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Patrick MacLeamy: “Collaboration inside is the best way to compete outside”

Great leaders “run toward trouble” rather than avoiding problems. This is my over-arching leadership philosophy. The best leaders don’t avoid conflict — they seek it out. Instead of ignoring problems, they hunt them down and resolve them because small problems inevitably become big problems and big problems become disasters if allowed to fester. When you meet with clients, […]

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Great leaders “run toward trouble” rather than avoiding problems.

This is my over-arching leadership philosophy. The best leaders don’t avoid conflict — they seek it out. Instead of ignoring problems, they hunt them down and resolve them because small problems inevitably become big problems and big problems become disasters if allowed to fester.

When you meet with clients, don’t just ask them “Are you happy with our progress?” Also ask, “Are there any problems we need to resolve?” I’ve learned that clients will let you know if they’re unhappy with some aspect of your work, but it’s always better if you ask first. The best client relationships are based on mutual trust, which grows from clear, honest communication. So give your clients an opening for honest feedback — good or bad.


As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Patrick MacLeamy.

Patrick MacLeamy, FAIA, LEED AP, is the former Chairman and CEO of HOK, one of the largest architecture and engineering firms in the world. He spent 50 years at the company, where he rose from Junior Designer to CEO and witnessed the firm’s growth from a single Midwestern office to 27 locations across the globe offering architecture, interiors, engineering, planning and more.

Since 1955, HOK has designed hundreds of major projects including the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., Apple’s first major campus in Cupertino, the George Bush Presidential Library in Texas, Orioles Baseball Park in Baltimore and Dallas Fort Worth Airport. MacLeamy himself led many signature projects during his time at the company, including the Moscone Center in San Francisco and King Khalid International Airport in Saudi Arabia.

He is best known in the industry for his thought leadership, now known as the “MacLeamy Curve,” which advocates front-loading effort during the design process to catch errors early. A riveting speaker, celebrated for his colorful storytelling, Patrick presents often around the world and has also testified before the U.S. Congress on the need for digital standards in the building industry.

Today, MacLeamy is chairman of buildingSMART International, a worldwide body that sets digital standards for the design and construction industries, so that their different software programs can “talk” to each other. This year he released his first book — Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm: The People, Stories and Strategies Behind HOK. The book is relevant, not only for architects, but also for executives in any industry interested in learning more about how to navigate through crisis, create a positive corporate culture and develop clear, simple metrics for profitability


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

Since I was a little boy and long before I even knew what an architect was or what they did, I wanted to be one. That was because of my grandfather. He was a carpenter who built houses for people and he would draw up the plans at his kitchen table with a homemade drafting board. I grew up watching him draw all these house plans, and I so wanted to do it too.

When I was about six, he finally let me draw a house plan of my own on his drafting board and I was so excited. I worked diligently on that plan, drew it up and presented it to him with a flourish. He looked it over seriously and said — ‘This is very nice but where is the bathroom?’ So it was back to the drawing board, so to speak.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

My first bump in the road came in college. I grew up thinking and believing I wanted to be an architect, but once I got to college, it involved so much more than drawing up plans on the kitchen table. There was a language that professors used and so many words and terms were involved with design that felt foreign to me. Nobody ever stopped to explain it. I was just expected to know it all or pick it up quickly along the way, but I was baffled.

Things turned around for me my sophomore year when I was assigned to a professor who was also a practicing architect. That’s when this career field really came alive for me. I realized that a lot of the people teaching freshman design had just recently graduated themselves and had never practiced architecture. They were the theoretical ones who were confusing me, but this real-world professor opened my eyes and ignited my passion.

For example, he gave us an assignment to help a fictional, wealthy couple with a small family who wanted a beautiful mountaintop home with gorgeous views. There was no budget limitation. He helped us to see that the design wasn’t just about creating a sweeping and impressive home but practical considerations had to be made too. Like the fact that you want bedrooms and kitchens to face east so when sun rises it lights up the rooms in the morning and that you position bathrooms with the goal of not making people walk too far in the middle of the night if they need to run to the bathroom.

