"It’s so valuable for young professionals to learn everything they can about all aspects of the business, but that can’t happen without questions and curiosity," says Wendy Rogers of LPA Design Studios.
Wendy Rogers is CEO and chief talent officer at LPA Design Studios in Irvine, CA.
What has been the biggest challenge in your role and how have you overcome this challenge? The pandemic has been the most challenging thing I’ve encountered in my career. I’ve spent a significant part of my time as CEO charting uncertainty, but there’s no manual on what to do in a pandemic. Within two weeks we went from a 400-person firm with most of our people working in our six studios to working 100% remotely and trying to maintain our level of service to our clients. I’ve relied on my partners and our ability as a firm to move quickly and adapt while staying true to our vision and mission.
What about your current role at the company are you most happy with? I am most proud of LPA’s commitment to making sustainability and building performance the foundation of every project’s design, regardless of size, scale or budget.
We were one of the early supporters of the American Institute of Architect’s 2030 Commitment, which establishes annual targets for reducing energy in projects. For two years in a row, we were the largest firm in the country, and one of only 27 total, to meet the target. For the past five years we’ve averaged more than 70% reduction in energy use in our projects. We believe in leading by example to make our communities and our planet a better place. Our hope that other firms will be inspired and see that if we can do it, they can too.
What is the best piece of advice you have received that has helped you succeed in your industry, and what advice would you give to the next generation? The best piece of advice I’ve received is the importance of networking and staying in touch with people. Relationships are so important, and something as simple as remembering a name goes a long way in helping you grow in your career.
I would urge the next generation to ask more clarifying questions. I can think of many instances when I wanted to learn more about areas outside of my day-to-day expertise but didn’t have the confidence to speak up. It’s so valuable for young professionals to learn everything they can about all aspects of the business, but that can’t happen without questions and curiosity.
Would you advise your son or daughter or any younger person to begin a career in CRE? I absolutely would. It’s a tough business, and the market is very cyclical, so I would advise young professionals to seek out positions with firms that provide a variety of opportunities throughout the different business cycles. At LPA we make an effort to balance our private and public work, which helps us stay resilient while providing opportunities for employees. It’s not something I was thinking about when looking for an internship in 1987, but I quickly came to appreciate the breadth of work the firm offers.
Please share with us an initiative that you are working on that you are most proud of. I am very proud of LPA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, which are essential to innovation, belonging and representation. We design our retention and promotion strategies to create a racially and ethnically diverse firm that reflects the communities we serve. Fifty percent of the staff have been at LPA for more than 10 years; many more than 25 years. Forty-six percent of the staff are women, and 41 percent are racially or ethnically diverse.
We conduct an annual pay equity analysis, by job title, every year. We also conduct regular engagement surveys to gather employee input on how we’re doing and what we can do better.
As a fully integrated firm that includes architects, engineers, landscape architects, interior designers and master planners, we’ve found that the inclusion of other disciplines makes our design work and our firm stronger. As we brought in more expertise and more perspectives over the years, the performance of our projects improved and we became even better designers. 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.
In your opinion what take-a-ways did we learn from the COVID-19 crisis? The biggest thing the pandemic has taught us is humility. We learned quickly that the smartest thing we could do was share what we knew and admit what we didn’t. We put this into practice through a new bi-weekly, virtual format for our all-hands meeting. During every meeting we take questions from staff, address them as best we can and celebrate successes together. Everyone is on the screen sharing the experience and acknowledging the unknowns together. You can’t plan for everything, so being transparent, agile and willing to adapt as a team is critical.
Where would you say commercial real estate needs to improve for women? One of the biggest challenges still facing women in this industry is the lack of mentors. While I had to glean many things externally, rather than within the firm, I would encourage women to find that person or group of people who will be in their corner as they progress in their careers. I’ve been very fortunate to have some incredible mentors throughout my career, and I credit them with helping me get to where I am today.
LPA’s president, Dan Heinfeld, has been a mentor to me since I started with the company as an intern in 1987. He took the time to explain his approach on projects and would frequently stop by my desk to ask questions and give guidance. In the early 90s, he trusted me to be the lead designed for the California State University’s Chancellor’s office – a bold choice given my lack of experience at the time. I still learn from his optimism, guidance and wisdom every day.
How can women better position themselves for success both in general and in your specific area of focus? I always encourage women to raise their hand and step up when an opportunity presents itself. Whether it’s taking a big risk that you know will benefit the client or challenging the status quo when you see a better solution, you need to lean in.
What, in particular, can women bring to the table as the industry continues to grapple with and come out of the COVID-19 crisis? My advice is to lead with empathy and put yourself in others’ shoes. I believe that consensus building and ensuring each person in the room has a voice in decisions being made is one of the most important aspects of being a leader and a good team member. This is even more important as we navigate the many challenges brought by the pandemic.