Be a one-firm firm, with Ken Baker.

Episode 451

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Ken Baker is currently serving as a member of Gensler’s Board of Directors and the Gensler Management Committee. As a Co-Regional Managing Principal of Gensler’s Southeast Region and past Co-Managing Principal of Gensler’s UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Gulf Regions, Ken is a global expert on workplace design and planning, particularly for law firms. Ken frequently speaks about the power of design at industry events around the world and his focus on maintaining strong client relationships is a core tenant of his leadership philosophy and design strategy.


Welcome to Onward Nation, Ken.

Thank you, Stephen. And I’m very glad to have this opportunity to talk to the folks listening to Onward Nation.

Well, I’m very glad that we have this opportunity as well, by way of introduction of our mutual friend Jon Livesay. And just so very kind of John to introduce the two of us so we could have this great conversation, but Ken your bio, your background, your … It pales in comparison to the intro. The intro was impressive, but your bio and your career path is just phenomenal. So let’s take a few minutes, take us behind the green curtain, give us some additional context, tell us more about your journey up to this point, and then we’ll dive in with the questions.

Sure. I’ll give you a real brief background. I’m from a very small town in Northern Illinois about 100 miles West of Chicago. Dixon, Illinois, which is Ronald Reagan’s hometown. About 20,000 people, and I always wanted to be an architect. So design was part of my life from a very early age. I also was into other fine arts, a lot of music, years and years of piano and voice, and acting, and drama, and I think putting all of that together into the architecture profession has helped me immensely. Music, and the acting, and the stage work, and the other … That kind of stuff is good preparation for a career in presenting design to people.

So, that kind of got me started and scroll forward on that, I graduated from University of Illinois with an architectural degree. I focused early on in my career on architectural design at Skidmore Owings & Merril, and then transferred into interior architectural design, which I felt would increase my relationship to clients and my outreach to a broader number of clients, and more suited my talents. And I very early on started working with very big law firms like Skadden Arps, and some of the ones took current day Sidley Austen in Chicago, and I’ve been privileged to have long term relationships with those clients. And I think to cap off my formative experience, where it got me to now, is really focused on our clients as people and keeping that relationship, and building that relationship. And Gensler has been a great firm to put forward that it’s very … It’s much easier to keep a current client happy than to get a new one.

So I have been, again, very privileged to have … I’ve been working with Sidley Austen now for over 22 years, and that’s just one of the many clients but that’s probably the longest term relationship right now. So that’s the brief look behind the green curtain on me, Stephen.

Well, impressive. And so let’s go back to where you mentioned arts, music, stage work, and how you felt like that was good preparation for you to be able to then present design to people in your current capacity. And so let’s talk a little bit more about that, because my sense is there’s a story there. I know you feel that way for a strong reason, so tell us a little bit more about why you feel that was great preparation for what you do today.

I think first of all it’s all fine arts, and architecture is a fine and applied art and a focus. And I think it all meshes together, but the ability to be able to talk to people and present design cohesively, the acting thing got me used to being precise and coordinated. I think the music, playing piano for 20 years, studying piano for 20 years, prepared me for that. And I … They’re such related topics. And then the stage work I did had to do with music, and drama, and musical theater, and it just prepared me to be able to stand up in front of a crowd of folks and present with confidence the type of work that I was designing for them, and what my firm wanted to show them, and how my firm wanted to make their business lives more successful. I was able to get that story across using all that training from my past.

And see if this would be fair, that because of your experience on the stage if you will, in fine arts that when you are in front of that big important pitch, that client relationship that was so valuable to you and your firm, you could focus on the work, you could focus on the design, you could focus on presenting it in such a way there was going to be the best, or maybe well-received as opposed to being nervous, and being ill-prepared, and keeping yourself in check. And all of those things you learned years ago, would that be fair?

That … Very fair. I think the actual presentation, the showtime if you will, up in front of a client in a room presenting great work … First of all, I’ve only worked for firms that did great work for clients. For Skidmore, and then a firm named Swanke Hayden Connell which unfortunately is no longer in existence, and then for the last 20, almost 23, years Gensler who I think obviously is the best firm in the business. And I’m very proud to say that I’m with Gensler, but having the resources of those firms behind me just gives you the increased confidence that you know what you’re going to be presenting to clients is going to make them more successful as businesses by the power of design.

