-of-mind, allowing us to better ourselves as a firm and live what we preach.

Driving our efforts are principal Mark Taylor AIA, LEED AP, and our Sustainability Leadership committee, who have set up and actively track our sustainability pilot projects. Additionally, they work with our Sustainability Forum team to help educate the firm on new tools, technologies, and more.

As we continue to evaluate and evolve our firm’s sustainability action plan, MG2 has committed to going above and beyond the goals outlined by AIA’s 2030 challenge by adding two more of our own: we’re also focused on water consumption and materials selection.

In addition to becoming proud signatories of the AIA Materials Pledge, MG2 has created our own rigorous Materials Evaluation System. Using a stoplight structure, specialists like our materials librarian, Candon Murphy, analyze and rank every vendor, product, and material we use. We adhere to the highest attainable sustainability standards for a better future.

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?

MS: The first priority is to ensure that those surrounding you are trusted and have strengths that complement your own. Replacing a leader who “does it all” with someone who may be inexperienced in critical areas can make for a rocky transition. Then, of course, you have to find the right leader. I feel it’s an intentional career path, and future leaders with ambitions to run a company must be obsessive about the process. But it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Becoming a company leader is a journey, evaluating your progress toward every year. The biggest pitfall to avoid – at any point along the way – is to think that you’ve got it figured out. 

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