Tips From The Top: One On One With Patrick MacLeamy

I spoke to Patrick MacLeamy, CEO Emeritus of HOK, about his journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Patrick: I met my wife, Jeanne, at work. We continued to work at the same firm, HOK, after we were married and believed it would be more professional if we retained separate last names: she remained Jeanne MacArthur; I was born and remained Patrick Leamy.

However, to acknowledge our marriage, we announced an informal family name: “MacLeamy,” a blending of our two last names. I worried that my father would be offended by the change, but, after our wedding, he told us the story of his grandfather who emigrated from Ireland with the last name “McLeamy.” My great-grandfather had dropped the prefix to sound less Irish-immigrant. My father said, “It looks like you have come full circle with the name MacLeamy!”

One day I was in the yard when the mailman came. He said, “Here’s one for Pat Leamy, one for Jeanne MacArthur, and another for the MacLeamy family … is this a commune?”

When we were expecting our first child, we filed papers to legally change our last names to MacLeamy—we had grown to love our combined last name. However, our son was born before we could schedule a court date. When the nurse asked us what name to place on his birth certificate, we explained our dilemma. We were surprised and delighted to learn we could give our son any last name we wished, so he became Patrick MacLeamy. A month later, a judge granted our petition—after quizzing us to be sure we were not running away from old debts—and the MacLeamy name became legal.

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Patrick: My grandfather was a carpenter who kindled my interest in architecture at a young age. He taught me about ways to organize rooms and amenities in a house. Two experiences shortly after college also shaped my future. First, I contacted a local architect and asked if he could tell me about the profession. He seemed offended that I had the audacity to ask him for advice, saying that he didn’t have time for me. I vowed to never adopt that attitude. 

Also, my first job interview was at a prestigious firm in Chicago. I got an offer. I needed a job but declined the offer–the office environment was cold, sterile, and uninspiring. A college friend had landed at St. Louis firm HOK and arranged an interview for me with Gyo Obata, the firm’s head of design. His first question was, “What are your ambitions?” Obata looked at my portfolio but was more interested in hearing about who I was as a person. I accepted his job offer, intending to work there the three years required to get my architect’s license, then move west. I retired from HOK 50 years to the day after I was hired.

My interest in designing buildings soon expanded to helping design the business. HOK entrusted me to launch its San Francisco office only three years after joining the firm. I became interested in marketing and financial metrics, which architects tend to find boring. That eventually led to a seat on the firm’s Executive Committee, followed by being named COO. As the company grew globally, the Midwestern, family-based culture that initially attracted me to HOK and kept me there was eroding. I began venting my frustrations. Two senior colleagues took me to dinner and said that the CEO was preparing to name his successor and that I was under consideration. They said I would be a stronger candidate if I were less outspoken. If I wanted to be considered for the position, I would need to accept executive coaching. I considered it being sent to “charm school.” 

The experience was invaluable. I learned to be a better listener and to help people understand why something is important. A colleague said it best: “You can’t make people do something; you have to help them want to do it.” These skills helped me navigate overlapping crises when our bank unexpectedly called in our line of credit, an outside investor wanted greater returns, and one of our most profitable divisions was beginning to operate autonomously, outside of our corporate culture. We were on the verge of bankruptcy and had to find several solutions quickly.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Patrick: The best leaders are active listeners. They are genuinely interested in soliciting opinions to influence the best possible decisions. Also, hard work tends to compensate for lack of experience. Finally, have the courage to tell the truth. Straight talk earns respect.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Patrick: 1. A company’s people are its most valuable asset. Companies that can’t or don’t retain and reward employees are wasting their investment in training. Also, if you can’t beat ’em, hire ’em.

2. Public praise, private criticism maximizes motivation.

3. Run toward trouble—even when things seem to be going well, ask people what could be better. This proactively addresses issues before they grow into crises.

Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading and managing teams?

Patrick: Start with specialized leaders. If each leader is responsible for a different area of the business, they are more likely to work together toward shared goals than if their responsibilities overlap. This is a primary building block in what I call the Pyramid Strategy for company success, with four successive goals. The base of the pyramid is Strong Leadership, specifically the board of directors. Once this is established, Good Operations are next—including financial metrics that can be understood by all employees. True Collaboration is the next level, incentivizing people to work together toward company-wide goals. At the top of the pyramid is Dreams. Companies with solid foundations are better equipped to indulge in what-ifs to envision bigger and better projects, products, and promotions.

I distinguish between leading and managing. Managers—people who merely give directions—don’t earn followers. In contrast, leaders encourage collaborative problem-solving. Everyone doesn’t always agree with the decisions, but they’re more likely to follow the plan when they are empowered to participate in the process. Further, leaders don’t ask others to do anything they themselves wouldn’t do. Actions are more important than words, and the best leaders are selfless.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Patrick: HOK co-founding partner George Hellmuth said, “Listen more than you talk.”

Adam: What is one thing everyone should do to pay it forward?

Patrick: Make time to share your experience with junior-level staff and even students. 

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you as a leader?

Patrick: I’m a student of history. I was fortunate to win the Paris Prize as a college student, which allowed me to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the American Academy in Rome. Through traveling in Europe, I became intrigued by how architecture reflected the culture at the time buildings were constructed, particularly cathedrals in the Middle Ages and palaces in the Renaissance. I have consistently used history as a leader when helping others understand our place in this current era. As in the past, modern architecture reflects current culture. Examples are high-rise office buildings as monuments to giant corporations and sports stadiums as symbols of civic pride. In my opinion, too many architects design without a firm grounding in history, and their work may be hailed as new or different—but these buildings often do not stand the test of time, and look dated a few years after they are built.

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