Love this. And one of the things that, granted I obviously don’t know Gensler the way that you do, and I have a completely outside perspective in just very thin slices of knowledge, but one of the things that I do think is so impressive for a firm that is as large as yours, with so many practice areas, and serving clients around the world, is that really it … Each of these practice areas really operates like these entrepreneurial communities. They’re very entrepreneurially driven if you will, and the practice leader is very much like a business owner and so forth, and certainly there are partners within the firm. Would that be a fair assessment from the outside looking in?

Very fair. Very great observation. We have the 31 practice areas, I believe to date, and we always look at practice as the engines of our business at Gensler. And practice areas particularly become important because the economy of the world changes so wildly in different places, and different workplace practice areas could be very strong at certain points in time, and maybe practice areas in lifestyle or community would be less important. But the fact that we’ve got the diversity of these 31 practice areas in these three big tranches, workplace, work lifestyle, and community, live, work, play we kind of term it as, having such a broad coverage in all of that in difficult economic times, some are doing better, some are doing less better, but our diversity has made our firm very successful.




“Practice is the engine of our business at Gensler.” – Ken Baker Click To Tweet


Well, Onward Nation, I’m sure you can get a sense now of why I was so excited when Ken accepted our invitation to be a guest today. The international expertise, the preparation through the fine arts and the presentation skills that he already shared with you, the entrepreneurial mindset that thrives throughout the 31 practice areas even though their a large international firm that is so alive and well, and we just actually talked a little bit about diversity and values within an organization too. So this is going to be packed full, Onward Nation. Can’t wait to dive in.

Ken, let’s go into this first section, which interestingly enough, is about focus and preparation. So preparation because it’s so true that greatness is available to all of us if we’re willing to do the common things uncommonly well, which is a powerful lesson I learned from one of my mentors, Don Yeager. So, Ken, start us off with if you want to call it a secret, maybe you prefer to call it a time saving technique, is there something you can share with us that helps you keep that focused mindset on your vital priorities throughout the day?

I think that’s a great question, Stephen, and very simply answered. I think you’ve got to surround yourself with great and talented people, smart people, and then you need to delegate them, and allow them to do what they do the best, and support and mentor them. So that’s my very simple answer to that question and it’s a big focus of my career.

Well an excellent career because you’ve been able to do that very well, but oftentimes as I’m sure you’ve seen, is that sometimes it’s easier said than done in practice. Right?

Very much. You’ve got to be looking for good people all the time, and once you find good people you’ve got to give them opportunities that are challenging and allow them to develop their way and to develop their careers, but give them cogent mentoring and guidance, and give them examples of how you’ve been able to do it in the past. But again, you’ve got to trust people, but there’s this whole thing that we call this orientation to people growth, and that’s a very very important thing, tenet, in our firm. And you know you’ve got great people you’ve got to rely on them to build your business, and to make your clients happy.

What an excellent point because you just took us into mentorship right there. You just gave us some insights into that, Onward Nation part of your role as a leader, business owner, is not only to be able to manage your vital priorities properly, make sure that you hire A-players, great people with exceptional talent, and make sure that they’re trained properly and they understand what you’ve delegated, and what their vital priorities are, but then also, Ken just gave us a great mentorship lesson there, that part of our role is to be able to show how we have done that successfully in the past before, so that when your team, the people reporting to you, are then mentoring others they are then well prepared. Right Ken?

That’s exactly right, Stephen. So I would summarize that as lessons learned. I mean, we all learn little tricks of the trade, and things that have helped us as we move along through our career, and it’s important to share that wealth of resource, and that wealth of experience with people coming in, and that jettisons them forward and you don’t have to spend a lot of time doing that. And so a lot of our practice is to share … We develop and we grow the firm based on our experience, and sharing those lessons learned makes our business successful, and it certainly is very helpful to our clients, especially in the long term client engagements that I was talking about that I’ve had, 22 years working with this major law firm. As an account leader, I’m really focused on each and every project. We learn something, they learn something, but it’s my job to bring that back to the client, and back to the team. Make sure the new people at Gensler that are going to be servicing that client are getting all that education back to the point of your original question, Stephen.

