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“To Create a Fantastic Work Culture You Must Trust Your Staff and Treat Them as Professionals,” Says Neil Sheehan

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neil Sheehan, principal at Sheehan Nagle Hartray Architects (SNHA). Neil is a key team leader with nearly 30 years of experience in highly technical architectural projects and renovations for corporate and commercial clients. He is licensed […]


As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neil Sheehan, principal at Sheehan Nagle Hartray Architects (SNHA). Neil is a key team leader with nearly 30 years of experience in highly technical architectural projects and renovations for corporate and commercial clients. He is licensed to practice architecture in more than 20 states/provinces in North America, and studied psychology and art at Washington and Lee University and earned a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.


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

Ifounded Sheehan Partners in 2004 as a small architectural firm with the expectation of having seven or eight employees — but we grew much more quickly than I anticipated. The firm ended up taking off in the mission critical design market, and we quickly expanded. In order to expand our market areas and add experienced management and design talent, we seized the opportunity to merge with Nagle Hartray Architects, a firm with a long-standing reputation for its high-quality work on civic and education projects. The two businesses were a natural fit, as we already had a mutual respect for one another and a similar workplace culture. Today, Sheehan Nagle Hartray Architects (SNHA) has over 100 employees in Chicago and London.

As one of seven principals in a now mid-size architecture firm, my job has evolved from working closely on our projects to taking a step back, nurturing the brand and focusing on long term planning. In my role today, the most important audience for me to address is our internal audience: the employees. Every day I ask myself, “Are my employees looking forward to coming to work? Does each person have enough control over their responsibilities and are they being challenged enough?”

It is crucial now more than ever to evaluate the culture of your company and how people work together. As one of the leaders of this group of professionals, it is my responsibility to make sure people genuinely enjoy their time in the office and work effectively with their peers.

Beyond strengthening our internal team, I am also tasked with nurturing our clients and driving our growth as we continue to expand in the United States and abroad.

Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I think many people fall into their careers perhaps through an accident of circumstances or with the encouragement from family members that they follow a particular path. When students are too focused on meeting some end goal or perhaps they have no goal, rather than truly evaluating what it is what they want to pursue, they can easily slip into career dissatisfaction. It’s a cliché to say, “do what you love,” and applying this career strategy may seem risky or even impossible, but there are so many stories of people who have done just that who go on to have fulfilling successful careers that I think it’s a cliché we shouldn’t ignore.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

If your employees aren’t happy, your business will ultimately suffer. Unhappy employees don’t want to come into work, won’t be attentive while in the office, and certainly will not be interested in putting in extra effort when it is needed. This lack of enthusiasm will definitely lead to high turnover. Our business is a service business. Our only real resource is our people for both their knowledge and their working relationships with their peers. Losing someone is like losing a piece of the company; everyone is irreplaceable in their own way. Filling the void they leave behind takes time and money better spent on all sorts of other things.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Have an empathetic understanding of your staff and their life circumstances. For example, we have numerous young parents employed at SNHA. When travel is required for the job, we always keep staff’s families in mind and are sure to ask, rather than demand, whether the employee is able to take the trip and what might be their best travel days. By talking to employees like respected colleagues, not a cog in a machine, you are letting them know that you understand their value and recognize how important each and every team member is to reaching our shared goals.
  2. Give employees a sense of control over their work responsibilities. You need to trust your staff and treat them as professionals. Instead of micromanaging projects, it is up to our managers to determine the project goals, while our employees determine the necessary steps to put into action to achieve the goal.
  3. Ensure your employees feel a sense of accomplishment. Oftentimes at architecture firms, team members are working on so many different projects that the end result is not necessarily seen or felt by everyone involved. Architects are architects because they enjoy making things, and seeing that final result of the building. Regardless of your field, make sure your employees can see the fruits of their labor, whether that is a new building, a new business plan, or a new item for your menu.
  4. Provide the opportunity to learn. No one who is stagnant in their job is satisfied. A great work environment offers enrichment and opportunities for growth. At SNHA, we place a high value on training, guest presentations, continued education, lunch-and-learns, industry conferences and internal mentoring. We offer allowances for employees to take outside courses if they choose. If an employee does a standout job, we invite them to share their successes and learnings with the rest of the company. This not only allows our employees to learn from peers, but also gives recognition to the achievements of individual staff members.
  5. Create an open-door policy. Something employees, especially the millennial generation, look for in an employer is a sense of transparency. By getting to know your employees quite well, and even instating small practices such as keeping your door open, you are letting your staff know that it is okay to come to you with their questions, comments or concerns.

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

At SNHA, we prefer to have our principals act as colleagues, rather than bosses. We like to take an academic approach to leadership, which can be seen in our office on a daily basis. One of the ways we create this culture is by dismissing the idea of a ‘star architect’ and instead focusing on the idea that we are a collective of collaborators that work in tandem.

When principals or project managers are presenting new projects to their teams, the group then has the task of brainstorming, either individually or in a group, their proposed solutions. The team will then discuss the various solutions, select what they feel is the best approach and present this option to the client. Through all the details that are involved in the final design solution, it is often impossible for an architect at our firm to point to one aspect of a building and identify who on the team was solely responsible for it. This group mentality allows our architects to learn from each other every day and continuously have the same great collegiate environment they experienced in architecture school (minus the all-nighters).

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 about that?

My greatest inspiration over my career has been my first boss, Jack Train. Jack was someone who truly cared about his employees, and felt that the best way to show this was through the little everyday actions. For example, he made it a point to regularly take each member of the staff out to lunch. This practice, which I still do today, shows each team member, regardless of level, that they are noticed and respected by the leaders of the firm. It is also a great way to learn about your colleagues beyond the work setting, another major indicator of workplace satisfaction.

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