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Patrick MacLeamy of HOK: “Ask Me Anything”

Ask Me Anything. Healthy, happy companies encourage a collaborative culture. Not only aren’t employees afraid to raise concerns to leadership, the practice is encouraged. The people closest to a problem often have the most informed suggestions for possible solutions. During an AMA session at one of our lowest-performing offices, I overcome silence by offering money […]

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Ask Me Anything. Healthy, happy companies encourage a collaborative culture. Not only aren’t employees afraid to raise concerns to leadership, the practice is encouraged. The people closest to a problem often have the most informed suggestions for possible solutions. During an AMA session at one of our lowest-performing offices, I overcome silence by offering money to the first person to ask a question. In contrast, the top-performing branches had a buzz of energy and a constant flow of questions because the employees had a greater level of engagement in the company. Orchestrating these sessions remotely varies based on the number of participants. The approach remains a vital way for leadership to inspire staff and reinforce that they’re the most valuable part of the company.


We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Patrick MacLeamy, FAIA, spent 50 years at HOK, which grew into one of the largest architecture and engineering firms in the world during his time there. 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. MacLeamy joined HOK St. Louis in 1967, helped establish the firm’s San Francisco office in 1970, joined HOK’s executive committee in 1995, was named COO in 2000, served as CEO from 2003–2016, and remained as Chairman through 2017 after selecting his successor. MacLeamy’s HOK experiences inspired his how-to book of recession-proofing tips for creative-services businesses, Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm (Wiley, 2020).

MacLeamy led many signature projects at HOK, including Moscone Center in San Francisco and King Khalid International Airport in Saudi Arabia. Over the years, he worked as a designer, project manager and even marketer at HOK. Trained as an architect, MacLeamy is a self-taught executive, who attributes his success to his ability to communicate clearly and his interest in “boring” things — like financial metrics and digital standards — that architects often ignore.

MacLeamy believes in getting involved to help improve the building industry, and has served in many roles and received multiple honors for this work. He was a member of the Architecture and Engineering Productivity Committee of the Construction Users Round Table, convened by the General Services Administration, in 2003. The National Institute for Building Sciences honored him with its President’s Award in 2005. MacLeamy served on the American Institute of Architects’ Large Firm Roundtable for many years, and, in 2006, the AIA named him a Fellow in recognition of his service to the profession. MacLeamy was also chairman of the Construction Industry Round Table from 2012 to 2013. Recently he was elected to membership in the National Academy of Construction in recognition of his many contributions to the building industry.

MacLeamy’s proudest association is with buildingSMART International, which works to achieve open standards for the exchange of digital information in the building and infrastructure industries. He was a founding member of buildingSMART in 1994, elected a fellow for his service to the organization in 2018, and currently serves as its international chairman.

MacLeamy earned his Bachelor of Architecture and Master of Architecture in Urban Design degrees at the University of Illinois at Urbana. In 1965, he won the coveted Paris Prize administered by the Van Alen Institute, allowing him to attend the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the American Academy in Rome.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My grandfather was a carpenter. I was fascinated by home-building and architecture at a young age thanks to him kindling my interest. I grew up in Illinois, just upriver from St. Louis, and attended University of Illinois-Champaign. After graduation, I contacted the nearest architect and asked if he could tell me about the profession. He basically told me to get lost, that I was wasting his time. That made an indelible impression; I vowed to always make time for young architects.

My first job offer was from a prestigious firm in Chicago. The cold, rigid, sterile offices didn’t feel right, and I declined. It may sound crazy to turn down a job fresh out of college, but I was looking for the right place to learn and grow. In college, I did a project critique on the James S. McDonnell Planetarium in St. Louis, designed by local firm HOK. A former classmate had been hired by HOK and arranged an interview for me with firm partner and planetarium designer Gyo Obata. Obata’s first question: “What are your ambitions?” Although he looked through my portfolio, Obata seemed more interested in who I was as a person. He offered me a job. I accepted, intending to do the required three years to get my architect’s license, then move to the West Coast. I retired from HOK 50 years to the day after I was hired, spending the final 14 years as its CEO and Chairman.