Well, and that’s I think another one of the areas that Gensler just really shines is with talent development, people development, and in making sure that junior members of your team are pushed, but they’re hugged along the way that they can grow and develop. And so they become the next round of leaders. You have this continual built in succession plan here that is so forward thinking and really uncommon.

Yes we do. You’re always … As a leader at Gensler, at any level, you’re always looking for your replacement. You’re always looking to train your replacement and to develop that next generation of leaders. And we have a yearly review process we call PDP’s, which is not about criticism, and you came in late last week, or you missed this deadline, or … Those things are dealt with on a daily or weekly basis. A yearly PDP is about growth of the individual, and about their career goals and objectives, and how you’re going to help them chart a game plan that they buy into, and that we’re buying into, and we can work on together so they grow as well as the firm grows.




“Always look to train your replacement and develop that next generation of leaders.” – Ken Baker Click To Tweet


And what does PDP stand for?

Professional development progress I would call it. I should know the nomenclature a little bit better than that, but it’s basically professional development.

Perfect. Okay. Great lessons, great teaching that you’re giving us right now, and so let’s take this moment and move it into daily habits. And so Ken, do you have a maybe a habit or two that you strongly believe has contributed to your success?

Yes, and I kind of look for this in others too, that I’m mentoring, and it’s … Number one is a sense of urgency. When a client, or when something happens within our firm, or theirs an initiative laid out, let’s get going on it. Let’s make headway on it. When clients asks us to do something, let’s do it. Let’s not equivocate. Let’s answer the … You know, they ask a question, let’s answer the question. I would think that’s the first one, and then the second one I’ll add into the mix is being a good listener.

Our folks cannot service our client’s needs unless they’re listening to what they are. Unless they’re listening to what those client goals and objectives are, and then they’re reacting to them with the deliverables that we’re giving back to them. So I would say sense of urgency, and listening are two very high on my list.

Well, that makes complete sense, knowing what I do of know of you, and your leadership within Gensler. And I really love how you stitch those two together, that when you are a good listener, then when you hear what your client needs, then you take action. You have a sense of urgency in order to get that done. And it creates this really perpetual circle that your client feels, “Wow. They really get me.” Right?

Yeah. Yeah. I think throughout my career I’ve noticed, Stephen, that from even parent’s training me, if you were asked to do something or something was suggested, to come back two weeks later and find out that it hadn’t been done, or kind of been swept to the side is very disappointing. So yeah, there’s a certain amount of drive in that, in my quest for sense of urgency, but I’m not saying to get crazy about it, but we don’t want to … Our business is based on our fees a lot of times, they’re based on the amount of time spent with the client. And we have to be very competitive with our fees, meaning we have to … There’s competitors out there that are driving their fees lower than Gensler is. So if we can get to the endpoint sooner by, and listening is a good tool to get that endpoint sooner, and then employing as sense of urgency to get the work done, get it presented, and implement that work, we’re going to be successful with that client.

Love it. Let’s chat a little bit about critical skills. You have such a unique perspective here, like you and I were talking about in the pre-interview chat, that you have served in many regions around the world, and having many people reporting to you as a leader within Gensler, but then also working with business leaders, executives, owners, again around the world, so what do you think is the most critical skill business owners need to master in order to thrive today?

Well, I’ll go back to that sense of urgency, and also having the ability to develop a great professional relationship with your clients. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be friends, and go out on weekend trips with them and everything. That’s great when that happens, and it certainly has contributed to the success of my career, but you really have to focus on making those other business … Your client’s business leaders look successful, and give them the right answer, give them the options, and make recommendations. We will many times give our clients three design options when we design, I don’t know, a law firm, or a building, or an airport, or a product or something, but we always have to make a recommendation because we’re the ones putting the design together based on everything we know about their goals and objectives, and what where we see the strategic plan of their company’s going as they’ve told us and we’ve listened to, we are expected to make relationships.

