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Patrick MacLeamy: The Pyramid Strategy

In this excerpt from his new book, "Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm: The People, Stories, and Strategies Behind HOK," the former HOK CEO contends that just as buildings need strong foundations, companies on firm footing stand a better chance of long-term success.

By Patrick MacLeamy
November 19, 2020

Editor’s Note: In his new book, Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm: The People, Stories, and Strategies Behind HOK (Wiley, 2020), Patrick MacLeamy, FAIA, offers clear, actionable advice to help professional services companies thrive through recessions, leadership changes, and other potentially disastrous challenges. In this excerpt, MacLeamy – who served as HOK’s CEO from 2003 to 2016 – explains his successful strategy for re-organizing the firm. “To engender a climate where great design gets done, architecture firms need to create a strong base of operations,” he notes.


The Pyramid Strategy


I became HOK CEO at age 60, after 36 years at the firm. I had started as a junior designer and worked my way up. How many places can you do that? During that time, HOK had grown to be a firm of 1,700 people in 20 offices in the United States and abroad. We were now a highly diversified design practice, following the strategy established by the founders. HOK had earned a good overall reputation, viewed by our profession and our clients as one of the best design firms.


Yet, while HOK looked good from the outside, it was a mess on the inside. Too many offices were underperforming, and the profitable offices were understandably unhappy to see their profits used to prop up weak ones. I had tried to put good accounting, technology, and operations practices into place when I was the COO, but they weren’t enough in the face of our rapid growth. I was a new captain overseeing what could easily turn into a mutiny.


Instead of introducing some fancy business plan in a long document no one wanted to read, I developed four goals that were easily demonstrated by a single diagram: a pyramid. Visuals can be powerful. I thought this was fitting because a pyramid is one of the oldest building forms, and I was communicating to building professionals. My pyramid consisted of four successive levels, representing four firm-wide goals. The goal at the bottom was the foundation. Buildings need strong foundations – and so do companies. We couldn’t accomplish any of the higher-level goals without our foundation. My plans for HOK built upward from there, with each level depending on the strength of the one below it.


The pyramid of four successive goals was something everyone at HOK could understand and remember. It contained no details – we would work those out along the way. I wanted the strategy – and the firm – to be nimble and adaptable. Different HOK offices had tried creating formal strategic plans over the years, and I learned that those who wrote the most elaborate annual plans were almost always those who failed to make good on them. Their energies went into a pretty plan, not into implementing anything. I was eager to share my seven-word vision with the HOK board of directors. After all, they were the base of the pyramid.


[At the board of directors meeting,] I said, “How are we going to overcome our challenges and restore HOK to the firm we want it to be?” Silence. I began to describe the four broad goals we must adopt, using my pyramid diagram to introduce each objective and how the four fit together. I reinforced my visual by using four books of different sizes to illustrate the pyramid I wanted us to build. Crude, but effective. I placed the largest book on the table first, representing the base of the pyramid.


Strong Board

“Our first goal is to create a strong board of directors,” I said. “That’s you.” I explained why I was positioning our board at the base of the pyramid, rather than at the top, as in most organization diagrams. I used my solid-foundation metaphor. Without a strong foundation – a dynamic, aligned board – HOK would be unable to reach the other levels of the pyramid. The 30-member board must become unified across the firm, not fragmented by office or market practice. The board must support and enable teams of people around the firm to serve clients with great design and service. The board must work for everyone else in the firm – not the other way around. We must lead, not manage. I saw a united board as the foundation for our success.


Great Operations

I placed the next book on the stack representing the next level on the pyramid. “My second goal for HOK is great operations,” I said. HOK had grown large on the strength of its diverse workload and successful marketing, but operations had not kept pace with growth. We were a mix of profitable and unprofitable offices. Some collected fees on time, whereas others struggled to bill and collect. Some offices always had a healthy backlog of new work to keep people busy, whereas others struggled to land new projects and earn enough fees. The board needed to hear these facts out loud, in the light of day. Our future depended on bringing operations to a new level across the firm. I had developed financial metrics as COO, and every office had to meet them for us to succeed.


I explained that it was not enough for board members to pledge to support HOK’s new financial metrics. Instead, I was asking each to meet HOK’s financial metrics in his or her own office or specialty. No more talk. I needed action. This was the only way to meet the goal of great operations. I went on to say that I would be sharing each office’s financials at monthly board meetings, so everyone could see which were in compliance and which were not. This was a departure from the past, when goals were merely encouraged, and therefore easy to ignore. This was a mandate. I concluded by saying, “Great operations are an imperative, not an option. Great operations will succeed only with support from our strong board foundation. In other words, I’m counting on each of you as individual leaders in your offices.”


True Collaboration

I placed the third level of the pyramid atop the other two while describing the third goal: true collaboration. This goal meant every office must help the entire firm to prosper, not just look after their local business. It was my way of stating the founders’ original belief that “Collaboration inside is the best way to compete outside.” People naturally develop a bond with those in their own office, but the goal of true collaboration was for leaders, beginning with the board, to extend their loyalties beyond their local offices to the entire firm. It made no sense for one office to be expanding and hiring new staff while another office was shrinking and laying people off. We needed to embrace working across offices, once and for all, for the greater good of the firm. True collaboration also meant sharing work with the most qualified people, even if they were in another office. Only then would each client and project get the best HOK team. I believed true collaboration was essential to designing a great firm – and doing great work.


Once again, the building blocks were key. I explained that we could not achieve true collaboration without first developing the pieces of the pyramid below that. “True collaboration means putting clients first, HOK second, my office third … and myself last,” I told the people assembled. “Achieving the goal of true collaboration depends on a strong board for support. It also requires that we firmly establish good operations across HOK.”



I placed the top level on my pyramid while describing the fourth and final goal: dreams. “HOK is a large firm with a diverse mix of offices, market practices, and people,” I said. “We want HOK to be the firm where dreams are real – part of our company, and achievable – not out of reach.” I tried to paint a vivid picture: “Dreams of great designs, big bonuses, the admiration of our peers, being the best in everything we do, can be a reality, but only after we have reached the three goals on which dreams depend.” And now I tied it all together: “Dreams depend on a strong board as a base, great operations to keep us on the right track, and true collaboration, so we all succeed together.”


Dreams were by far the most popular part of my presentation that day, and I asked everyone to share their own dreams for HOK. Bill Valentine said, “I want HOK to be the world leader in sustainable design.” Chuck Siconolfi, the new leader of the healthcare group, said, “I want our hospital design to take a new direction toward patient-centric care.” Ken Young, the IT leader, wanted a faster network. Bill Hellmuth said, “I want HOK to become recognized by our peers as the leading design firm in the world.” CFO Bob Pratzel spoke last, and said, “I want us to make so much money that we can stack it in the halls and pay off the bank!” Everyone laughed. Bob always wanted to make money, but this time we needed to take his dream seriously. I reminded everyone that dreams are the final goal, not the first goal, and we had much work to do before we earned the right to dream.


This is an edited excerpt from Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm: The People, Stories, and Strategies Behind HOK, by Patrick MacLeamy (ISBN: 9781119685302), published by Wiley.

(click on pictures to enlarge)


"Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm: The People, Stories, and Strategies Behind HOK"

Courtesy of Patrick MacLeamy

Patrick MacLeamy's "Pyramid Strategy"