Conversation with Tim Williams

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Chris Williams: In exploring leadership, commercial architecture is a field that offers many fascinating elements. It’s a world where knowledge work is made real and an often epic scale. Where each project is a one-off custom, tailored endeavor that takes years and costs millions.


Architects first have to mold their clients dreams into creative designs. This involves the delicate merger of creativity and imagination with their clients expectations, and grounding it all in the real world. They then need to translate it into drawings and specifications clear enough for the tradesmen to implement it in concrete and steel. Architects aren’t simply the designers, but also are the guides who help build teams that coordinate dozens of trades and thousands of components into a cohesive whole

Tim Williams: Synthesizing those elements together to create something is this is kind of the magic moment, right? It’s not just a box. There’s site responsiveness. There’s design guidelines, there’s client’s desires, there’s some image that they perhaps want to project to the world, and so all those things need to be synthesized and is something that is wonderfully accommodating, affordable and durable for the client.

Chris Williams: Building these teams takes leadership skills at the highest level. And that makes it absolutely fascinating to me.

Today, I’m excited to introduce you to Tim Williams, a bright star in the world of commercial architecture. In this conversation, Tim tells us about how he found his passion for building teams, the highly cross disciplinary nature of the profession, the joys of teams when they work well. And of course, when they don’t.

And that’s what this is all about.


This is Leading Smart, the show about managing in the brainpower age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace.

I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

In this episode, we explore leadership in the world of commercial architecture. This is Episode 207. Our conversation with Tim Williams


Chris Williams: Tim Williams is a partner with ZGF, a leading commercial architecture firm with several hundred employees in a half a dozen offices across the US and Canada. ZGF has a very intentionally broad spectrum of projects from hospitals and labs, offices and colleges, to museums and train stations. They’ve achieved accolades and awards across the industry and are especially proud of their sustainability work.

Tim leads the Washington DC office, although how he talks about his role tells you a lot about him.

Tim Williams: I described myself as a partner in the DC office. When I’m pushed, I’ll say that I’m the managing partner. I we are as a firm we’re trying to get away from partners that have managing or design in front of their title. It’s just we’re Partners. I prefer sort of a more humble approach. I would rather if when I’m in a room or whatever people don’t think of me as you know the partner in the room, but just another colleague that’s there in the space with them.

CW: In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that Tim is my cousin. Our fathers were identical twins. Although outside of facial appearance, two more different men are hard to imagine.

Tim’s father was the Chair of the Archaeology Department at Harvard for decades. And Tim grew up in Boston. That’s where he discovered the value of a team,

TW: how the way I work with teams and the way I perceive teams, the way I value teams, and how I value teams, and the people that I’m working with on the team, where did that come from? Is something I’ve been asking myself since listening to the to the to the early podcasts of yours and others and I do consume management books. Business fables, all kinds of stuff to help me think through challenges that I’m coming through. In fact, I reached out to people, yourself included, to ask questions.

Most of my job these days is about hiring talent, retaining talent, and ensuring we have the right talent on each of the project teams. But back to the beginning of my, my query here was about why do I think about these and why do I value these things? Arguably, I grew up in a culture in high school, an all boys prep school in New England, you know, where individualism was king, you know, you were it was about you, it was about your own success. It was not about the collective as much as the school would have had school spirit and we had teams.

That is certainly the culture that I grew up in. The education continuing on in architecture, ultimately after college and in my master’s program, you know, architectural education for the most part is individual. You have, you have a project and the people in your studio class all pursue it individually. Now there’s there seems to be a trend where there’s more group projects emerging. But it is not the core of the way the curriculum is structured, at least in my experience. It’s about the individual achieving some sort of excellence and delivering that design and defending their design as an individual.

So, so being a product of that, how is it that I’ve come out to value teams and really almost at the expense of the individual, I really value that what the team can do. And I think the team is the way that we are successful not based on an individual. It’s the team effort, and I’ve been reflecting I was thinking back to maybe the earliest point in my life where I realized that I’m part of something else. And it’s more than just me. It’s part of something else that I can support.

And it’s, it’s, I think it was ninth grade. The high school I went through, it was very athletically competitive. I was a reasonably good athlete. And when we would do when I was playing soccer and other sports like that, we would we would run a they called it a moose lap, which was running around all the athletic fields at the school is one big lap. And I would often do quite well in that portion of the soccer training program now out in the field and kicking the ball and, and passing the ball and things like that I was not as skilled I don’t think I had very good eye hand coordination or eye foot coordination for that matter. But apparently running and endurance was something that I was able to do quite well until the coach at one point said, Have you ever considered cross country running? And I, to be honest, I had not.