So, I think developing that relationship that based getting the work done, getting it on time, on budget, and listening, again I’m going to back to those sense of urgency, listening, and then giving some options so it isn’t a one-way highway, but we are making a qualified recommendation based on what we know about their firms.

And what I’ve learned from you, both in this conversation and of you being a mentor of mine from a distance and just watching how you’ve nuanced through your career, would you also say that the client relationship is clearly important, and presenting the options and so forth, but it is a long-term play because you’ve had relationships with clients for decades, and that doesn’t happen by accident.

Clients have been … I just saw the relationship with clients to be something that you could always rely on to build a business. If I made that client happy on each and every opportunity that they gave us, I was going to be assured of repeat business. And in developing that relationship with them where they didn’t have to feel that they had to start over with some conversation explaining the history of their company, or their goals and objectives, or where they were taking their business, it made it easier for them to reach out to us and say, “I’ve got another assignment for you. Let’s get going.” There isn’t a lot of start up time.




“The relationship with clients is something that you can always rely on to build a business.” – Ken Baker Click To Tweet


So yeah, back to the point of really focused on that client relationship and making sure those folks, your client leaders, are looking good to their … To the people, they’re accountable to by the work that we’re doing.

Let’s go a little bit deeper in a word that you’ve used a couple of times during this conversation, and that’s mentorship, but I want to flip that and from the perspective of … Ken, tell us about the most influential lesson that you ever learned from one of your mentors, and then how did that lesson help you become the business leader you are today?

Well, that’s a really great question. I was mentored by somebody who happens to be one of the CEO’s of our company, and when I was recruited by that person, Diane Hoskins who is one of our CEO’s, and she’s been … I was recruited in ’95 in Chicago. Diane was here in DC. I was recruited as a design director, so I learned the value of searching and bringing people on that are talented and going to take the business somewhere. And then once those people had joined the firm, and again I’m using Diane as an example, how do you help them build their careers? And I was certainly brand new to Gensler, I was brought in with no title. I was working with people that were partners of the firm. I was focused on bringing in new work. I was focused on designing good work for clients. I think that was helpful in her making that decision to bring me on, but then I also needed help in the culture of the firm, and how to conduct my career within the parameter of a new firm 22, 23 years ago.

So I learned a lot from her, and I will cap it off by saying when I had my PDP’s with her on a yearly basis, she would talk about, “What Ken, what are your goals and objectives moving forward?” And I said, “I,” without being ashamed of it I said, “I want to be sitting in your chair.” She was running the DC office. It was before it was even a region. It was before we even had regions per se, but we were kind of developing offices which developed regions, which developed the firm, and I was focused on being a designer but going into kind of office leadership. And she helped me map the way about things I needed to do, and she put me into situations with new initiatives that the firm was building.

I was on the ground floor building practice areas, the workplace practice area as an organized practice area with something that she made a leader of with two of my other partners at the time to kind of build that one, and I got to know a lot of the different tranches of the firm from client relationships, to design and delivery, to these practice areas. And then to how offices work. How all of … What makes a successful architectural firm a successful business on the office thing. So I learned a lot from her. I kept saying that I want to sit in your chair. I did get appointed to that, running the DC office, and then I know I’m doing a long answer, but I want to cap it off by saying I was giving that back, that training back to another individual who, when I moved to London, was asked to lead their London region of Europe, Northern Africa Gulf region, the person I was mentoring stepped into my role running the DC office.

So I was leaving a role that I mentored somebody that took, that stepped right into that role, and then I was moving onto another plateau in running a region outside of the US which was great. And Diane and the other leaders of the firm prepared me to do that.

That’s exceptional and really uncommon. When you said, way back at the onset of our conversation, you said how you’ve been able to do that in the past. You know, that’s when started first talking about mentorship in this conversation. And now sharing this lesson from Diane, when she said, “How do you help them build their career,” meaning your career, and how she did that with you and for you to give you that right guidance and mentorship, and never feeling threatened that you wanted her chair, because that’s what you want. You want somebody who aspires and pushes and wants to learn, and she helped you along the way and then you taught somebody else. What a magnificent example, Ken.

