Drive for the best: Even though times are tough or turbulent. You can still drive to be better. It means continuing to improve even when things are pushing hard against you. When last year left us without a ton of work, we took time and addressed systems inside our business and made them better. We looked at folder structure, software and all sorts of items and spent time thinking about how we can make them better.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing David Tracz, AIA, LEED AP, Co-Founder and Principal of //3877, a multi-disciplinary architecture and design firm. Known for their hospitality projects, in addition to their private residential and multi-family portfolio, their Washington, D.C. restaurants include Succotash, The Grill, Cranes, Mi Vida, GATSBY, Mah-Ze-Dahr, and Momofuku. //3877 has also worked with hotel brands such as Hyatt, IHG, Marriott, Sheraton, and Hilton. The award-winning firm — now in its 10th year — has been featured on the Washington Business Journal’s ‘Best Places to Work’ list for three consecutive years, and in 2020, became the first Washington D.C. design firm to become B Corp Certified.
A recognized leader in the D.C. small-business community and design industry at-large, David is often a guest juror at Catholic University of America in Washington, educating students in architecture and graphic presentation. He is also a leader for neighborhood pro-bono projects. Mr. Tracz holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a bachelors of science in architecture from Catholic University of America.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
It was in the fall of 2010 that my close friend David Shove-Brown and I began the process of realizing our decade-old dream of forming a professional architecture and design partnership. David and I met in 1991 on the second day of college (Catholic University), as we were taking the same class. Then, after we graduated, we each worked at various architecture and design firms. After almost two decades of gaining our architecture and design experience working at other firms, we became eager to create our own company — a design business centered around working with clients interested in the design process, teaming up with industry partners who could help provide the highest levels of design, construction, and presentation. After months of planning and development, //3877 was born.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Well when we hired employee number one, we were all excited that we got insurance and set up a 401k program. We had everything ready to go…except that we forgot to compensate him on the first payday. Who forgets to pay someone? After that, we gave our bookkeeper a larger role and helped re-frame the way we were handling that part of the business. We have since then always focused on hiring people and consultants who can help make us better.
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?
I am so grateful for so many people (clients, mentors, consultants) in our time since we started this company. One of my favorite stories is with Stephen Perkins. I had been talking to him on a somewhat regular basis about things we needed to know about growing a business. We moved offices from a small 350 sq ft, 4th floor space on 14th street to a retail level 1,200 sq ft space in Georgetown. He came to tour the space before we went to grab lunch. He walked in and about four minutes in asked “where’s the rest? You are going to grow out of this space in no time.” We were disappointed, but also confused, we were so excited about our growth but not as confident as Stephen was. In the grand scheme of things, he was right, we moved out of that space in two years and had to buy out our space for the last year.
All of that said, I think we’ve learned from every client we’ve had. We’re always trying to mine information from them about how they run their businesses and what we can use to apply to our business.
I also want to give a shout out to a small group of North America-based architecture and design firm owners — we had gathered for the first time at the trade show, Boutique Design New York, back in 2019. Back then, we all got together to talk about the opportunities and challenges of owning and running a business. Little did we know how useful this whole group would be in less than six months’ time, during the 2020 pandemic. I can’t tell you how much I have appreciated the group. It is amazing to have a sounding board, support group, and sharing community. Having this support network is so important to be able to endure tough times.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
From the start, our goal for every project was to begin with the very simple process of asking questions and listening carefully to the answers, prioritizing the concepts of partnerships and teamwork. Our team has always been committed to providing innovative and creative designs to enhance and enrich the lives of clients, partners, and communities alike.
Flash forward to today, and we continue to prioritize this approach. In 2020, we became the first Washington, D.C. architecture and design firm to gain B Corp Certification — a private certification issued to for-profit companies that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability. We were honored to be included in this global community of B Corp-certified businesses championing the reprioritization of community and the environment over profit performance. It’s humbling to be recognized for practicing what we preach. While continuing to strive to become better each year, we’re excited to help accelerate a global culture shift that redefines success in business, helping build a more inclusive and sustainable future.
