They are the founder and principal of McKinney York Architects (Austin, TX), a certified HUB and WBE that creates beautiful, responsible architecture in a culture of collaboration.
By Liisa Andreassen
Having just completed a six-year ownership transition, Heather McKinney, founder of McKinney York Architects, has handed over the reins to Michelle Rossomando, the firm’s new president. McKinney has stepped away from the day-to-day firm management to focus more on design, mentorship, client interaction and community engagement. Here, we’ve interviewed both women as they requested to tag team the column to further illustrate the successful transition.
“Both of us love to design and hope to inspire everyone at McKinney York Architects to work like they remember why they wanted to become architects in the first place,” McKinney says.
A conversation with Heather McKinney and Michelle Rossomando.
The Zweig Letter: Your website highlights the importance of collaboration. Can you provide an example that illustrates how the power of successful collaboration can lead to exceptional project success?
Rossomando: On our recently completed project, the Austin Shelter for Women and Children, we successfully collaborated with the City of Austin Health and Human Services, Travis County, and the Salvation Army to renovate and expand a historic building and transform it to a place of respite and assistance for women and children experiencing homelessness. Located in a natural setting in East Austin, this project provides crucial expanded bed capacity and fosters healing and growth. The collaboration included participation in the Art in Public Places that incorporated whimsical art by Virginia Fleck into a nature play-focused playground shaded by a magnificent live oak. Working with the artist, the landscape architect, and the client, the collaboration produced a unique outdoor space for the children to enjoy every day.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
Rossomando: Each of the business owners spends approximately half of their time working on architectural projects and the other half working on leadership responsibilities. At the principal level, working on architectural projects includes business development to bring in the work, or make the relationships with clients that result in being awarded a project. Leadership responsibilities are shared and are divided up among the business owners in the following categories: business administration, strategic planning, human resources, workload management, marketing, project management effectiveness, production, and information technology.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
Rossomando: Last year we developed a new strategic plan that includes a firm statement and implementation goals for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. We’re committed to an equitable practice based on empathy, transparency, education, collaboration, and trust. Historically, our firm has always been at least 51 percent woman-owned. We have the highest number of licensed women architects for architecture firms based in Austin and are the largest women-owned architecture firm.
But we believe unless you are being intentionally inclusive, you are being unintentionally exclusive. Therefore, our goals include actively recruiting ethnically diverse candidates for staff positions, supporting emerging professionals and re-emerging professionals in ways that create engagement and retention for those with non-traditional work needs, encouraging participation in leadership development for women and non-white staff, and initiating JEDI training for firm leaders through national conferences or on-demand learning to address issues such as career progression, work culture, leadership development, and talent recruitment.
TZL: I see the company does some pro bono work. Can you tell me about a recent project?
Rossomando: We share a belief in the transformational power of architecture to engage people, draw communities together, and inspire. We’re always looking for ways to share our skills and resources with the larger community of Austin. With our work at Community First! Village, a 51-acre master planned sustainable development that provides affordable housing to the chronically homeless population in Central Texas, we’ve contributed design expertise and hands-on labor for two micro-houses of the 120 tiny home units built. With this pro bono work, we’re changing lives by providing homes as well as getting practical building knowledge by working with our contractor partner Bailey Elliott. The Community First! Village is in the same area of Austin as our own design office and it’s rewarding to be a good neighbor.
TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?
McKinney: Since we’ve just completed a leadership transition, you’re catching us at an interesting time to discuss different styles of leadership. Although Michelle and I have different skill sets, we’ve been able to match the right person in leadership to the right time in the firm’s evolution.
Michelle is very organized and leads with a lot of energy and a dash of humor. She’s an expert project manager and takes the time to carefully train people using the many tools available in the office to efficiently and consistently execute their work. As the leader of the firm since the beginning of 2020, she has a practical handle on the state of the business and makes decisions for the wellbeing of the firm in an unflappable manner that instills trust.
I am an intuitive leader who has learned to seek consensus and to share the fun parts of being an architect. I established the core values of the firm including the importance of listening and collaboration. Since founding the firm, I’ve been inspirational in shaping its design voice and cultivating a successful business with the building blocks needed for sustainable growth into the future.
Both of us love to design and hope to inspire everyone at McKinney York Architects to work like they remember why they wanted to become architects in the first place. Our architecture is aspirational and optimistic to create a more harmonious and sustainable world by connecting people to each other and to the world around them.
TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?
Rossomando: We take staff enrichment and leadership development seriously. All employees receive informal and formal feedback throughout the year. Informal feedback includes one-on-one “coffee chats” and project team “lessons learned” meetings to discuss daily operations issues as well as job satisfaction. Staff that are managing others on project teams or in departments are encouraged to provide feedback on a regular basis. Once a project is completed, staffing is reorganized for the next project matching up skill sets and personalities for the best outcome, which allows managers to hone their style of leadership with different staff in the office and clients and consultants outside the office. Formal reviews occur twice a year and focus on skills and competencies as well as career development.
Firm owners lead by example and staff managers are encouraged to be empathetic and mentor others by being approachable and exhibiting a firm-first approach to practice. Project managers are expected to nurture project teams and demonstrate to staff how projects are successfully managed and delivered. Project architects are expected to lead firm wide classes in technical areas, called MYU or McKinney York University, to train less experienced staff. Developing leaders are offered the opportunity to attend professional leadership and project management workshops paid for by the firm. Online resources such as emotional intelligence webinars and other continuing education classes are available to improve interpersonal skills and communication in teams. In 2018, we formalized a company policy to commit to provide a work environment free of harassment, hostility, and discrimination in any form.
TZL: The firm’s work has been recognized locally and nationally more than 40 times. Do you have a project that really stands out among those as a favorite? Why?
Rossomando: The American National Bank Building was an iconic mid-century building in downtown Austin that was vacated and in danger of being lost. Now the McGarrah Jessee Building, the exterior was renovated and McGarrah Jessee, an award-winning branding agency, was placed as the building’s primary occupant. The main goal was to capture the free-wheeling personality of the agency while respecting the original modern architecture and Knoll interiors. The design unfolds elegantly at the atrium of the piano nobile, which is rimmed with Knoll workstations and peels back to reveal a more raw space at the perimeter beyond. New openings were also punched on the western façade to provide a welcoming exterior and allow balanced interior lighting.
This project received numerous awards – but stands out in our minds because the clients really pushed us to think outside the box and explore the “unexpected” and we had so much fun. The interiors repurpose many items from the original building, including grates from the basement parking, plate glass, teak paneling, and marble slabs to finish off exposed columns. Our office actually worked together late at night to create one of the signature elements of the interiors – the “woven wall” – or custom privacy screen created from common clothes line and steel columns.
TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?
McKinney: The five leaders of the firm have been together for a minimum of 20 years and have a strong desire to move the firm forward with shared values and a smooth transition. This allowed us to speak frankly in early, informal conversations about providing ownership opportunity to future leaders and map out a plan for divestiture. We learned that it’s wise to start considering ownership transition long before you need it to be in place and to get agreement on fair and equitable terms for the changeover. Not only does this create a smoother transition with less financial stress, this allows the firm to position future leaders in the marketplace and develop their presence with clients in varied market sectors.
TZL: Research shows that PMs are overworked, understaffed, and that many firms do not have formal training programs for PMs. What is your firm doing to support its PMs?
Rossomando: Last year we developed a new strategic plan with a strong emphasis on creating organized, relaxed, and consistently profitable project delivery. All current and emerging project managers receive one-on-one mentoring and are offered the opportunity to attend a two-day project manager “bootcamp” workshop offered by AEC experts. Firm leaders created a project delivery plan that acts as a roadmap for success in project management. The plan outlines how to set up a project for success, areas to be monitored throughout the project, and steps for project completion. Communication is the key factor at all phases. Templates were created for project schedule, project budget, internal design team communication, external client communication, and project health assessment to allow project managers to be efficient and consistent in executing their work. Senior project managers lead firm wide education classes, called MYU or McKinney York University, to review project management templates and tools to train current and emerging project managers.
TZL: How many years of experience – or large enough book of business – is enough to become a principal in your firm? Are you naming principals in their 20s or 30s?
McKinney: We do not have a requirement for minimum years of experience or book of business and, yes, have named principals in their 30s. There are a number of “intangibles” that factor into being named a principal in our firm. These include having a firm-first attitude, being able to manage and inspire teams, and being able to recognize and mitigate risk. Not all our principals are “rainmakers” but each is responsible for client satisfaction and project success in select market sectors which leads to repeat work.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
McKinney: Making the tough decisions.