I think also, Stephen, they were not all easy conversations in that. And I’m not saying that … You know there were some tough moments where there were learning moments. Where, “Hey Ken, you learned a lesson with this business situation or this scenario. Mark that down. Write that down in your book,” as my dad used to say. And I’ve kept track of those things and again, those become those lessons learned that you impart to other people. So this gifts keep on giving. Hopefully, it makes somebody’s pathway a little bit easier, a little bit smoother, but it wasn’t always the easy show.

There were … You have to work towards these kind of goals and objectives, and there’s different challenges that come in front of us at all levels in our firm every day. Getting a project done. Getting project done on time or on budget. Big thing is meeting the client’s budget. Managing consultants to make sure that they are working with a sense of urgency to get the client work done. On the inside of offices, it is do you have the right people to do the work? If not, you got to go out to the marketplace and hire them. You’ve got to make some really tough business decisions just based on the practice areas that are doing well, and the practice areas that are being challenged just because of the economy. And there’s a lot of economic decisions and judgements that you need to make along the way, and adjustments to the way the business is working to smooth things out and to make it run smooth again.

So, I learned how to run an office from Diane and the other leaders at Gensler, the other people that run the board of directors, Art Gensler, his wife, and it’s very much of a family situation and it’s very much of a one-firm firm. And I hadn’t mentioned that up until now, but we are a one-firm firm, which means all of the 46 or 7 offices that we have to date, work together. We have a call on Monday mornings where we review, it takes three hours now, we review all of the new business opportunities and we go office by office by office, and everybody who leads an office or a region participates in that.

Now just some additional context here, because 40 plus offices, but then also give Onward Nation insight into how many countries we’re talking about.

I want to say we are … Oh gosh, that’s a great stat and I should know that right now. I would say we’re in like … I know we have nine regions, so there’s probably when you … We have 5,000 people, but I still haven’t answered your question about number of countries. 46 offices. 14 countries.

Wow. Okay …

I pulled that one out.

Well, and the reason why I wanted you to share that is because a firm with 5,000 teammates in 46 offices, in 14 countries still can take the time to have the Monday morning meeting, and go deep and cover all the areas, get it done in three hours, but there aren’t any excuses about “Oh this practice area did this thing. And oh, that office did that thing.” You’re keeping it all together within the culture of the business even though you’re spanning many countries and time zones. That’s exceptional. That’s excellence.

Yeah. Thank you, but that call on Monday morning is just the tip of the iceberg. Within each of the axes of the firms, and I’ll call the axes offices, design and delivery, client relationships, and practice areas, we have big kind of jamboree meetings which we call the super meetings. So we’ll combine a couple of those axes and have a all-hands meeting where we get together. And we’ve got one coming up in April, another super meeting that’s focused on … That’s going to be focused on design and delivery, and it’s going to be focused on offices, and that’s how we get our leading folks together to share best practices, again it’s a one-firm firm, and we spend a lot of money and there’s a lot of people’s private time, and a lot of people’s business time, that comes off the bottom line of the profitability of our firm to do this, but it’s the investment that we have to make to make Gensler at 5,000 people, 46 offices, in 14 countries, and 9 regions connect.

Wow. It’s impressive. It illustrates the commitment that you have to your clients and those relationships, obviously. But then also commitment to your teammates as well as the culture and making sure the environment within Gensler, this always improving, the PDP, the process that you have instilled with everybody, it really is quite exceptional. So let’s chat a little bit about strategy, Ken. And I know that strategy is obviously complex, and I know that I’m serving this up in an unfair way because I’m asking for one, but we’ll go deeper into strategy here in just a few minutes.

If you could give us just one strategy that if business leaders in their teens could consistently apply every day, do you think will compound into big wins for them?

I’ll go back to something I’ve already talked about. So, sorry it’s not going to be a new and different thing. It’s like surrounding yourself with really talented people. Smart people. And also knowing that you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. I’m many times not. I’m constantly amazed about the people I’m bringing to presentations and to service client needs, and to different firm-wide functions. Surround yourself with people, and help them grow. That’s the story that I’m sticking to.




