Managing principal at GGLO (Seattle, WA), a firm that believes it’s both the opportunity and responsibility of design to inspire the best aspects of community.
By Liisa Andreassen
The people at GGLO strive to design places where their clients’ clients prosper. Their approach is focused on improving the relationship between people and place. Bradley, who also leads GGLO’s Hospitality Practice, has extensive experience in mixed-use multifamily and urban design projects and works. He ensures that GGLO’s architects, interior designers, landscape architects, and urban designers work across scales and project types to create holistic neighborhoods, blocks, buildings, and public spaces.
“From the conception of the firm, GGLO has been focused on providing a future for all of its employees,” Bradley says. “The founding owners were proactive about creating an ownership transition that allowed for this to happen. They started early and we continue with that tradition as we search out young talent that can take the firm into the future.”
A conversation with James Bradley.
The Zweig Letter: Your online bio states that your fascination with the emotional impact structures and spaces can have on individuals has motivated your work. Where do you think this fascination stems from? What first got you interested in creating spaces?
James Bradley: As a kid, I was always fascinated with houses that were being built in my neighborhood. After the workers left, my friends and I would spend hours exploring these houses, their spaces, and the structures that created them. Over the years, this nostalgic memory fused with my understanding that we are all bound by one constant – our connection with shelter. And it’s this connection that creates many emotions, some that we can describe, some that we can’t. It’s kind of exciting to think about.
TZL: How do you anticipate COVID-19 permanently impacting your firm’s policy on telecommuting?
JB: Prior to the pandemic, we had a flexible work environment that allowed for individuals to work remotely or telecommute when the need was there. This flexibility has always been important to GGLO as we value a strong work-life balance. What the pandemic taught us was how to do it better. We invested in a lot of new technologies that allowed staff to connect more seamlessly. There was a particular focus on collaboration tools that allowed our design process to flourish while we were not together. The discussion now is around the right balance between in-office and out-of-office work. We acknowledge that our work benefits from being together so that incidental interactions happen. These interactions support new ideas, quality assurance, and mentoring.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
JB: My career and my family have been intertwined since the start. I met my wife in graduate school as she is a designer too. We are connected through design, and we find that a lot of “free” time is spent on activities that involve design, searching for Russell Wright pieces, or the constant renovation and work on our house. And, we’re now seeing that our daughter is catching the “design bug” too. Design is a 24-hour life for us which gives us the ability to relate to each other’s issues as we advance through our careers.
TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?
JB: When I started out in my career, I didn’t start out to be a leader; I started out to be an architect. That’s still very much part of my being. I look for innovative solutions for a particular problem. It’s safe to say that this same mentality has found its way into my leadership capabilities. I strive to understand a particular situation and then find an elegant and efficient direction to proceed. I believe that collaboration is the key to success here, and I recognize that I don’t have all the answers. I like to foster an environment that allows individuals to participate in the discussion with the goal of finding common ground. But I also believe that I have a good sense about when the group needs leadership to move to the next level and I’m not afraid to provide that leadership. Also, it’s difficult to talk about leadership without talking about being inspiring. I’m not necessarily a “cheerleader,” but I inspire by being a role model.
TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?
JB: Yes, and it’s been working quite well. The financial benefit we gain allows us to dive deeper into our strategic initiatives. For example, we’re working to make significant reductions in the carbon footprint on all of our projects. This credit allows us to invest in tools and additional time to further respond to this critical need.
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?
JB: I was very lucky to find GGLO because from the conception of the firm, it has been focused on providing a future for all of its employees. The founding owners were proactive about creating an ownership transition that allowed for this to happen. They started early and we continue with that tradition as we search out young talent that can take the firm into the future. Just last year, we brought on five new owners and we’re excited by their ability to do this. We strive to always have a balance between owners who are investing in and owners who are divesting out. There is a lot of energy in this dynamic that we strive on to do better work. To avoid the pitfall is easy: Start early.
TZL: According to the “Design Process” statement on your website, GGLO “works to transform an environment in ways that enhance its beauty and support the well-being of people and planet.” Can you provide a recent example that touches on all points here?
JB: At GGLO, we believe that we are at our best when we think outside the perceived boundaries of a project. We dive deep into understanding how a project, no matter its size, can be a catalyst for something bigger. Our work at Northgate Mall in Seattle is a great example of this. Our efforts transformed a quintessential shopping mall into a vibrant multi-use neighborhood. And, as planned, we’re starting to see how adjacent developments and neighborhoods are thinking about how to make connections to our development for a more walkable, transit-oriented area.
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?
JB: We take project management very seriously. We’ve created a number of learning opportunities to support PMs. We have in-house training that is led by our financial director as well as key principals. We also look to outside seminars and training for our PMs. Combining these with our PM roundtable allows information to be shared among the group and we pay particular attention to the PM tools we use to be more effective. We have invested heavily in project management software that gives PMs access to information they need. Finally, our in-house recruiter is constantly looking for new PM talent to help with being understaffed and over worked.
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?
JB: We have not dipped into the 20s yet, but we do have principals in their 30s. Experience is very important for a principal. Most of your time is spent negotiating situations, while at the same time providing a sense of inspiration. It seems like it would be hard to do that with just a few years of experience. We look for individuals who bring passion and energy to their efforts, and we don’t necessarily look at the “book of business” someone brings to the firm. We recognize that our firm’s success is built on being attentive to a variety of aspects of our work and all of these aspects need principal level leadership.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?