And I thought, well, maybe that’s something I could try. And so maybe then being a second run on on the JV team or something for soccer, maybe I could do something different and achieve something different in cross country. And on the face of a cross country running is an individualistic sport. You know, you’re out there you’re running you’re not you know, you’re not passing something to someone else. This isn’t a relay race. It’s a race and you know, usually For a second, third, or whatever it is, and it’s based on time, and you’re out there running by yourself, essentially.

Well, you’re not really though. And that’s what I this is what I learned. As much as it’s individual. And there’s individual performances, the way that cross country running is scored, is they take the top five from your team that finished the race, and they add up the position where you come in the race. Obviously, if your first that’s really good, but you could be 10th or 15th, or 57th. And you could actually be scoring for your team and you could make the difference between the team winning or losing because you’re displacing one of the other team’s runners, wherever you come in. And so the sprint at the end, the the push in the middle, it tried to get ahead of the person in front of you, it doesn’t matter whether you’re leading the pack or in the middle of the pack. Every time you’re ahead of the next person. You’re still contributing to your team success, Learning that lesson that my individual performance, regardless of whether it was the top or whether was in the middle, I was still contributing to the success of the team or had the potential very great potential to make the difference, frankly, in winning or losing that race for the team as a whole.

I don’t know that if you had asked me in ninth grade, whether I understood the importance of that, and how that would shape the way I see teams and people. And then maybe that’s not even the thing today, but it’s been thinking about this question. That is one of these moments when I reflect back that I was the first time I realized that I could contribute to something and not necessarily have to come in first, to the success of something not to come in first.

I will say that then during my graduate school work, I was also someone that for whatever reason, I had spent some time building architectural models prior to going to graduate school. I had some knowledge of techniques and building them and so I ended up helping a lot of my classmates, build their architectural models, or at least help give them some skills and techniques. And it arguably, I’m helping them do better and at perhaps at my own expense, but I never really saw it that way. I guess I felt that if I had something I could share, I would and I did. And I would argue that that that understanding of helping others and not being very … holding things too close has been a great strength in building teams and in building successes and with clients. Sort of open and clear dialogue has always been something that’s, that’s been fruitful for me on projects and relationships with clients and whatnot. So I guess I value that.

CW: Architecture, like many disciplines requires a mix of skills. and building a team that effectively uses each person’s expertise is a skill of its own.

TW: Architecture, as a practice has is evolving and has evolved. It used to be that there were the architects and an architect, I think, at one level means sort of master builder and so someone who would know a little bit about it Well, hopefully a lot about all the different aspects of the building. And then there would be just rooms full of drafters. And there’s images from, you know, early part of the last century, or maybe even mid part where there’s just vast rooms of people with, with graphite on their sleeves, because they’ve been drawing literally hand drawing and then, you know, sheet after sheet after sheet after sheet and erasing and you know that all this sort of culture around the craft of drawing. And so then there was a whole slew of people that were trained as draft people.

And I think there’s some engineering disciplines that continue to use them today. But we architects largely don’t use drafts people anymore. We are the draft people. And I don’t know whether that’s because the technology has become easy enough where there we don’t need to have hours and hours and hours of work to get something drawn up. We can just do it ourselves. And when I say ourselves, it means that we hire all of the architects, they’re all trained as architects, and they all ultimately and vast majority of them will get licensed as an architect. But a lot of their job is sitting there. Drawing in the computer day in and day out, and they’re not just drawing, they’re coordinating typically with all these other disciplines.

And so there’s the sort of cliche of designing a building is is sort of 10% design and then there’s 90% of just doing the work to get it done and make the make the directions so essentially for the contractor.

And and that maybe is even true how we divide up the team. So there’s usually someone who is maybe that creative brainpower that comes up with somehow it’s synthesizing together this program — when I when I use the word program. When architects use the word program we’re talking about, typically an accounting for the spaces that are requested or needed or required within the building. And that would include mechanical spaces and it would include you know, data closets. It includes conference rooms and office space, open office collaboration. kitchenette, you know, you name it. If you add up the, you know, so many square feet per each of those items on a tabular form. That’s what we call a program.

And so synthesizing those elements together to create something is this is kind of the magic moment, right? It’s not just a box. There’s sight responsiveness, there’s design guidelines, there’s client’s desires, there’s some image that they perhaps want to project to the world, and to all those things need to be synthesized and is something that is wonderfully accommodating and affordable, and then durable for the client.

