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HOK’s Susan Klumpp Williams: “Always a New Challenge Around the Corner”

Susan Klumpp Williams

Susan Klumpp Williams, AIA, LEED AP, juggles several roles at HOK. She is the managing principal of the Washington, D.C., and Atlanta offices, chair of HOK’s management and managing principals boards, and a member of the firm’s operations committee. In May 2017, HOK announced that Susan had been elected to its executive committee, which leads the firm’s overall business strategy and operations.

Susan, who joined HOK in 1985, has led a wide variety of complex projects across the U.S. and overseas.

Here’s some insight into her leadership approach and how she manages it all.

Creating a ‘win’ for our clients is as important as creating a ‘win’ for HOK. On every project I try to put myself in the client’s place to understand what they need for a successful outcome. I then work to help them achieve their goals while delivering the best possible design solution.

Architecture is a team sport. What I enjoy most about all of my roles is working with great people—our clients and staff. You are only as successful as the people you work with, and I have collaborated with some terrific clients and HOK teams over the past three decades. My approach to leadership involves giving every team member the opportunity to develop their skills to their greatest potential while providing the framework for that to happen.

I’m currently working on a 3 million-sq.-ft. mixed-use project in Doha, Qatar. We have been the prime architect for Msheireb Downtown Doha Phase 4 since 2011, so it’s exciting to see the project move into construction. The project includes 14 buildings above grade situated above one of the world’s largest underground parking garages and service networks. It also includes the flagship metro station for a new transit system in Doha being readied for 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The 74-story ADNOC headquarters in Abu Dhabi is a new supertall building that recently opened and just received LEED Gold certification. Our team delivered an elegant, classic design while integrating the advanced building systems that support the tower to create a timeless, highly sustainable tower. Because of the size and scope, we needed to coordinate HOK teams in Dubai and Toronto as well as domestic and international consultants. Working collaboratively across multiple time zones and countries presents challenges, but we have gotten very good at this at HOK. But what did we do before WebEx was created?

To me, a project is successful when the owner and the people occupying that built environment really enjoy being there. One achievement I’m particularly proud of is the Washington Nationals MLB ballpark, which opened in 2008. Attending opening day at the ballpark and seeing 41,000 happy fans cheering in a space that our team helped create was a moment I’ll never forget. We had the idea to try for LEED certification even though the budget was a fixed guaranteed maximum price. We were thrilled—and a bit surprised, to be honest—to achieve LEED Silver certification. The project became the nation’s first major professional sports venue to achieve LEED certification. It was wonderful to see so many people come together to make this certification happen.

Every day is completely different, with each one presenting new challenges. Even after working here for nearly 32 years, I never know what the day will bring—whether it’s traveling to Doha to deal with a client issue, mentoring a young architect or being interviewed by a journalist. The unpredictability keeps things interesting.

Challenges for women in our profession include developing the strong leadership skills required to establish ourselves in the field. My path was to work harder than my male counterparts to succeed. I welcomed leadership roles on large ‘supertanker’ projects, something that would not have happened without the support of an advocate at HOK. The first time I was a project manager, at age 33, was for the U.S. Embassy Moscow Chancery that HOK had recently won. Our concept was to create a design symbolizing the open relationship between the American and Russian people. Now that I am in a leadership role, I seek to mentor younger women in the profession to give them opportunities similar to those I had.

For the last 15 years, I have been focused on delivering projects in the Middle East. I’m frequently asked what it’s like to be a woman working in this region. While this has been challenging and I have often found myself to be the only woman in a room full of men, I have also found talented women on the other side of the table. The leadership skills we bring are gaining respect.

Firms are missing out on a huge talent pool if they do not celebrate and promote diversity. As a profession, we need to provide more opportunities for diversity in leadership. HOK’s Diversity Advisory Council has been doing a great job helping to raise awareness across our firm while providing concrete metrics on where we are improving in our efforts toward true inclusiveness. We need advocates who are willing to promote talented individuals to ensure their abilities are recognized.

Career advice I would give to young architects would be to never give up. It can be difficult and tedious in the beginning when you are learning about architecture and how to put buildings together But, if you persevere, it gets infinitely more interesting as time goes on and you pick up more responsibilities, including client interface.

I always told myself that when my work was no longer challenging, I would leave HOK. That has not happened. There is always another great challenge around the corner and HOK has such a fabulous variety of great clients and projects.

My favorite D.C. activity is riding bikes to the National Mall to visit the wealth of treasures here—the museums. This has become an experience for our whole family to enjoy. My husband and I recently took a ride to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was one of the most moving museums I have visited.

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