Thoughtful leadership: Elizabeth Leber

May 14, 2023

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Managing partner at Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners (New York, NY), an award-winning architecture, planning, and interiors firm.

By Liisa Andreassen

Leber became managing partner at Beyer Blinder Belle in January 2021. She says it’s not just one – but many moments that she reflects on over the past 20 plus years at the firm that have led her to this place in time. Her current role affirms BBB’s successful transition to a third generation of leadership and ensures the firm’s future-looking strategic vision and sustainability.

The firm was initially founded in 1968 by John Beyer, Richard Blinder, and John Belle in response to the urban renewal movement in the U.S., and its founding ethos focused on the social integrity of communities and institutions as a means to better the daily life of people (i.e., increased interaction and enjoyment on the streets and in neighborhoods). Since then, this mission has held true.

A transparent and thoughtful leadership. When Leber took on the role of managing partner, she wanted to be a leader who was calm and direct. She believes in sharing her vulnerabilities, and letting staff know when she’s particularly challenged by an issue so they can be a part of the solution. She believes in sharing the excitement and passion for what she does and has found much joy in being an architect. She wants staff to want and feel that too.

When she reflects back on her time with BBB she says she doesn’t really think of singular moments, but the arc of the role over time, and the corresponding success of the firm as a partnership. That said, each year BBB takes a day offsite for a partnership retreat and she’s led the last three.

“We’ve emerged with solid consensus around decisions for the future of the firm. That is a big point of satisfaction,” she says.

Overall, Leber’s methodology has radically changed the way BBB approaches institutional projects. Instead of thinking about general project types – this is a museum, this is an academic building, etc. – they think about the unique goals and challenges of an institution before they set pen to paper.

“Thinking deeply about a client’s mission tends to lead to design that is more resonant, not just architectural ideas formulated from our own experiences or past portfolio,” she says.

For example, BBB has spent the past decade renewing Harvard University’s undergraduate housing.

“We didn’t go about it by saying, what does a dormitory look like, or what did we do last time? Harvard wanted to make sure we were designing homes for students, and that each house retained its essence and its culture. From feedback, I think we’ve been successful at that,” she says.

In a field like architecture, every day is about creative problem solving for BBB’s clients and when Leber stepped into her current position she shares that there was an overall feeling that their business operations weren’t very transparent to staff.

“I know this is a common concern in employment, and I’d say particularly so for architects – we’re not taught so much about the business of architecture, despite our many years of education and training,” she says.

As a result, BBB’s COO and Leber decided that their quarterly, all-staff meetings last year would focus on opening the doors to the business side of the firm. Each meeting had a theme, such as business development or financials. It helped staff to see the whole picture, and to fill in some gaps on how the firm operates.

“And I hope it was a signal that we want to share, and our doors are always open to answer any questions. The feedback was very positive,” Leber says.

She wants staff to feel engaged in the process of ensuring the firm’s sustainability for at least another five decades. She makes an effort to think about each of their 170 staff as individuals, with their own career interests and trajectories, and then about how BBB can help them to achieve their goals.

“Right now, we’re in the process of writing our next three-year strategic plan, and I’m making sure there are a lot of voices involved in that – at all levels of the business,” she says.

In addition to the enhanced focus on transparency, staff also receive a very competitive compensation package along with intangibles that include a consistent appreciation for a collaborative culture. Even employees who have chosen to move on often remark that they’ve never found a firm that feels so supportive and positive.

Leber also believes that transparency engenders a greater level of accountability and sense of ownership in the company’s future and holds transparency high when it comes to working with clients – by being direct, and not sugar-coating what they don’t want to hear.

“More than anything client trust is built by listening to them, and making sure they know we are listening,” she says.

Leber attributes some of her diplomatic and pragmatic skills to her role model, her father.

“He has shown me through his own actions that one does not need to seek out the spotlight to be effective and successful. And, whether by nature or by nurture, he instilled in me the inclination to put others’ needs before my own,” she says.

And, when it comes to splitting her time “in” versus “on” the business she says she typically spends about 75 percent of her time working on projects for clients, and 75 percent spent on managing the business. Huh? That doesn’t add up. Leber says it’s only partly a joke.

“That said, I wouldn’t have taken on the position of managing partner if it had meant sacrificing being a practicing architect, and staying very involved with my projects on a day-to-day basis. I couldn’t maintain that balance without my highly effective senior staff, and our COO,” she says.

As for personal time, Leber admits that there’s a lot of overlap between professional and personal time because her partner is an architect, too. However, that actually makes it comforting for her since he has a deeper understanding of what she does, why she does it, and why committing time to it is so important.

“He supports my success, just as I support his. Of course, two architects at home makes it harder to unplug, but we work at that by enjoying time away, both figuratively and literally,” she shares.

Investing in the future. So, what’s ahead? Leber touches on a perennial challenge: a more seamless execution of projects from design to construction. She says that BBB is investing in coordination technology to benefit owners, the architecture and engineering teams, and their construction management partners.

She shares that they’ve also recently acquired LVCK, an environmental graphic design firm – and she’s excited to help that studio grow.

“This summer, we’re moving our expanding Boston office and we’re doing more work than ever in the southeast, a region we’ve had our eye on for the past few years. It all means growth, but smart growth – that is core to who we are,” she says. 

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