Those kinds of lessons grounded architecture in real life for me and I was hooked. He helped me see the world needs great design — not just for museums and courthouses and grand buildings, but also for everyday places where people live, go to school and run errands. Later, I came to better understand scale and texture and rhythm, but he really set me on fire with the idea of what design could be for the world.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

That goes back to my grandfather again. He worked every day of his life. He was a hands-on carpenter and he was always busy — either drawing something or ordering supplies or building. I was sure I wanted to grow up to be just like him. Eventually I chose the designing path rather than building like he did, but I believe I have emulated his work ethic all these years.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

I believe grit and hard work propelled me to where I am today. My journey to the top of my company was a 50-year process and I worked every single position at the firm — from being a junior designer all the way up to becoming CEO. During that amount of time, you can imagine there were just as many low points, mistakes and crises as there were high points, wins and successes. I detail both the troubles and the triumphs in my book, Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm, because we learned things along the way at HOK that I believe can help other creative services professionals thrive.

The culture inside our company was always one focused on being there for each other and helping each other succeed. I never felt like I was on my own when those challenges came. I didn’t want to let my colleagues down and they didn’t want to let me down. That built resilience into each of us — and the fabric of the company.

When I had a challenge — and there were plenty — grit and resilience were absolutely what would see us through. One time, six months after finishing a major airport in the Middle East, there was a rare major rainstorm and the roof started leaking. Water poured out the ceiling, down the front steps of the building and into the car drop-off area. Our clients were so furious they contacted their government and said, “Put anyone in the country who is connected with this airport project under house arrest until we figure this out!” Yikes!

What did we do? We hired an investigator, got experts on the ground, went to the airport and did some fast detective work. It turns out the roof drains were not installed properly by the contractor. They had filled with sand and gotten clogged. When rain came, there was no place for the water to go. Once we figured that out, we went back to the client and learned that in addition to contractor errors, the airport’s maintenance people weren’t cleaning the roof after sandstorms.

We hadn’t caused the problem, but we discovered the roots of the trouble and worked out a solution. The clients were grateful and became fans and supporters because we didn’t run away from the problem. We stood up and said let’s get to the bottom of this. That takes grit and doing the hard thing — and it will always serve you well.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my career I was the project manager in charge of a team that designed a courthouse in Oakland, California. This project led to what I now call ‘the Toilet Seat Lesson.’ I met with the chief judge to discuss the design for her chambers, which typically have a private half bath. The toilet seat was an institutional black with an open front designed for men. She was very clear — she didn’t want that. She wanted a full toilet seat and she wanted it to be white. I nodded and wrote it down, and after we returned to the office, the project secretary typed up the meeting notes and filed them away.

Two years later I toured the courthouse as construction was nearly complete and discovered — sure enough — the Chief Judge’s chamber had a black toilet seat with an open front. What went wrong? I had taken dutiful notes, but once they were filed away, we lost the information. I was mortified, and arranged for the installation of a pristine new, white toilet seat with a closed front at HOK expense. It was an inexpensive fix, but I was embarrassed and realized we needed a better way to track important details of our projects.

The Toilet Seat Lesson caused me to explore computer technology to remember key details, and years later to seek the most sophisticated technology possible to remember every part and piece inside a building. I pushed HOK to become an early adopter of Building Information Modeling or BIM. One of the beauties of BIM is that you can click on any item in a 3-D digital model and it is embedded with key details. Click on the drawing of the toilet in the judge’s chambers and it will specify “white, closed front” and even the make, model and cost. Later, we at HOK became recognized as leaders in the application of information technology. DesignIntelligence magazine consistently ranks HOK as the #1 professional design practice for information technology innovation.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At HOK, it was the culture. I was fortunate to begin my architecture career at the original company office in St. Louis, Missouri, where the founders had taken care to nurture a strong internal culture where harmony was valued and people treated each other as teammates, helping each other to succeed. The founders believed there was plenty of competition outside the firm for projects, so teamwork inside HOK was the best way for us to compete. To simplify this thought, which would work well at any company, the idea was:

Collaboration inside is the best way to compete outside.