May 2021 marks 10 years since //3877’s inception. As such, we’re simultaneously reflecting on the past and looking forward to what will define //3877’s future.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I would say the past year has been the hardest year we’ve ever experienced as business owners. Having to lay people off and reorient a business in a few short weeks was a challenge I would not like to experience again. I think the key to the whole thing was being open and honest with our team. When we let people go we explained why we did that and what it was doing to help the company as a whole. When we cut salaries, we did the same, but cut ours deeper. The team knew we were in it with them.
While hospitality projects screeched to a halt, we brought the leaders in the office together and re-oriented to projects we knew were continuing. We reached out to old clients and started to look at what project types were moving. We pushed hard into residential and started to build on some tenant interiors projects. We have some great supporters in the brokerage world and they helped us get in on small projects.
It was an amazing team effort, from the top down in the office. We all knew we wanted to survive, we just had to figure out how. I think the key here was to always be honest with your team and lead from the front — know how to take control and ask people to come with you.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I think there have been times when I’ve stopped to think about what we’ve done and looked back, but I’ve never thought about stopping. I’ve gotten some great drive from my parents; they had always pushed us to improve and be better, but also made sure we had the right support. I have always enjoyed design and architecture, and running this firm has really allowed me to push that excitement to a new level. I cannot explain how amazing it is to see our people, and therefore our firm succeed! Seeing and experiencing the projects we complete makes everything worth it!
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
In order to be a highly effective leader during turbulent times, your business must be underscored by honesty and transparency. During the pandemic, my business partner and I were incredibly honest with our team. We made sure that they knew what was happening and why we were taking specific actions. Then, when we found that we had better control of the situation, we took very specific steps to make the firm better. Re-organizing systems, looking at upgraded software options, enabling people to get their licenses. If we had downtime, we wanted to make sure we were better for it!
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I’ve realized the value of ‘stepping away,’ as last year was the first time that we made vacations sacred. We told our people to work with each other to avoid contacting others while they were away. We also made a big change for the company, moving forward — introducing unlimited time off for the entire staff. I think that moving forward, this is going to be crucial in being able to re-center. Before the pandemic, we were working really hard and pushing really hard all the time. Now I see that we can be better if we push smarter — we keep our focus on the right things, and we take the time to balance our lives. We have prioritized the tools that can streamline our business while creating a better product.
I also think that our team has adopted a very strong can-do attitude. This experience cemented a community objective to being and doing better. I still have the same ambition to lead the best design firm out there, but we also want to make sure we have a good time getting there. We’ve always been focused on team development and team building. This last year has forced us to be better in the development part.
Lastly, the pandemic has definitely spurred a change in our attitude about the physical office space. While I know people will need to be in the office, I also know there will be a need to work from home. We’re going to give people a bit more flexibility. We’re not sure of the whole policy yet, but it will have a hybrid, work-from-home component. This will be an important part of our strategy in helping boost morale.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I feel pretty strongly that putting forth empathy, sympathy and honesty are key. Being open and honest helps the team to know you’re in it with them and clients know you’re going to support them the whole way through. Everyone wants to feel like you understand them and are willing to work with them. I have always said that “we’re a hospitality company” and we treat our clients and our team like they are the most important people. I will also say it is important to address things head on. We talk about pushing our team to talk with our clients as openly as possible.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Depending on the issues, it is a one day at a time approach. I think you make decisions but allow yourself flexibility. Nothing is set in stone and anything can be changed. Allowing yourself that level of freedom is key. You have to understand that long-term decisions need to be made to plan for the worst, but they can always be adjusted to hope for the best. Last year, we learned to make these decisions as quickly as possible. If you are wrong you may need to adjust, but the key is to move. DON’T WAIT.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
My business partner, David Shove-Brown and I believe that the old-school business mentality, of the ‘big boss’ that leads his team through an emotionally disconnected management style, is so outdated. We believe that leadership is about creating and maintaining a two-way street of open communication — it’s about being truthful via vulnerability. We believe that compassionate communication is also about being transparent — during these times of crisis, that includes being accountable to answering questions about business strategy and survival. This principle was crucial to helping guide our company through the ups and downs of the turbulence of 2020.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Too Much! I constantly see this, people wanting more. We’ve even done it — asking and taking on more than you should. It seems like a good idea until you’re running in circles and nothing is getting done.