And so we have people and there are people that are better at this than others that are great, I’ll call them conceptual or think conceptual thinkers. And they, they are great at understanding, synthesizing, coming up with strategies to accommodate all of this. But they are not the person that’s going to make sure that the data runs are less than 300 feet from each of the data clauses and that means we need another one over there, because … that’s not the person that’s going to do that. They probably could they maybe they could, but their highest and best use is helping us synthesize all those program elements into something and marrying it together with something that’s also with the consideration of the building techniques. Is that is that a steel structure for the building? Is that concrete? Is it clad with largely curtain wall? Is it going to have masonry on the exterior, there’s all those kinds of decisions and discussions that go on with an owner that are wrapped up in in a number of things that are not super clear. They’re not formulaic. And it’s it’s a trial and error process, typically early on to figure out where we are and how close we’re getting to their ambitions.

Now, hopefully, they’ve hired us and they’ve hired or they have hired the architect they choose because they kind of like the work that that architect has done. They they know that they have the appropriate experience in that kind of building type and, and you’re starting from that sort of common ground but it is deviates from there in all different directions. And navigating that is something that, frankly, I’ve spent more of my life on on that aspect of what we do and managing the client’s expectations, and how we’re accommodating those topics than I have on the production of the documents themselves. I’ve done it all.

But you realize that there’s some people and they’re just the way they understand the world. And what they want to do on a daily basis is much more attuned to some of those other tasks equally as important. And this is that, you know, there’s no, the person who’s skilled at synthesizing the program together is awesome. The person who can coordinate the mechanical systems into the building such that the floor floor doesn’t have to increase and all the finishes can stay where we wanted them to, is equally as brilliant and talented. It’s just a very different set of skills often.

The team the team will have different people and they will come onto the team at different times. They will they will drop off at different times, but usually there’s one or two people that will stay consistent throughout the whole process. And they perhaps have the 30,000 foot view. But they have the ability to kind of quickly dive in and help solve problems on projects at the same time.

CW: This complex mix of people, especially as it relates to the actual construction, requires even better team building and management techniques.

TW: The backgrounds of the people that are working on projects are very vast, right, you’ve got the tile layer, the electrician, who’s maybe come up through an apprenticeship program, and then you’ve got someone who perhaps was a very highly educated at some of the finest institutions in America or the world. And so there’s this sort of craftsperson and maybe really bright, smart person challenge. And it’s really good and from my experience, it’s really good. We have a bunch of people in between, because sometimes the brilliant communicating with the tile setter will end up in a train wreck. So how do we bring expectations aligned for the end product?

The folks in between are the ones that help us get there, while maintaining the design vision, we still want the thing to be everything that we had hoped from a design perspective and the craft of building the building, something we value tremendously as all architects do. But we all have to understand that we’re actually building we are actually building this thing physically and all we want this big plane of wall to begin there. Materials tend to move with different weather sites. So we have to have some kind of opportunity for those materials to move and not crack. Or at least if they crack control where the cracking goes. Well, that’s that’s a whole different set of skills that then the one that’s come up with the big vision for the whole thing.

Because people are often they’ve learned from past experience, about things that are easier or things that will solve the problem and part of our job is to often say okay, but can we do more? And can we do better and can we change it or has a new product come along, that’s gonna allow us to do something differently than we did in the past. And we need to make sure that we’re staying current with those aspects of our trade as well. So pushing some people that may want to just do it the same way they’ve always done it. But pushing them to think further is part of our role as well as sort of design leaders.

CW: One of my passions, as any listener to this podcast certainly must be aware of, is visions. Every successful project has a vision. It certainly plays a critical role in architecture. We talked about how that works.

TW: So that visioning step is something that every product we have we start with that before we’ve done anything, no pencil to paper at all. This is just like, let’s say, what are your goals, the owner’s goals, and then we come up with a vision statement from that, about what these are things and they become the touchstone that we can go back to, because they’re not, you know, got to have two rooms next to each other. It’s saying something like it’s got to be whatever, you know, they tend to be fairly broad. But they’re really clear about where we want to be going and everyone can understand them. And we can balance and prepare a lot of choices against what are those those those statements and in a really effective way. So we do do that. I do think that vision is, is critical.

CW: A good leader doesn’t have a completely definitive prescription. The good leader has clarity of vision, and then willingness to figure out with the team how to get to that vision, they are willing also, to make a bunch of trade offs. You have a better idea than you do and they’re willing to make the call, right. This one fits the vision more than that one and we’re going to go on everybody agreed Fine. Let’s go you know.

TW: That that decision, like okay, this is the better one, we’re going to go that way. If it’s authentic, if that’s done authentically, like everyone on the team can see that the That is the best idea right then and this is the way to go. And then decision is made that we’re going that way. If they’ve got to perceive it as having been done authentically by that leader, or they won’t support the decision,

CW: right

TW: in my mind.

