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James Phillips: “I always try to lead by example”

I always try to lead by example. There’s a quote by Dwight D. Eisenhower that comes to mind for me, “Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.” I’ve always said that this work in architecture is a people business. You […]

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I always try to lead by example. There’s a quote by Dwight D. Eisenhower that comes to mind for me, “Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.” I’ve always said that this work in architecture is a people business. You cannot deliver on the aspirations of your clients unless you have the right people that have the right training, a positive attitude, and a drive for the work. It’s important to create a collegial atmosphere where the idea of collaboration and teamwork is at the center. I’ve been told by our clients that we have the nicest people working at our firm, and it’s because of this that we’re producing better and higher quality work that the firm has ever seen.


I had the pleasure of interviewing James Phillips, Founder and Managing Executive TPG Architecture. An established leader in the field, James is the Founder and a Managing Executive of TPG. He has always chosen to work on the front end of projects, guiding clients through their decision-making processes with an astute appreciation of their organizational needs. Ultimately, his practice emphasizes the creation of environments that improve his clients’ businesses. He brings to the team a creative and agile approach blended with sophistication rooted in 41 years of leadership and design experience.


Thank you for joining us James! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up in a time when America was emerging as a powerhouse post-WW2. Early on, I discovered that I was fascinated by man-made structures such as bridges and dams. I had strong science, math, and artistic skills and originally wanted to become a civil engineer. It wasn’t until after I enrolled in a public high school that I morphed my interests into a path to a career in architecture.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I think the unprecedented circumstances in our society right now are something that I would have never anticipated in my career. My day-to-day work life has drastically changed where there’s no longer any room for spontaneity or chance encounters with my coworkers as before. Life is more planned and scheduled out and happens entirely throughout the virtual landscape. In some respect, it is more stressful for many across the company, and we are all processing our respective and varied home/work/life situations. Despite it all, I’m amazed at our ability to collaborate with one another and continue to develop quality work for our clients.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Right now, we are all living and working in a very challenging time, jointly experiencing health, social, and economic crisis. Our clients, especially in the area of the corporate workplace, are coming to us for design solutions that will help their organizations process these new changes and move forward. Recently, we were awarded two projects for fintech companies that specialize in data research. As we approach both of them from post-COVID design considerations, we understand that we are planning for an unknown future.

One of the biggest challenges we’re coming to terms with is that no one can see the future, and therefore consequently we need to plan for any future. These projects and all of our future work must emphasize the qualities of adaptability, flexibility, and agility. How we work with our clients has to embody these principles as well because the landscape is going to continue to change as we learn new information each day.

According to this study cited in Forbes (from 2018), more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

By and large, our clients that we work for and their organizations are happy as people seem to respond positively to the environments that we’ve created. In each of our projects, we strive to achieve a holistic level of success by balancing commercial success with human-social success. To create workplaces that foster positivity and productivity we must begin by listening to the people we are designing for and gain a sense of their individual company culture. Understanding their needs and the ultimate goals for the enterprise helps us build a strong foundation for our projects which carries out into their new workplace.

In response to the Forbes piece, I think some unhappiness in the workforce stems from generational differences. The DNA of the most recent generations has been stimulated by technology coupled with desires for immediate gratification. Some people aren’t willing to wait and choose to seek new work opportunities more frequently.

Based on your experience, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact company productivity, company profitability, and employee health and wellbeing?

I’d like to approach this question by considering how a happy workforce will impact these areas. Over the years, I’ve seen how a well-designed workplace has the ability to empower and enable people and allow them to produce their best work. If you’re motivated and productive and the workplace is enabling, the enterprise is likely to be more profitable. I’ve also witnessed how the WELL movement has emerged over the past years — emphasizing the importance of air, water, light, movement, nourishment, biophilia, etc. — all intended to make a more well human being. This attention to employee health and wellbeing then extends to the overall productivity of the enterprise.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture?