That teamwork approach was called HOK culture, and it was deeply embedded in the firm’s founding St. Louis office. But as the company grew and expanded into one with many offices where lots of new people had little or no exposure to the founders, the collaborative nature of HOK culture began to erode. The results were problematic and even embarrassing. Some offices began to compete with each other for work, going after the same clients in overlapping geographic regions. Some leaders began to put their offices first and HOK second, operating quasi-independently. Disputes over clients, projects and territories began to spring up between offices and leaders. It was a counterproductive mess on the inside that made us look bad on the outside and it started to damage the reputation of the whole firm. My biggest challenge when I became HOK CEO in 2003 was restoring the collaborative HOK culture in every person and every HOK office around the world.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I don’t think I ever burned out. I loved the work, and every project was like a fresh start. I did experience a letdown at the end of big projects, because they ceased to be “mine” when they were turned over to our clients. My solution was to take a nice vacation with my wife and sit on the beach somewhere. Studies show more than half of Americans don’t use their allotted vacation time, but at HOK we always made sure people did. If you expect your people to take care of clients, they must be in top form. They can’t work non-stop day and night and be in top form. Instead, they need to recharge from time to time, and sometimes they need reminders or encouragement to take time off.

It doesn’t matter whether you travel or stay home, just that you take that time to unwind and rest. There are physical, mental and emotional benefits. Getting away always helped me clear my mind and reinvigorated me. I always came back to the office eager to begin a new project.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

They don’t teach you how to run a business in architecture school. When I transitioned from design to management, I relied on some great mentors in non-architecture specialties at HOK, including Chief Financial Officer Robert Pratzel. Bob taught me the rudiments of corporate finance I needed to lead the company forward. It’s crucial to know if your company is financially healthy and what measurements are essential to assure you are staying on course.

The lesson I learned and pass on to emerging leaders now is that no matter your industry, learn the rudiments of HR, finance, IT and legal. Every business needs some measure of all four. I had no professional training in these specialties, so I hired top-notch pros who did, then learned all I could from them. Their help was a critical component of my success.

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

Twenty-five years ago, I saw an opportunity to improve the exchange of information between software applications used in the construction industry. Architects, engineers and contractors each play an essential part in bringing a building from design through construction. And each type of firm uses software designed for its own needs, such as design programs for architects and scheduling programs for contractors. Architects, engineers and contractors need to share information to design and construct a building, but their different software programs struggled to talk to each other. It was like a modern day Tower of Babel. I co-founded buildingSMART International to solve that problem. Today we have chapters in 23 countries –-all working to provide open, no-cost digital exchange standards and solutions for software that everyone in the business can use. When our standards are fully developed and adopted, it will transform our industry, lowering costs and raising reliability.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Great leaders “run toward trouble” rather than avoiding problems.

This is my over-arching leadership philosophy. The best leaders don’t avoid conflict — they seek it out. Instead of ignoring problems, they hunt them down and resolve them because small problems inevitably become big problems and big problems become disasters if allowed to fester.

When you meet with clients, don’t just ask them “Are you happy with our progress?” Also ask, “Are there any problems we need to resolve?” I’ve learned that clients will let you know if they’re unhappy with some aspect of your work, but it’s always better if you ask first. The best client relationships are based on mutual trust, which grows from clear, honest communication. So give your clients an opening for honest feedback — good or bad.

While designing another courthouse in California, we ran into trouble a second time and this one was a whopper. The building needed a holding center in the basement where prisoners could be delivered for their court appearances. The prison bus would reach the holding area via a ramp with a 90-degree turn into the side of the courthouse.

Because the ramp was outside the building, our landscape architects laid it out. Construction was complete before we discovered the problem. The first time a bus driver tried to drive down the ramp, the bus got stuck. They had to tow it out. The Sheriff tapped his very best bus driver to give it a try. He got stuck too! None of the prisoners made their court dates that day. Ramps that require a sharp turn need to be wider in the middle so long vehicles have enough room to make the turn. We didn’t do that — the ramp was the same width all the way down.

I got a call from our furious client saying, “You designed a bus ramp that buses can’t use.” It happened, in part, because our landscape architects designed it, rather than our civil engineers or architects. It was our mistake. If only we had ‘run toward trouble’ and discovered the problem early on. Instead, we had to pay to jackhammer the concrete and widen that ramp a few feet in the middle. It cost a bundle of money and I learned some important lessons:

