Why and When to Leave a Firm That’s Long Been Home

When I heard the voice on the other end of the phone, I realized it was THE call. After 10 plus years as an architect for a major EA firm, I had recently turned in my resignation. It wasn’t the money, or the benefits, or even the position for that matter. In those areas I felt that I had been treated well. I had decided to leave because I felt that the firm had lost its focus and was moving in the wrong direction. And now Mr. R, the company President, was on the line and I would have to tell him just how I felt.

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After some initial chit-chat and some catching up on family and friends, the call turned to the business at hand. “I found out from Lou yesterday that you are thinking about leaving us,” he said. His way of saying let’s talk about this and see what we can work out. “You’ve been with us for a long time, I’d like to understand what’s troubling you.” So now it was my turn. But what do I say? It was then that I decided that I’d invested too much time and energy in this company to walk away without at least telling him what I really thought.

“We’ve changed our focus. It’s all about the money and nothing else.” I said. “I feel that the company has lost its sense of mission to clients and to design and is solely a cash producer for our holding company.”

There I said it, but now could I defend my position? He said that he didn’t think it was true, and wanted to know why I had that impression. So, over the next 20 minutes I recounted my stories of various incidents over the last several years that had colored my thinking. Things like the focus on fees at the project management meetings, the lack of company funding for quality programs or employee educational programs, and the two-hour meeting to review our plan for next year that never mentioned projects, clients, or people but only reviewed the spreadsheet which showed the office financial goals. “All we talk about is money,” I said. “It’s not that I don’t think that the money is important, I do. I understand that you have to make money to stay in business. But we seem to have forgotten that there is anything else.”

“We might not talk about those other things, but we still know they are important,” he said. “We haven’t talked about them in so long that I think we’ve forgotten them,” I replied. So that was it. I’d stated my case, and we obviously weren’t going to agree, so we decided to part as friends.

Two weeks later I entered a new world. I became interested in Gensler because of the quality of their work, but I was lured into joining their team because of their focus on clients and service. What a change! Project management meetings focus on how to deliver the best product for our clients. Sure there is discussion of fees, but it’s as a part of the overall discussion of ideas and process, not the sole purpose of the meeting. Project work plans are built around project needs. Project start-up is a rigorous hunt for understanding a client’s goals and how we can best meet them. Design is not only a prime consideration, but is openly discussed and debated in the office. Employee education is not only encouraged, but is supported through annual office education programs that include weekly presentations, training seminars and company leadership conferences.

Does it work? Check the results. Gensler has grown to be one of the great architecture firms in the world. Clients come for the design and return because of service. A recent survey showed that among design professionals Gensler is by far the most respected firm. The high number of staff that “boomerang” back to Gensler after leaving the firm shows that the atmosphere is tough to duplicate. The all around success of the organization speaks for itself.

I joined Gensler shortly before the tragedy of 9/11. As the economy struggled to deal with a new set of problems, Gensler felt the strain just like everyone else. But the reaction of the company was not to turn inward and plan for the worst, it was to look outward and think of our clients. In late September, in an office-wide meeting we were encouraged not to focus on ourselves but to think about our clients. “Think about what they are going through. Talk to them; meet with them; listen to them. Let them know that we are here to help and then do what you can to help them out.”

It is all part of the corporate culture that focuses on clients and service. If you do that, and do it the best way you can, the money will work itself out. I believe it. I’m watching it happen.

—David Daliada