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

My first project-management assignment was on a new courthouse. The chief judge was our primary client contact. She had one request: For her chamber, she wanted a full toilet seat, in white; not the standard institutional black one with open front. We made notes. More than a year later, I toured the building in its final stages and discovered that the chief judge’s chamber had a black toilet seat with an open front. What went wrong? I had taken dutiful notes, but once filed away, we lost the information. I was embarrassed, and quickly arranged for a new, white toilet seat with a closed front at our expense. Although this was an inexpensive fix, it showed me there was a flaw in our system. How could we lose something so important to the client in the mountain of project information? We needed to develop a better system for noting — and then tracking — the important project details. That experience laid the foundation for my current mission with buildingSMART International: helping architects, builders, and even product manufacturers communicate better via software everyone can understand. This will minimize construction waste enormously and produce homes and buildings that consume much less energy on a global scale.

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

Harry Truman said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” A successful company is greater than the sum of its individual employees. True collaboration — where common goals take precedence over individual agendas — allows companies to progress beyond the short-term benchmarks and creates the luxury of dreaming about possibilities: bigger projects, promotions, working in other locations.

None of us is 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 about that?

Gyo Obata, who hired me and is the world-class designer of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum and the Abraham Lincoln Library among many other buildings, taught me many lessons. First, his office had glass walls, creating a more democratic environment between the boss and the workforce. But the most important thing I learned from him was to listen actively. He used to say, “The most important thing is to really … listen … to the client.” This also applies to leadership. A company’s best leaders are often its best listeners.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

Collaboration is the foundation of an architectural firm. Especially on large projects, several specialties are required to create the best building for the clients’ needs: façade experts, interior designers, and even landscape architects to design the entry and other spaces such as courtyards. The best solutions to design challenges often come from random water-cooler encounters between people who are on different teams, drawing from ideas used on separate projects.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

As HOK expanded from one office to several branches, we initially localized our project teams for efficiency. Each often had several specialists in multiple areas. To design the best possible hospital, we eventually realized that we should assemble our top hospital designers, regardless of their home offices. Implementing this required streamlining technology and processes — eventually to 27 offices on three continents. We added a specialized conference room to each office, equipped with the latest videoconferencing technology, called an Advance Collaboration Room. This foreshadowed Zoom 20 years ago. The tools have changed, but the challenges and solutions are philosophically similar.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Always Err On The Side Of Over-Communication
Non-verbal signals we intuitively perceive face-to-face aren’t always conveyed through remote communications. Technical glitches can also cloud meaning. Out of politeness, we sometimes hesitate to ask for clarification. Far better to ask people to repeat themselves than risk misunderstandings, which can escalate into larger issues if left unclarified.

2. Leading By Example Manifests Differently
The family-based culture at HOK included a Midwestern suggest-don’t-tell communication style. With remote communications being more regimented and confined to defined blocks of time, the leadership example prioritizes preparedness. Anticipating questions and potential issues is possibly more important now than wardrobe and some of the other traditional, subliminal components of communicating as a leader.

3. Considerate Communication
This remains unchanged. My mentors created a soft-spoken culture where praise was public, and all criticism was reserved for private conversations. This fostered collaboration. Also, healthy internal competition among offices was branded Positive Peer Pressure, prioritizing shared solutions to company-wide goals.

4. Run Toward Trouble
Honest communication is possibly easier remotely than face-to-face. Just as we developed a habit of asking happy clients what we could do better to help plan for future challenges, honest communication with staff is critical. Expectations should be clearly conveyed in the simplest terms possible. Even more important, benefits and consequences should be included with expectations. Follow-through is the final step: consequences for non-adopters, the promised promotions or other rewards for meeting goals. Also, honesty breeds respect.

5. Ask Me Anything
Healthy, happy companies encourage a collaborative culture. Not only aren’t employees afraid to raise concerns to leadership, the practice is encouraged. The people closest to a problem often have the most informed suggestions for possible solutions. During an AMA session at one of our lowest-performing offices, I overcome silence by offering money to the first person to ask a question. In contrast, the top-performing branches had a buzz of energy and a constant flow of questions because the employees had a greater level of engagement in the company. Orchestrating these sessions remotely varies based on the number of participants. The approach remains a vital way for leadership to inspire staff and reinforce that they’re the most valuable part of the company.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Website and Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm book:
https://macleamy.com
LinkedIn:
https://www.linkedin.com/in/patrick-macleamy/detail/recent-activity/shares/
Upcoming Build Smart Podcast:
https://gablmedia.com/

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.


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