  1. Assign the right people to the job. In this case, just because landscape designers create things outside doesn’t mean they’re the right folks to design a ramp. They are gifted when they work with landscaping and plazas, but ramps were outside their expertise.
  2. Do the right thing, always. Ironically, this courthouse client thought we were going to make them sue us…and take it to court. I diffused that right away by owning up to the mistake. I apologized to the sheriff and the county personally and said we would pay the entire cost for the fix. The offer to make it right was all it took. It’s not easy, but if you make a mistake, don’t cover up or try to pretend it didn’t happen. Owning the problem diffuses anger and restores client confidence.
  3. Catch mistakes on paper instead of in concrete. This blunder was one of the foundations of my belief in what I call the “Smart Effort Curve” and others have come to call the MacLeamy curve. The idea is to shift more effort and resources into the design phase of a project so you can catch errors early and prevent costly do-overs during construction. It’s a heck of a lot easier and cheaper to fix mistakes when they’re on paper — or in a computer — than when they’re already built of concrete. I believe this idea of front-loading effort can also be applied to other industries.
  4. Having the courage to tell the uncomfortable truth is important in business. I learned to seek it out, hunt down problems and resolve them before they got out of hand. If there’s trouble — whether it’s your own doing or something that popped up organically — nip it in the bud early, so it won’t be a bigger problem later.

2. On an organizational chart, your board of directors should be at the base of the pyramid, not the pinnacle.

This is the idea of ‘servant leadership’ and I explain it in great detail in my book because I believe it’s so important. Servant leaders don’t exist to tell people what to do but to instead help others do their job. True talent doesn’t need a whole lot of direction from above. They need encouragement that creates a solid foundation to help them through tough spots and assures them they have the right to learn — and even fail — without getting fired.

What I’m really talking about here is the difference between leading versus managing. I created a graphic to illustrate this point that people don’t need to be managed and issued orders. They need leaders at all levels to have the attitude that they won’t ask anyone to do something they won’t do themselves. Whether designing a building or fighting coronavirus, people will follow if they have a leader. Manager is an overrated term.

There’s a famous cartoon of Pharaoh building the pyramids, which I have redrawn. In the first panel, Pharaoh is standing over the workers while shouting and snapping a whip. That’s managing. In the bottom panel, Pharaoh’s got a rope over his shoulder, pulling like everyone else. That’s leading.

I learned that when leaders lead, people start taking the initiative on their own. They are unshackled from following orders and start putting their own ideas into practice. It’s exciting to see the good ideas people come up with, and always a thrill to see someone exceed what they think they can do. President Dwight Eisenhower said it best. He called leadership “the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it, not because your position of power can compel him to do it.”

When HOK went through its culture struggle, we set out four goals that we visualized as a pyramid. A strong board of directors was the base of the pyramid, because without a strong foundation the pyramid will not survive. The next level of the pyramid was to achieve great operations. The third level of the pyramid was called true collaboration, which depended on the first two pyramid levels for support. The fourth pyramid layer was the tip and called dreams. We wanted HOK to be the place where dreams come true — dreams of great designs, big bonuses, the admiration of our peers and more. But we had to earn the right to dream by mastering the first three levels of the pyramid first.

3. Create concrete consequences.

When you are making a crucial change to save your firm, it’s not enough to tell your people to do something. You must build in concrete consequences for non-adopters or dramatic change won’t happen. As I explain in “Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm,” we faced a triple crisis that could have bankrupted the firm. One of our persistent problems was spotty cash flow.

For years our leadership team had nagged and cajoled our branch offices to do a better job of collecting fees from clients. Begging and pleading just didn’t work. Like most design firms, we were using an accrual accounting system which counted fees as earned when the design work was done — not when the client paid our bill. We weren’t holding anyone responsible for bringing in the actual money!

As HOK CEO I created a concrete consequence: fees not billed and collected in 90 days would be “unearned.” In other words, they wouldn’t be counted. This was a concrete consequence our office leaders would feel in their own wallets, because year-end bonuses were based on fees and profits. That made unearned fees a serious blow. The incentive for offices changed from earning fees to earning and collecting fees. Collections and cash flow began to improve and were a critical step on our road to recovery.

4. Invest in technology.

When it comes to technology, I believe in using the word “invest,” not “buy” and this is important. When I proposed to get the latest, greatest technology on board at HOK, our executive committee resisted at first, because of the high initial cost. I argued that buying the best, most up-to-date technology is not spending money. It is investing money. Why? Technology is cheaper than people and it helps people to be more productive. We also invested in technology to stitch our network of offices together, adopting the same hardware and software in every office. This was crucial. We discovered this cohesive virtual network enabled people in different offices to work together as a seamless team, meaning we could select the best people for each project regardless of their location.

Thanks to our investment in technology we learned to work virtually. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, our ability to work virtually has allowed our firm to continue to work.