CW: Yep.

TW: And if they believe that, that it may not be the right but if they think that the decision has been based on really good input from the team, they’ll go with it, they’ll they’ll, they’ll adopt it as their own and run with it. If they think it’s been an arbitrary decision, forget it.

CW: We then turned our attention to compensation. The challenges of rewarding this complex team are many, especially when you want to reward teamwork over individual accomplishment. And those challenges are compounded by the one-off nature of the business.

TW: You know, a software company doesn’t make a physical product necessarily other than the CDs perhaps but but you make a product that is ready scalable, so to speak, I mean you once you make it, you can sell it, you know, a billion times. We can’t we build them one at a time. And so the ability to reward financially is constrained simply by the fact that we are essentially selling our hours. And so we don’t, you know, build six more of these just like it and then reap, you know, 100% profit on the because we don’t do anything anymore. We have to move on to the next project and start all over again.

The way typically that in architecture that people are rewarded is that, and maybe I can’t speak for the entire industry, but in my experience, in architecture, that opportunity is the reward for good service. Now, we have a profit share methodology within the firm. We obviously have hourly compensation, you know, there’s salary that we can adjust, but we don’t, there’s the sky isn’t the limit on that right. And the profit share we had actually internally at our firm, we talked a lot about how do we want to do this is that we have we had this, we don’t call it bonus, we call it profit share. And so we as a firm have six offices across the country. We share all the profit evenly across the firm. And so if you’re an employee in one office, and that office has an OK year, and another office has a killer year, you will benefit from the other office having had a great year, because we push it around, it’s a percentage. We state a percentage of your base compensation as our target for profit share every year.

It’s a target. So if we have a great year, we we can overshare as we have in the last several years, frankly, or if we don’t have a great year, we can dial it back. And so oftentimes, the big announcement of the year is what percentage of the profit share are we distributing is that 100% of the profit share is it 120% is that 80% there’s that big moment when that’s sort of revealed.

And the reason we do it and the reason we call it profit share and not bonus is that perhaps back to the very first question we were talking about related to the individual or the team, we want to have a culture where the offices aren’t competing against each other. And frankly, internally, the teams and the individuals are not competing against each other, but acting as a team. And so we reward, we think that we have a system that rewards the whole rather than the individual. Along the way now individuals are promoted and individuals get raises. But the compensation at any given level within the firm fits within a very narrow band. So it’s typically not a financial compensation for excellence. It’s opportunity and that opportunity is continued advancement often.

CW: So I wondered how this team focus realized itself in performance reviews. They do them of course, but what is the balance between individual performance and the employee’s ability to work as part of a team

TW: At the early stages of someone’s career it’s 100% team, the ability to work with team members. The difference isn’t really like bad design versus outstanding design is its outstanding design versus kind of average design. By the time you’re sitting at a desk in the office, we think you pass some level of muster. From a design standpoint, we’ve seen your portfolio, you’ve been, hopefully to a, you know, reputable through a reputable program somewhere. I will say that I don’t you know, whether you’re Harvard or you know, Idaho State, it doesn’t matter. You can see the quality, you can see the quality pretty much in someone’s portfolio. They’re exceedingly good tools.

Now, we can be surprised both ways. But as a low bar, you can pretty much see that someone is hitting a low bar or hitting a bar, through their portfolio, and then just listening to the way they talk about design and their passion for design. It can come out pretty clearly in the interview process. Now, we’re not we’re not you know, We do not have a lock on, you know, 100% on hiring awesome people, we fail as much as we succeed probably failed more often than we succeed. But usually the failure is on some behavioral issue that the person has. It’s not in their skill to design per se. Because we don’t need everyone in the office to be the star designer. We need people to be really good problem solvers, solvers and collaborators and partners and we need them to be complete their work in a timely fashion, and do so in a way that’s communicative to the team. We need them to be responsible for things that, you know, the clients are asking. I mean, there’s a whole slew of things other than design that are really important traits, that we are probably gauging more than anything else.

CW: This brought up one of my favorite questions. One I’ve spent a couple of episodes on.

Do you have a fairly low tolerance for superstar a**holes?

TW: Wow, that’s a great question.

I would say that we having having hired and fired people, we have great expectations, and who have great pedigrees and have great skill sets. They’re not always fully formed. And so we want fully formed. And so being outstanding at one particular aspect of what we do, probably won’t be enough. And the ability if you’re awesome, but just cannot get along with other people. We will exercise that from the team.

And that can be whether you’re the star designer person, you know, the one up there talking to the client about the vision, or whether you’re the person coordinating the mechanical stuff into the building, and which is maybe more of an internal role than an external, we definitely have internal and external roles in the in the firm and, you know, business people talk about those kinds of roles and we definitely have those.