  1. Transparency — It’s important to keep an open line of communication throughout one’s organization. This helps build trust and a stronger community and culture.
  2. Authenticity — The employees at our firm are spirited, efficient, receptive, and team-oriented. Having team leaders that are authentic and open with their teams helps further create this positive, vibrant dynamic.
  3. Empowering — As creatives, we are a community where everyone’s ideas are heard and valued. If we as leaders can empower, encourage, and enable our staff, they will be able to achieve superior results that they can be proud of.
  4. Fairness — Every person I come across I treat with the same dignity and respect that every human ought to receive. If everyone has the opportunity to voice their ideas, we can draw inspiration from a larger talent pool and find innovative solutions.
  5. Mentorship — While we’re working in the present, we need to stay mindful of the future and help prepare the next generation of leaders. Passing down the tools, skill sets, and knowledge to junior staff not only broadens their understanding of the industry but also helps build the foundation that drives success for the organization.

What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

I believe that we need to emphasize mentorship to support the future of the workforce culture. The younger generations crave experiences and programs that give them the resources and encouragement to shape their own career paths. At our firm, we have a Professional Development Mentorship Program which aims to ease the transition from student to employee to experienced architectural or design professional. This program offers our employees direct access to our leadership, through workshops and moderated conversations to give them the tools to one day rise to leadership roles.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I always try to lead by example. There’s a quote by Dwight D. Eisenhower that comes to mind for me, “Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.” I’ve always said that this work in architecture is a people business. You cannot deliver on the aspirations of your clients unless you have the right people that have the right training, a positive attitude, and a drive for the work. It’s important to create a collegial atmosphere where the idea of collaboration and teamwork is at the center. I’ve been told by our clients that we have the nicest people working at our firm, and it’s because of this that we’re producing better and higher quality work that the firm has ever seen.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are several people throughout my life that have made an impact on who I am today. First is my father — he told me that it was okay to compromise but never to compromise a principle, and this tenant has never left me. Second, Howard Falick, my architecture professor at Brooklyn Tech, who opened my eyes to the romance of architecture. Third, my first father-in-law who emigrated from Germany after WW2. He showed me the European way of how they view life and work. Fourth, my second father-in-law, who was an ambitious corporate executive. He taught me about the importance of humility.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I feel like architecture touches a lot of people’s lives, especially when it comes to our physical workplaces. People may spend more time in the office than in their homes during their lifetime, working under stressful conditions, deadlines, etc. I think the fact that we can use design to make their work-life better and more efficient shows me that there is innate goodness embedded in the practice.

I’ve also always maintained that it’s important to give back to your community through charitable actions. As a firm, we support many local charities that positively influence the neighborhoods in which we live and work. One charity that I contribute to annually is the St. Francis Food Pantries and Shelters in New York City.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My father once told me, “Don’t wait for your ship to come ashore, go out and meet it.” He taught me to take chances in my life so I could achieve my dreams. I think in part it’s because of his encouragement that I was able to use sensibility to cultivate a successful career path and ultimately start my firm at age 29. It’s been 41 years since I’ve worked for someone else. I also think about this when I look at my children, as I want them to be happy and choose their own path in life. I want them to have the same courage as I did and try new things even if it means you may risk failure. You don’t want to look back on life knowing that you may have missed opportunities — it’s important to go for it.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Throughout my career, I’ve seen firsthand how important the physical workplace is to our daily lives. In continuing my practice, I want to create inspirational environments that people want to come to work in — ones that help organizations foster their culture and enable their workforce. I certainly love the work that I do and would like to inspire others by my example.

Especially right now, there is much uncertainty in what lies ahead for the future of the workplace. Right now, our teams are collaborating internally on the return to the office strategy and planning interventions to help guide our clients in their own journey to return to the office. In all of this, we’re searching for the right solutions that will keep employees feeling safe, happy, and even excited about this transition. Ultimately, I’m striving to make everyone’s work-life a positive experience through design — that’s my mantra.

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