5. Company culture is crucial — and if lost is essential to reclaim.

These are unprecedented times for business and for many companies; the only way to survive will be through shared sacrifice with your employees. When you are asking people to embrace painful measures like pay cuts and temporary furloughs, it helps immeasurably to have a strong, unified company culture in place. But if your company culture has crumbled, I know first-hand that it is possible to reclaim it because I’ve climbed that mountain. Here are four steps you can take to rescue your company culture:

  1. Communicate in-person with every employee. It is important for your people to see you and you to see them, so we began rotating HOK board meetings between offices to get to know each team better. In addition, I, personally, visited each of our 20 offices at least once a year and worked hard to make sure everyone knew how the firm was progressing toward fixing problems and meeting goals.
  2. Encourage employees to “ask you anything.” I held “Ask Me Anything” talks to foster open communication between leadership and staff. I was honest and direct — even about the challenges the company faced, took each question seriously, answered openly, and in time I began to re-build a culture of shared values.
  3. Use company stock to unify your team. If your company issues stock, it can become a great tool for reclaiming your company culture. When HOK’s stock began growing in value, we started comparing its growth to that of the Dow, which it often beat. That encouraged more employees to want to buy our stock. As shareholders saw their HOK stock value go up and learned more about the business side of the firm, they began to take an interest in whether other offices besides their own were doing well. Stock value is tied to the health of the entire firm, not the individual offices, so this reinforced our goal of helping people view HOK as one firm. Infighting between offices receded. Stock became an important factor in binding us together and it can do this for other firms as well.
  4. Adjust your bonus program to reinforce your company culture. Our original bonus allocation system was purely mathematical, based on profits. It became an incentive for individual offices to win and keep as much fee as possible, undermining firm-wide collaboration and quality. So we revised our bonus program to reward other factors we valued — not just profitability. We began looking at qualitative metrics such as support for great design, collaboration with other offices and client service. This requires more judgment by firm leaders to honestly evaluate each employee’s contribution, but it’s worth the effort. Once employees understand these more nuanced goals, they will be motivated to meet them, which will strengthen your company culture.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want great design to be available to everyone. If you examine the large urban areas where most of us live these days, you will find good design in only a few places: city centers, stadiums, museums and some university campuses. Good design has all but disappeared from the public realm: roads and freeways, parks, waterfronts and gathering places. Most of the rest of our urban areas — places where we live and work — are dull and repetitive where design gives way to expediency.

When is the last time you saw a new school, shopping center or subdivision that featured inspired design? I wonder if you ever have. Most are cookie-cutter buildings that don’t take advantage of a site’s natural advantages, such as mature trees or views.

What’s the solution? Great design needs good, integrated software to support it. I envision a digital support system that allows inspired design to soar. This software should be able to monitor nuts and bolts like cost and structural integrity, so designers can get back to designing. Aircraft manufacturers test-fly new planes digitally before they ever manufacture them. We need to be able to do the same thing with buildings.

Furthermore, our buildings need to improve consistently over time. You expect your new car or smartphone to be better than the last, older model. It’s a given that the car will get better mileage and the phone will have a better camera and more features. Not so with buildings. You should expect the same constant improvement from the buildings you live in, work in and use daily.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) has the potential to achieve this vision. BIM allows architects and urban planners to design in 3 dimensions and constantly double check their work as they go. With BIM they can achieve:

Green design

Most people don’t realize that the construction and operation of buildings accounts for half of the energy used on the planet. Building Information Modeling allows architects to test minute adjustments in a building that push the envelope of sustainable design to achieve buildings that generate as much energy as they consume and are carbon-neutral.

People-centric design

Using BIM strategically, we can master-plan cities that work for people instead of cars. No more freeways that cut neighbors off from one another. No more clunky infrastructure projects that make it impossible to commute on foot or by bicycle.

Affordable — and beautiful — design

Great design should not be out of reach for even the most basic buildings. Using BIM to check and control costs will allow us to design gorgeous affordable housing, sleek supermarkets, even attractive jails and prisons.

With advanced software programs that can integrate seamlessly with each other, the above is possible. When architects tap into this technology, they will take back their rightful place at the helm of the building process, conducting the symphony of other specialists and creating inspired designs that make our world a more noble place.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can connect and follow me on LinkedIn where I posts leadership tips several times a week. They can learn more about me on my website and they can learn more about my book and what others think about it on Amazon.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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