I told you what when I began to value teams was when I was running in high school. I think one of the first opportunities I had as a leader to really effectively make a change was on a project. I was brought on to a team where they replaced, I was replacing the existing project manager, who was having a hard time working with the client’s project manager. And this person did not have and they the employee did not have very good words for the project manager on the other side. And I wonderfully wanted the opportunity to lead the project. So I said I’ll do it. But I was incredibly fearful of this person, because I had heard such horrific things about them.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to do all this, but long, long and short of it is that side of the equation, that project manager, once I figured out what they really what their hot buttons were, and how I could make them happy, which was relatively easy from my perspective, that relationship flourished and to this day, that project manager who I was incredibly fearful of when I first took on the job. Literally, on one of his trips to the Seattle for one of the project meetings, he brought his then fiancee, then girlfriend, we went to dinner and I took them to this dinner place down in the Pike Place Market. They had a meal that they thought was the best day I’ve ever had. And apparently, I went home to the home and they went out in a little walk on the waterfront. And he proposed to her that night. And to this day, I we chit chat all day. So anyway, so So this person that I was afraid of ended up being, you know, dear friend, long term, dear friend on at the end of the day.

TW: So that side of the equation was solved readily. But I realized that there’s something else going on in the team. So it wasn’t just that our previous party manager couldn’t get along with the owner’s project manager. Internally on the team. There was something that was wrong. I knew most of the people quite well on the team and this was a this, this had a team of maybe seven or eight people, which, for an architecture firm, that’s a project that’s a that’s a sort of medium, modest team, you know, some of the projects I’m working on now, that’s a couple million square feet. In the DC area, we have teams of 20 architects. So, you know, half of that are a little less. You know, it’s a good size team, but it’s not huge.

And it was a mixed the team mix was there was one very senior technical architect. So the in house side of the equation, very senior, very well respected in the office, someone I didn’t know exceedingly well, but by reputation, I thought this guy you know, he’ll, he’ll help us out, we’re gonna be in good shape. The rest of the team was actually fairly young people, young people that were exceedingly committed to architecture and wanted to do the right thing and do a great thing. They were not getting along with that senior technical architect at all the rest of the team.

And this person would go off and have meetings, and not tell the rest of the team who’s meeting with the consultants, all these sorts of behaviors that were not about how he brings these other people in and leads them and guides them and enables them to succeed. We’ve had all this behavior about kind of rat holing his information over here. And then why weren’t they knowing what was going on, and he blamed them.

So I realized that that this highly regarded individual, highly skilled, older than I was more experienced than I was person was the root of why this team wasn’t really working very well. And I needed to replace him. And at the time, I went to the partner in the in the firm at the time, and he said, I don’t know, Tim, you know, this, you can’t do that. This is this person, and they can do that. And they’re gonna execute this. And I said, Yeah, but you know, no one else in the team is productive. No one wants to do anything because they’re not included. And I said, we’ve got to do this. And they thought about it for a week or two. And then finally they came around and I kept insisting and they said, Okay, we’ll do it.

So we we switched that person out. We didn’t actually replace that person on the team. So we we removed, the senior technical person did not replace them, but we leaned on emerging younger talent within the team. And these weren’t, you know, fresh out of school people, these people had enough experience that they were probably ready to take the next step. But we encouraged them to step up. And they did. And the project ended up winning an AIA award in in the city for which that where the building was sitting, the owner was happy the performance of the building was having to be a music venue. So the performance, the quality of the environment inside the building was incredibly important, and that we hit all the metrics and exceeded them.

And it became a wonderfully successful project today, but without removing that one person who arguably was the most senior technical person on the team. I’m not sure we would have gotten the same result. We unleashed. A couple of the team members kind of unleashed and really blossomed on the project. And then what went on and you asked before, how do we reward people for success? Well, they’ve gone on to lead other projects and have great roles and other projects as a result of the success that they had on that particular project. But it took, you know, removing that one individual that was not behaving in a team fashion.

And and I, you know, doing this thing I was like, Am I doing the right thing? If I just screwed a project up? And is it going to fail now? And, you know, I didn’t know. And I read all kinds of books about changing people out and changing talent out, and is it the right thing to do? And, of course, there’s a, there’s a, there’s a, there’s an immediate kind of hit, right? So you’re you’ve struggled for a little bit, but then you come out of it. And, again, I think we went to considerably higher than we would have had, we stayed with the same norm. So it’s that willingness to take the leap, that you’ve got to make a change and go forward… But not to, uh, too rashly like, it’s not just like, that was one bad meeting, they’re gone. It’s got to be more like, okay, there’s a pattern here. We’ve had a conversation with the person, they’re not changing. We need to address this and act.

