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HOK’s Eli Hoisington Discusses Leadership and Design on As Built Podcast

The chat between host Brian Jones and Eli Hoisington, HOK’s co-CEO and design principal of the St. Louis studio, focused on Hoisington’s career path, as well as the importance of design, mentorship and sustainability at HOK.

Listen to the full episode on As Built’s website or read highlights from the discussion below.

On his career path and view of leadership

I’ve been fortunate in my time at HOK, which has been 20 years. I started working as a project architect with a focus on one type of building, and then I transitioned into design after getting to know some people in HOK’s New York studio. I was asked to take on a leadership in our St. Louis office and now in a firm-wide position as co-CEO.

I’ve had the chance to do a little bit of everything, from technical, field work and construction administration and design on my own, to working with teams, and transitioning into management. That breadth of experience, combined with working across multiple geographies, gives me a chance to look at anything that comes into the CEO job through different filters.

When I encounter a challenge, I think, ‘How would I tackle that for a young project architect, a designer or a marketer?’ That really helps me having played all those roles at HOK to tackle challenges with an open mindset.

On nurturing and promoting design at HOK

We take a two-step approach to promoting design at HOK through tactics and strategic thinking. For tactics, we have a design board that covers every geography and office. We host emerging talent summits that identify the next generation of architects, designers, engineers and planners to connect and discuss design. We also hold internal design competitions to foster conversations and theoretical design ideas.

The last piece tactically is the autonomy we create for our studio leaders. If design is predicated on a singular voice, you don’t get the benefit of a collaborative and creative design process. We want the design leaders around the firm to have their autonomy.

Strategically, the company is built around interdisciplinary design. It inherently creates better and more thoughtful design solutions for our clients and communities. You bring all these different voices together, and it can create this wonderful environment where you challenge preconceptions.

On the importance of mentorship

HOK believes strongly in mentorship. We have champions who believe in it, and they’ve put a lot of structure into it. We now have a firm-wide mentorship program that came about during COVID when we learned that geographies didn’t really matter. We were forced to figure out how to work in a different and remote way. What’s come from that are things like our firm-wide mentorship. It’s fantastic, and you are no longer confined to your studio or your immediate circle. This layers on top of one-on-one mentorship we do in each of the studios. We also support high school outreach and college partnerships.

On the role of technology in design

Technology is massively important. It has expanded and plays a huge role in what we do…For me, technology is a cautionary tale. It can be seductive as an end to itself. There are so many powerful advancements in technology—from virtual reality, which we were early adopters, to augmented reality and now AI. You start to get an understanding of what its possibilities are, and it feels as though it can be a great solution to just about anything. But each technology has its own set of rules. If you’re not careful, you can start to have an output—like your design ideas, your process—driven by the technology itself versus by you and what you’re trying to solve.

I think it’s amazing that we use different technologies, and we invest heavily in research to find out how to use them. But I would caution not be too seduced by it. Have the tool be defined by your output and not the other way around.

On balancing project work with leadership responsibilities

I believe fully that if I’m going to be successful as a CEO of a design practice, I need to be close to the work. I’ve really limited what I involve myself in where I didn’t have to before [becoming co-CEO]. [I also balance it by] having a co-CEO. I can’t thank Susan [Klumpp Williams] enough. We are yin and yang, which makes us work so well together.

I also have a group of folks within my local studio who are enormously talented, and we’ve sought out more people who are going to be able to do the [project] work. I love it, but frankly, it’s their time now. It’s their chance.

On sustainability

Sustainability has always been core to who we are. We wrote the book, literally a guidebook on sustainable design, as this was becoming a dominant part of the profession…Thankfully, modern building codes are starting to push ahead. [Sustainable design] is becoming good practice and the norm now, so the question really is ‘What’s next?’

At HOK, we’re spending more and more time on deep green engineering and resilient [design] strategies. Energy and water conservation are incredibly important, but I don’t think we’ve defined what it means to be resilient. Sustainability isn’t just about how we reduce our footprint, which is important. It’s how do we weather these new [climate] events we’re dealing with?

Wellness and equity are hugely important as part of a sustainable strategy. Being well and healthy and having the ability to be a part of the communities and buildings we work in—we can affect that through design.

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