Wendy Rogers of LPA: “You can’t plan everything”
You can’t plan everything. As much as we want to guarantee the outcome through strong planning, we must be agile and adapt to circumstance. A strong set of values, clear mission and trusted partners will get you to the right place in the end.
Wendy Rogers, FAIA, is CEO and Chief Talent Officer of LPA, an integrated design firm dedicated to creating projects that innovate, inspire and improve people’s lives. Wendy leads a team of more than 400 architects, engineers, landscape architects and interior designers in California and Texas. Recently honored as AIA California’s 2021 Firm of the Year, LPA embraces an inclusive and collaborative approach to create sustainable, timeless and resilient designs for corporate, educational, healthcare, recreation and municipal projects.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My parents emigrated from England in the early ’60s and raised my sister and I in North Hollywood until 1972, when we moved to Orange County. We had a simple life — playing outside, cooking from scratch, and reading lots of stories. I still joke with my mom that we had a very sustainable existence. She says it was just being frugal!
Every three or four years, we went home to England to see family, generally for the better part of the summer. One grandmother lived in a century-old, thatched roof cottage with thick walls and latched doors. My other grandmother lived on the third floor in a crooked tudor flat at the top of Market Hill in Framlingham. We took walks with the dogs down gated lanes around churchyards and a medieval castle. All of this impacted my perspective of place.
After we moved to Orange County, we continued to attend the same church in Encino for years and spent Sunday afternoons seeing friends before driving home. It was one of these visits that took us to an old friend of my dad’s, an architect, who had designed a new home in Studio City that was under construction. That afternoon changed my life. I knew I would become an architect. In middle school I took drafting and shop classes, and in high school I won a design competition that resulted in my first job in 1984.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I’ve been in this position four years. I’ve spent a significant part of that time charting uncertainty. Sadly, there was no manual left behind on what to do in a pandemic. I had to rely on my partners and our ability as a firm to move quickly and adapt. This pandemic taught humility — I learned quickly that the smartest thing I could do was share what we knew and admit what we didn’t.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Shortly after I took on the role of CEO, we were revamping the way we do our all-hands meeting. Traditionally, it was a pretty humble event in Irvine and we were struggling with how to make it a more equitable experience across all our studios. We had hired a professional video crew — big stage lights, tape marks on the floor, even a backdrop. We flew people in to speak ‘live’ from Irvine to our five studios. I quickly realized that when you give someone a microphone, a spotlight and five minutes to speak, all bets are off. Our one-hour studio meeting lasted almost two hours. We ultimately decided to pre-record the entire thing, so studios could share during lunch in their local time zone. What did I learn? Simple is always better.
As a side note, ironically, our all-hands meeting turned into a small silver lining during the pandemic. When the world shut down, we quickly established an informal, virtual bi-weekly all-hands meeting, took questions from staff and addressed issues as best we could. Each meeting we shared a project in design, celebrated our success helping clients and presented good news around the studios. The meetings felt humble and equitable. Everyone was on screen. We were sharing the experience together.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Dan Heinfeld has been the President of LPA since I started 34 years ago. When I was an intern, he would stop by my desk and ask questions and give guidance. In 1992, I raised my hand to be the lead designer for the California State University’s Chancellor’s office and he trusted me with the project — a bold choice given my limited experience at the time. He is the most optimistic person I have ever known, and he continues to be a source of wisdom and inspiration.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I talk about it. I have remarkable business partners that I trust implicitly to discuss the big, “confront the truth” issues that arise from our work. Also, a great husband.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity and inclusion are essential to innovation, belonging and representation. As a firm, we are most successful when we can be our best selves. We are better, more innovative when more voices are at the table. This affects every aspect of our work. In 1992 we brought in landscape architecture to the firm. As a result, we all became better designers. Fifteen years ago, we brought in the engineering disciplines and became a fully integrated design firm. As we brought in more expertise and more perspectives, the performance of our projects improved and we became even better designers. The inclusion of other disciplines — challenging ideas, bringing their expertise — makes our design work stronger and our firm stronger. Our desire to be an inclusive firm — and to do it well — has been driving our process and who we are long before the events of last year.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
The commitment to inclusion needs to be at the core of your business. It can’t be pasted on or an afterthought. And there must be real action behind the policies. We want our retention and promotion strategies to create a racially and ethnically diverse firm that reflects the communities we serve. We promote engagement surveys, seeking out more information on how we are doing and what we can do better; our engagement rate is typically about 94 percent of staff. We conduct an annual pay equity by job title.
Every firm can find ways to do better. Our commitment is part of an inclusive design approach geared toward community members working together in deliberate ways to author their vision. Our collaborative culture is built around the “we” over the “me.” As an integrated firm, it is essential that all disciplines participate and promote inclusiveness and affect the lives of the people who use our projects.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
As CEO I need to keep a broad view of the business that allows other leaders to focus on their expertise.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
That we have all the answers.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I love the autonomy of this job and what I can do to design a better company and impact our communities. I didn’t realize how much I could do in this role, that I couldn’t achieve as a principal.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
It starts with some tough questions. Are you organized, responsible and strategic? Are you willing to make hard decisions? Can you give up what you did previously, which might be why you got into the business in the first place? Can you hold leaders accountable? Or the big one, can you take responsibility for the families of your employees? You need to be able to answer these questions if you’re going to take on the responsibility.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Lead with empathy — put yourself in their shoes.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
As a firm, we have committed to making sustainability and building performance the foundation of every design, regardless of size, scale or budget. We were one of the early supporters of the AIA 2030 Commitment, which established annual targets for reducing energy use in our projects. For two years in a row, we were the largest firm in the country to meet the target, across a wide variety of civic, education and healthcare projects. For the past five years we’re averaging more than 70% reduction in energy use in our projects. We believe in leading by example. If we can do it, other firms can, too.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. You can say no. Be honest with yourself about what you can do, and honest with your team and your manager.
2. Ask clarifying questions. I can think of so many times early on where I wanted to do so on parts of the business outside of my day-to-day expertise but didn’t have the confidence.
3. Being a CEO is an exciting but very different role, and I didn’t realize how much I would miss the design work I did with clients and the team.
4. Take time to celebrate. Often, we move from one deadline straight into the next, without taking a moment to pause and recognize the good work that was done by the team.
5. You can’t plan everything. As much as we want to guarantee the outcome through strong planning, we must be agile and adapt to circumstance. A strong set of values, clear mission and trusted partners will get you to the right place in the end.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I want to inspire all of us to take responsibility for climate change.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Support each other as you would want others to support you and act as if success of the team depends solely on your own personal efforts.” I feel like it is something I can use every day.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Angela Merkel. Strong and steady, the stories and wisdom she could share from her career and life would make for a very inspirational meal.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.