And so what I’ve just relayed to you from that earliest experience, which was, you know, umpteen years ago now, to one more recently, where we changed up a someone this happened to be the sort of design lead face of the client lead on an incredibly prominent project in the DC area that we were pursuing, but they were no one else in the office is willing to work with that person. And we had tried and tried and tried and tried. They were very talented. But no one else was literally the two individuals that from my perception, were still they were younger, talented folks that were enamored with this person, not that they wanted to continue to work with him. And I thought, well, if those two people are continuing… things, we’ll proceed we’ll be okay. So one by one, those two people came to me and said, I can’t work with this guy anymore. And I thought, Okay, any of the people that had any reason to want to be working with this person have now just told me they can’t. So that was at that moment, I realized that I didn’t have a choice any longer. No one else in the office wanted to work and it was too destructive. And this was after maybe 18 months of struggling with this decision and spending way too much of my life. dealing with this issue about do we don’t we…

The final straw for me. So as the Managing Partner in the office. I don’t demand respect I hopefully I’m earning it every day. And I’m enabling people. And I think my leadership style is one of enabling. And I like that idea. And but I’m also engaged in the projects. And so if some people said, I’m more engaged in the projects than they wouldn’t they would expect from someone in my role. I don’t go in and try to inflict my will on the project as much as I want to understand what’s going on. So frankly, still, when clients ask me or when I’m talking about what we’re doing in the office, I have some semblance of knowledge.

And with, you know, 90-ish, folks, and I don’t know, dozens of projects, it’s, it’s something that I, I still love the idea that I can talk about each of the projects that we’re doing at some level. So I do touch base with the project. There was a meeting and I was kind of grazing in the meeting, and I made a comment, and he looked at me, and he said, Why do I have to listen to you, Tim? And I thought I hadn’t even said like, do this. I had, I just had been asking like, Can you can you focus back on this particular aspect? I didn’t quite understand it. Then he turned to me and said, you know, why do I have to listen to you, and I thought, okay, so if he shows me zero respect, zero, he must… And then the complaints I hear from all the employees about not showing respect, which I had not sort of seen, I don’t typically see it right, it happens in a conference room or over here, I’m not there. But when it when I realized that he was he was willing to look me in the face and just say, you know, essentially f*** you, why am I gonna? Why do I have to listen to you? Who are you? I realized that he would say to anyone, and probably something a lot harsher along the line, which was consistent with the things I’ve been hearing. But that was the moment where I realized like, Okay, this is we’re done.

This is after maybe three or four months before we did this, we we let him go. Toby, the other partner in the office, we’d said, Okay, let’s take him to dinner. Because he we had arguably we had had a huge success. And he was part of that and I said, Let’s go to dinner. We’ll celebrate the success and we’ll help him understand the things that he needs to work on. So we we, you know, expensive dinner, you know, whatever you want, we had a nice, well, the goal was to have a nice evening, congratulate, celebrate as a team, but then also talk about the things that need to be worked on. And we got through the congratulate part, and we were talking about the things that really need to happen to change. And he immediately was talking about partnership and advancement in the firm and all this and we’re like, un-huh, but these are the things you need to know, like we laid it out, like, these things need to improve or change because they’re not going to help you. He’d been on a PIP, you know, a year before and we had done everything to try and help him understand these behaviors. But anyway, obviously, we got to the place where the very hard decision was that we needed to separate ways but…

You know, the client immediately call up and was like, What have you done? And I’m like, Don’t worry, you know, it’s for the better. And, you know, now we’re probably a year into that, after that, and I would argue it we We have met and exceeded their expectations. So it is, it was the right thing to do. But that’s a really tough moment. But when you see that talent, doing so much destruction around them, and I relate, you know, one of your earlier podcasts, you talked about this exact kind of behavior, and it certainly is replicated in the architecture environment.

CW: So how does Tim build his teams? With such a complex product, and such large stakes, how do you ensure you have the right people on the team?

TW: We have a marketing director that we hired when I when I first came to DC we went through a cycle, I had to rebuild the marketing department. Three different times a whole bunch of reasons I won’t go into all of them. But when this finally the final director, we got rid of the the final director, the third round, I realized that the person that was sitting in the second seat, I’m just like, you know, let’s just, we’re gonna she’s gonna do it now. She’s now the director. And she looked at me like, I can’t do this. And I’m like, Yeah, you can. And then she, she did it. And she’s helped us for the next three years, you know, have incredible results. Our RFP response hit rate is over 80%, which is phenomenal. Like, anytime we respond to an RFP, 80% of the time, they’re asking us back to go to the interview or to get on the shortlist or go to the next stage, phenomenal hit rate. And it’s all because of the work that she’s been corralling.