“Surround yourself with talented people. You don't have to be the smartest person in the room.” – Ken Baker Click To Tweet


Okay, so let’s say that you hired a smart, really capable person today. And then 12 months from now you’re looking back on that hiring decision. And so did that person do to really … What was their strategy in order to consistently deliver value to Gensler, and to clients?

What I would look for in that person is them immersing themselves into our culture immediately. And we have a lot of programs to help them with that. We’re not just pushing them into the deep end of the pool. I’m also looking for them to be able to deliver what their CV says that they’re able to deliver. And if there is a question on that, to dive into those concerns or challenges very early on. You don’t want to wake up nine months later, or 90 days later even, and have a remedial discussion with somebody that you were counting on heavily to be able to do to something. So, when you bring folks in at any level, particularly at senior levels, you have to give them time and attention. You can’t just … I don’t expect to hand hold them but at the same time I don’t want to leave them be so they’re going off on a different tangent, or in a different direction. They need to be groomed and mentored, and focused on, and conversed with, and you gotta do the touch bases, and the progress check ins.

Exceptional. And Ken, before I ask you this last question, and I’m just trying to be conscientious of our time together, but before I ask you this last question which will also be a scenario, I just want to say thank you. I know the schedule compression that you’re under, and the responsibilities and so forth, and I’m grateful one, that you would accept the invitation, take the time to come onto the show, but two that you would come on to the show as such a transparent, and genuine, and caring business leader, who I know that you are, but that you were also that way on the show which just really speaks to how much you do care about being a great mentor and leader, and how much you care about the culture at Gensler. And thank you so much for taking us inside, not only to your path and journey, but really taking us inside the one firm firm, and the culture that you and your team have built at Gensler. Amazing conversation. I’m grateful, thank you my friend.

Stephen, thank you so much. And I think you could tell I really enjoy … I love what I do, and I love this firm, and I recommend it highly to those that are interested in us. And but regardless of what Gensler does, and says, there are so many great firms out there. I happen to think that I work for the best one, and I’m just very proud to be part of the growth and the success model of this firm. It’s been an amazing journey for me.

We can hear the passion in your voice. And it is inspiring, to say the least. So here’s my last question. I’m going to give you a scenario, and … So, Ken imagine you’re standing in front of a room of brand new business leaders. People just like you when you were starting out. And so maybe they’re battling their way through worry, and doubt, and struggle, and they’re just trying to find that initial footing. What would be two, or three, strategies you would recommend that they focus on to ensure success?

I would say we all need clients. I’ve talked about great people, and we have one of the tenets of our firm it’s like, our business begins and ends with great people, and our great clients. So on the client side I would say, keep up with what your clients needs are. You got to keep up with the clients, and they are not a commodity. They don’t want to be … They don’t want you calling them up and saying, “What project do you have for me today? We need some work. What do you have for me to do?” You’ve got to be focused on, even when they’re between projects and engagements for us, that you’re sending them … We invest a lot in research. So we’re sending them a lot of information that they can use. So we’re giving … So I would say, keep up with your clients, they’re not a commodity, give them back something. Give them something back, other than the project that they’re hiring you to do. Offer them something that, again they can use to make their businesses more successful.




“Keep up with what your client's needs are.” – Ken Baker Click To Tweet


I think that probably encapsulates … That’s been one of my big client philosophies and will help people develop bigger and better business models.

Outstanding conversation from beginning to end my friend. I am grateful, again that you would take the time. Before we close out and say goodbye, tell us the best way for Onward Nation to connect with you, Ken.

I can be found on [email protected], and I would invite people to check out our website. And they can learn about our 31 practice areas and that kind of, and the other great projects and clients that our firm is doing.

Ken, we all have the same 86,400 seconds in a day, and again you coming on to the show, being so generous with your expertise, sharing your path, mentorship lessons, the lessons learned along the way, has been exceptional. And you have been a great mentor to Onward Nation, helping us move our businesses onward to that next level. Thank you so much, my friend.

Thank you for having me, Stephen. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.


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