- Poor Planning: Knowing and understanding when work is coming and planning for it. We have adopted a whole new approach to hiring. We interview constantly. We want to be sure that we hire the right people before we need them. That has been a major shift in philosophy. Trying to be proactive rather than being reactive.
- Slow Burn: I am a firm believer in building relationships and not selling for one time. I’ve seen too many people asking “when will you give us work?” or “why aren’t we working together?”. That may get you one job out of guilt, but it won’t get you the next one. If you spend the time and understand your client, you get to know them, they get to know you. Not only will you provide a better service, but you’ll enjoy it as well because you’ll be working with friends. What better way to spend your day?
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
In response to the pandemic specifically, I think the best piece of advice we got was just to act quickly. We had no idea what was coming, but we knew we needed to be swift and deliberate with our actions. Having gone through that time, I would repeat the same advice — cut deeper than you think you need to, so you can survive longer. All of it was difficult and uncertain, but the more you can do to regain control, even for a brief period, the better.
Similarly, during the pandemic, we’ve had to work harder to connect with clients. The screen just doesn’t give you that same connection. It has forced the team to ask more questions and get real feedback. There have been some setbacks, where clients didn’t get all they needed, but we’ve been working hard to learn from those situations. This also relates back to the technological upgrades we’ve made. We already had a laser scanner to help us document existing spaces, but we really pushed on presentations. We found new ways to show projects so that clients could clearly understand the design intent.
We tried to find the silver lining of the pandemic; the biggest opportunity we found was building our network. We didn’t sit back at all. We reached out to everyone. We knew the whole world was hurting, so just sharing some of that with our existing clients, prospective clients, and other contacts was both therapeutic and conducive to relationship-building. We really wanted to connect with everyone. I think that alone allowed us to establish new relationships, and I can see some real positivity ahead. We also looked at project types that continued to grow when the hospitality industry started to slow. The residential sector seemed to remain steady, so we continued to push into that market. We had experience in that sector, but we weren’t completely focused on that project type. Post-2020, it has continued to grow as a strong project type for our firm.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Always Find Opportunity For Growth: My outlook on life has always been underscored with cautious optimism. That attitude took a hard hit in late March/early April 2020, but as soon as we took some control and saw a path where we could survive, the more we started seeing an improvement — taking lemons and making some lemonade. We were constantly asking, what could we do that would make us better when this all turned around? That’s where many of the things I mentioned above started to come into play. We had everyone in our office develop a list of five things they thought we needed to improve upon. If people had spare time, they started to chip away at that list.
- Stop Trying to Do Everything: It’s important to really understand what you are good at, and having a very clear vision of what type of work you want to go after. In regards to our work in the architecture and design industry, our strategy wasn’t so much about trying to do everything — we decisively went after hospitality projects, knowing our place within the industry and what we could bring to that market.
- Drive for the best: Even though times are tough or turbulent. You can still drive to be better. It means continuing to improve even when things are pushing hard against you. When last year left us without a ton of work, we took time and addressed systems inside our business and made them better. We looked at folder structure, software and all sorts of items and spent time thinking about how we can make them better.
- Own it and keep moving: We all find things that don’t work. We all make mistakes. You can’t let it stop you. If it was your error, own it, then ask how you can make it better. Keep things moving, everyone will appreciate it.
- Slow down to go faster: We often see that people on our team like to show that they can get things down quickly. Many times, that means we find small errors and other items missed and the solution is only half baked. There are so many opportunities that can be found if you spend time on something and do not rush through it. It will save time in the long run.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? I’m not sure if this is a life lesson quote, but I always feel like I want to live my life in work or home just having fun. I want to do what I love and have a great time doing it. I think that has helped make the culture in our company. We are always searching for ways to make the office an experience. I mean what other company has a title “minister of fun”.
How can our readers further follow your work?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!