But she if you look on the face of it, she shouldn’t have been in that role, but we decided we were going to go there. And so she’s the one that says that we have created an environment in the office that is that’s enabling other people to kind of go to the next level and take on that next level of their career development and advancement. And that’s something I’m really proud of, because I think, good people, talented people, when you give them present them with a great opportunity, they need a base sort of skill set, right? They can’t just be fresh out of school, but once they’ve got a base in there rather than holding them down longer, releasing them sooner has been a really great thing I’ve been I’ve been stunned in a really good way at seeing how, once you kind of release some people how they just continue to rise and do great things, that’s been a great revelation for me in terms of talent. And that’s why when I can’t financially for money at people, but I can pour opportunity. And that is often what is a huge motivator for people is that opportunity and more responsibility.

And so where I’m going back to the marketing director. She is someone that has been utilizing that 90 day period that that that’s hired and then within 90 days, we you are conditional, she has used that more liberally than anyone else. And I love it. I love the fact that she gets the 90 day period. She’s like, it’s just not working. We’re going to move on. And she’s done a number of times and she has built a remarkably strong team because she set just exceptionally high standards. And if you’re not there, move on.

I think it’s built respect because the other people that are there realize that when people aren’t hitting at the same level that they are, they’re, they’re not gonna be around longer, they’re not going to carry that dead weight for very long. And I think it’s built her a lot of loyalty from the folks that, that she expects a lot. But she rewards a lot. And she doesn’t use that standard doesn’t vary from person to person she expected everyone and it’s a great trait.

CW: When I asked him how he builds leadership within his team, it was not a shock for an architect to ascribe at least some of it to the physical layout of their office.

TW: I talk about building leaders like everyone, I want everyone in the office to be a leader. And that’s probably you know, too much. But that is the goal. I want you all to be leaders. And so how do we create a culture where you’re going to become a leader? And I don’t think that’s by having other leaders tell other people what to do all the time. It’s about listening to everyone. It’s about trying to let the best idea for the project — for the project — come forward. So the focus is on the project, not on an individual or not on the affirm, it’s on the project and the owner’s needs in that project, that that’s the focus. So if you’re contributing to To the success of that thing, we’re all ears.

One way that we’ve kind of made it manifest is that the ZGF partners around the firm typically have offices, whereas most of the rest of the staff are out in sort of open office situations. Now, the offices for the partners have various degrees of openness. The ones in Seattle, there’s definitely walls and they have a sliding door that they can close it off, but 99% of time those doors are open. It’s a very open environment. We took it one step further in DC, and we just don’t have any offices period. So I sit at a desk the exact same desk that everyone else does. So whether you’re an intern or whether you’re, me, the managing partner, we all sit at the exact same desks, same same length and same this now my position in the office might be such that it does afford me a small table behind my desk where I can have a group meeting, but I’m out there with everyone I move around the office, as project teams get sorted around just like everyone else, and I love that egalitarian kind of approach to it. So that no one is seen as being sort of the ultimate authority. This is really, we want to make great decisions together. And I don’t know if that manifests itself in terms of creating leaders, but we want to have the the perception that we’re all able to contribute.

We had a new employee, join the team, a really prominent project team. I think she had like three years of experience of super early on in her career. And yet, she’s emerged to be the number three third most important person on that project team, just by her.. the way she works as a team, the commitment, she has the skill set, she brings, in her focus on getting it done. All those things have meant that she’s just risen to be the number three person on that project with arguably, tremendously less experienced and other team members. And some team members have come to me be like, but I have way more experience. I’m like, Yeah, but she just did this, this, this and this, did you? And so they kind of get it that we’re looking at your performance and what you’re contributing and your willingness to contribute. All those things will will continue to make you successful.

CW: One of the hardest parts of being the leader is being open to new ideas, to be willing to recognize a better idea when it comes along.

TW: I find that I sometimes think I know a direction for a…, this is what’s going to go down. And I’m I’m not always wrong, I’m not always right. But I love when the smarter people in the room or others in the room are able to help move it to somewhere else and come up with a solution that isn’t what I thought was what it should be, but ends up being a good if not better answer.

I’ve often learned that there’s many ways to skin the cat. And so I have a way to do it. But there are plenty of other ways that are as good if not better, and being willing to let it go in a direction that you didn’t think it was going to be. As a leader is a really important thing because it’s what allows the team to then own it rather than it being your thing that you’re driving. And that’s super hard.

