50 years of hard-learned lessons in building a world-class professional services firm

Hiring the right people is one of the most important skills you need as a business owner or leader. When you get the right person for the right position at the right time, it creates an ability to thrive. Professionals look for careers, not jobs. Create an environment where your people can grow and build their skills.

Talent is critical. Become a student of hiring. Develop a recruitment strategy. Be a magnet for talent. The problem is that people often hire the wrong person at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. When you do this, you encourage disaster.

Being the Best

Hire the best talent you can afford. Ask yourself: How do you define being the best? Is it about finding the most competent technical expert? Is it about finding people with years of relevant experience? Yes and no. Yes, you want to find skilled talent. Yes, a strong track record is ideal. Does this equate to being the best? Not necessarily.

Technical expertise is not the only answer. Make sure you offer projects and opportunities that will instill in your new employees a drive for excellence and opportunity.

You must also offer reasonable compensation and benefits to reap the success of an organization where everybody is pulling together to build a world-class firm.

“Hire the best athletes. A willingness to take chances. An ability to generate original ideas. An active curiosity.” — Tom Landry

Beyond the Basics

While most people make the mistake of singling out technical skills as the most important attribute, I think a person must have two other attributes in order to be considered the best: good character and the ability to be a team player.

When hiring, consider not only whether the candidates can do the job, but also whether they will continue to grow as the organization grows. If your people are preoccupied with only themselves, they may be more prone to unethical behavior. If they focus on who they are now, plus who they want to be in the future, they will behave ethically.

Content of Your Character

Character is the bedrock of people. It drives their decision-making and how they treat others. A person’s character can strengthen your firm’s culture or poison it. Discovering the content of a person’s character during the interview process is extremely important.

When you evaluate a person’s character, look for five qualities before hiring them:

  • Look for drive. You want people who are passionate about their profession. They should be excited to wake up, jump into action, and make an impact on a daily basis. Eliminate people who just punch the clock, dread their jobs, and are in it only for the paycheck.
  • Look for confidence, as it enables a person to take an expansive view on life. Confidence fuels curiosity and leads to new possibilities. People who lack confidence usually have a narrow perspective. They let fear envelop them, keeping them from exploring or dealing with change.
  • Discipline must be coupled with passion and confidence. You are running a business. Make sure your people have the focus and commitment it takes to deliver on promises to clients.
  • New hires must know right from wrong. It is non-negotiable. Jack Welch’s motto was, “Do not do anything you wouldn’t want to show up on the front page of the newspaper.” Trust is hard to earn and easily destroyed by bad behavior. Keep your firm strong by bringing in people who do the right thing.
  • Finally, it is so important to seek people who demonstrate that making a difference in the world matters to them, both at work and outside of it. Inquire about which charitable and philanthropic issues are important to them. Do they volunteer? Are there issues that they are passionate about and are proactively trying to improve?


Most professional services firms are small because they do not know how to build effective teams. Look for talent with experience playing team sports, being part of musical groups, or being involved in charitable projects. Ask potential hires to describe their team experiences. Observe whether they acknowledge the contributions of others, or are egocentric. Seek people who love being part of a team versus feeling trapped by it.

Even if you take the smallest unit of a single service provider and a single client, you see a team dynamic. As you build a firm at scale, the one way to avoid the plague of a “Me vs. Us” attitude is to be certain that you have talent whose default approach is teamwork.

Invest in Your People

When a good athlete successfully jumps over the high bar, what does a good coach do? First, celebrate the accomplishment, then raise the bar. Focus on strengths.

Coaches show only winning plays, not where failure has occurred. Visualize winning.

Your Team Is Your Business

Your talent is your business in the professional services world. As an owner or leader, you are responsible for making sure that your firm is investing in its talent.

Start Training Right Away

If you are just starting out, you might think that investing in your people is a luxury. You are mistaken. It is a necessity. Make it a priority as a sole proprietor and on through the time you become a large-scale organization.

Even when I was starting out and cash was tight, I found ways to bring in experts to help us improve. I worked with a top lawyer, Dennis Rice. I had relationships with top engineering consultants, and early on I hired a professor, Glen Strasberg, to teach us business skills after-hours. Fortunately, today there are multitudes of online resources, many of them free. You have no excuse to avoid investing in your team from the beginning.

Get Everyone Involved

When you build your firm, make sure that a passion for self-improvement is part of the culture. By doing this, you lay the groundwork to activate everyone as an educator. Senior talent can take on the mentor role, but as you bring young talent onboard, they can serve as reverse mentors by exposing senior members to new technologies and new trends.

Learn from Athletic Teams

When we think about investing in our people, we often approach it much like sports coaches would with their teams. The coaches with the best track records often have surprisingly straightforward workout regimens for their players. They understand that for every sport, there is a core program that serves as the fundamental building blocks for achieving high performance at game time. They know it takes a constant and consistent investment in everyone on the team getting these fundamentals right in order to produce season after season of victories.

Core Professional Services Regimen

There are three ways to invest in the education of your talent. This applies to all professional services firms.

Invest in cross-training: While you want your talent to be deep in one area of expertise, it is equally important that they have a solid understanding of how other groups work within your firm. By encouraging different groups to collaborate through learning activities, you create major benefits. Both your talent and your firm become resilient. Markets come and go, and the pace at which this happens is getting faster and faster.

Cross-training helps you navigate this reality. The better cross-trained your people are, the more likely they will be able to adapt and adjust to new opportunities once the old ones no longer exist.

Also, collaboration efforts improve your team. Cross-training creates meaningful experiences between different groups within your firm. It avoids silo thinking and builds up a pool of trust among your people. The results of collaboration are always good. People who trust each other and have a better understanding of one another’s capabilities are much more likely to spot potential business opportunities, and are more motivated to generate a referral.

Offer field experience: Nothing beats real-life learning. Over time, I discovered the power of having fresh talent or recently appointed managers join our client pitches and meetings. While they were silent observers at external meetings, it gave them a front row seat on the action. It also showed our potential and current clients that we invest in our people.

In a meeting, I would explain that this person was joining us, at our expense, and then showcase that person’s great energy and potential. This helped build both confidence and excitement among clients, because it showed we cared, and it gave them a preview of the talent we recruited at our firm. It also inspired self-confidence in the individual.

Require meaningful continuing education credits (required for all professional services fields): Because the programs can be boring and seem like squandered time, I suggest you transform them. Have your firm team up with an accredited agency that can issue continuing education credits. Make the courses exciting and relevant to your talent’s day-to-day work life by tapping into your senior talent to help design the programs. If you are just starting out and have limited resources, make sure to invest your energies in curating high-quality continuing education opportunities.

Keep Them Coming Back for More

It is true that finding, recruiting, and retaining talent is exceptionally hard work. The most frightening reality about building a professional services firm is that your most valuable assets walk out the door every night. If you want to retain your talent and have them excited to return in the morning, you need to invest in them. It will be one of the best decisions you ever make as a business owner or a team leader.

Arthur Gensler is an architect and entrepreneur who founded the Gensler design firm in 1965. The business has thrived for 50 years, growing from a three-person office to the largest design firm in the world. A graduate of Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning, he has earned many honors, including the Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 1995, as well as Ernst & Young’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2000, Gensler received the American Institute of Architects’ “Firm of the Year” award.

Excerpts adapted from Art’s Principles: 50 years of hard-learned lessons in building a world-class professional services firm
Copyright © 2015 Wilson Lafferty, written by Arthur Gensler with Michael Lindenmayer.

First Printing: March 2015www.artsprinciples.com