Tribal instincts

May 22, 2017

The workplace is at its best when teams are as close as tribes, but the only way to get there is to retain your talent.

Retention is a growing concern, fueled by lower unemployment rates and people seeking to improve their position or compensation. It’s worth it to explore some of the reasons people develop a loyalty to their current firm. If you want to know more about why people leave, just think of the opposite – why your best people choose to stay.

At Gensler, my most important focus as the firm grew was to create an environment that people didn’t want to leave. If you’re not familiar with the Glassdoor website, check it out. While it looks like a job search site, it’s also a series of reviews of companies by present and past employees. Check any references about your firm, and learn from it what you need in order to make your firm a destination.

Gensler was always concerned about how our firm “felt” to our employees. We did a great deal of work on the culture of the firm, making it a place people were truly attracted to and an environment they were unlikely to find elsewhere. We started with some great advice from the Gallup Organization, which they’ve clearly spelled out in their book, First Break All the Rules.

Gallup’s goal is to help people become “deeply engaged” in the work they do. I explore this and many other concepts about retention in my book, Long-cycle Strategies for a Short-cycle World. In it, you’ll find a list of 12 issues, that, if answered in the affirmative, will determine if someone is “deeply engaged” – in their work, with their clients, with their colleagues, and with the full array of stakeholders with whom they’re deeply involved. Engagement is particularly correlated with the resources in the firm that make the employee feel they’re appreciated, respected, and supported. That support involves someone in the firm who is committed to helping the employee grow as a professional.

In the book, I also discuss styles of leadership, the way in which it is deployed, and how people feel about the leaders in their firm. I adopted a simple idea when I first found myself in a leadership role at Gensler. My mantra was: “You don’t work for me; I work for you. It is my job to be sure you have the tools, colleagues, and support to do your very best work.”

Seems to have worked for me.

I found another definitive reason for longevity of the best talent and continuity of team members. We were organized around studios of 25 to 35 people, although the scale of projects today has caused those limits to be expanded. The same holds true for an office size which I always felt functioned best at around 150 people. In fact, there are firms that feel this is so important that if a business unit exceeds this size, they break a piece off to start a new business unit. The basic reasoning about why these numbers work begins with anthropology. In early times, a tribe rarely exceeded 150 people because that was a threshold for the brain to know and recognize who is a member of the tribe. If you’ve ever worked in a larger office, you know how easy it is to ask someone you don’t recognize if they work there.

On the 25-to-35 scale, this is a working unit where each person knows everyone else well enough to understand their individual strengths and weaknesses, which translates into great assignments. One of the Gallup book’s 12 indicators of “deep engagement” is: Am I doing work that I’m well suited to do? In other words, “Am I expected to do something I’m not very good at? Am I and others on the team each working to our individual strengths?” Making those kinds of assignments becomes a key skill of a studio leader.

Finally, I learned a great deal from a book by Steven Quartz and Terry Sejnowski titled Liars, Lovers, and Heroes. I was fascinated by a section that talked about how the brain actually alters itself based on the environment in which it lives. I was curious enough to find someone who knew Sejnowski and asked for an introduction. After an hour on the phone describing why I thought this was happening in our studios, he said, “Of course it is! If people work together for a significant period of time, they learn how to become a truly integrated part of a larger construct. They get smarter by knowing how to leverage each others’ strengths and knowledge, producing much smarter work.”

I was glad to have this wild-eyed notion validated and have told this story for many years, strengthening the bonds between studio members and the quality of work they accomplish together. It also improves their “deep engagement” with each other and, through the better work they’re doing, with their clients.

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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