CW: Like many good leaders, Tim takes special delight in helping to build the leaders underneath him.

TW: You know your career in architecture. I think it’s not uncommon that we spend a lot of our career trying to get responsibility or to receive responsibility. I mentioned that with a one tool that we have to reward people is to give them more opportunity of opportunity, in many ways, I guess you could equate to responsibility on projects. So I spent my time both at LMN and early on at ZGF, trying to continue to grow in terms of gaining responsibility and leadership.

I’ve been it’s been a really exciting time, in the last seven years or so, where it’s been awesome to transition to a point where I’m really focused on giving away responsibility and helping others grow and take on that responsibility. It’s been it’s been an awesome kind of trajectory, and arguably the most rewarding aspect of what I’ve been doing is in watching others, enabling others to grow, helping others that show incredible promise and have that opportunity to grow and become great leaders themselves.

The first time I saw this was a project I was working on for the University of Washington. And I was at a point in my career where I was taking on I was asked to be the project manager on a number of projects simultaneously. And so I was definitely stressed, where if I’d had two or three projects, typically I was responsible for in the past, I now had 13 or 14 projects that I was supposed to be managing, which is an obscenely and absurdly high number. And so I realized I would complain to the project that the managing partner that there’s no way I can do this, I can’t do it. And he would look at me and just say, Well, you know, you’re going to find a way.

Which, you know, was incredibly frustrating at one level, but it also meant I had to go find a way and so I realized that identifying people on the project teams that were strong that were that had the ability to take on additional responsibility, people that would learn to communicate essential things up the chain, and not everything up the chain. And that when they did communicate, they often would present themselves with solutions. So they’d say, here’s the problem. here’s here’s a potential solution, what do you think, versus dumping the problem in your lap. So when those when I found those people on projects, I would rapidly put them in a position where they were more or less responsible for the project and that our relationship then allowed, they would come to me when they they knew they needed to.

The first time this really began and the first person that I realized this was happening with and I’d say happened because I don’t know that I was sort of consciously went out to do this. It just evolved. But she was someone that was a great technical architect, just a great person, great team, kind of collaborator, and that she had the client had begun to really find the the way she engaged to be very appealing to them, it became very easy then to step back and have her do more and more and more, such that she ended up being essentially leading the project. And even leading through construction such that they sat in the construction trailer and had 100% responsibility on a daily basis, did an outstanding job. It was a really long project.

Such that she, I think she got married, had a pet her first child and then by the time the project was proceeding on the child was now two or three years old. And the story she relayed to me at one point that I love, which is that she was walking her now three year old child through the building again this this child life, her mother had been involved in this project the entire time she’d been alive. But she was walking around the project and the project was largely complete, and the contractor and building occupants and faculty members using the building, were all coming up to her saying how much they loved the building.

When when she and her daughter were walking out the building her little daughter, her three year old daughter turned her and said, Mommy, I’m so proud of you. And it, I realized that it you know it, even a three year old could see what her mother had achieved in that building and the success you achieve and that that single kind of story is one of the most rewarding aspects of my career, or what certainly was to date and when I relay a lot because it dawned on me that finding people trusting them, allowing them to continue to grow, can be great for the firm for the project for everything for them. And it’s so evident that even a three year old can see that it’s, you know, really a wonderful thing.

CW: In summary, Tim has found his life’s passion in building not only great and useful structures, but in building and leading teams.

TW: I think that I found something that I love doing and I was passionate about and that’s, for me, that’s kind of the secret sauce that if, if it’s something that you love doing, and you’re passionate about it, you and I know it’s a cliche to say like you don’t really like you go to work at all every day, but I really don’t feel. But there’s certainly days when I feel like I’ve been at work, but I’ve never really envisioned what I do as you know, I’m going to punch a clock and I get renumerated and I go home and do something else. It’s usually in architecture and leading teams and thinking about making cities better. It is all consuming for me in terms of the way I love interacting with the world.

CW: Thanks to Tim for sharing his experience and giving us a chance to understand the joys and challenges of leadership in the world of commercial architecture.

The next conversation episode will be with Rick Rashid, the founding father of Microsoft Research. We’ll discuss his life in academia and in the world of corporate research, the challenges of building and leading a global research organization, and his passion for helping to uncover the next big thing. That conversation will be in two weeks.

Next episode we returned to the studio and returned to the subject of diversity. we’ll tackle the difficulty of including a broad range of perspectives in your decision making, and how leadership is key to making it work.


Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for are leaders at my website: CLWill.com.

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That’s it for this episode. The next episode returns to the studio to continue our discussion of diversity. We’ll discuss how a broad spectrum addresses a host of cultural issues. I hope you’ll listen. Until then please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.