CEO of Chipman Design Architecture, a third-generation, family-owned firm based in Chicago, Illinois.
By Liisa Andreassen
With a background in design and the performing arts, Chipman brings a unique perspective to her position. Her entrepreneurial vision continues to bring a fresh, unconventional direction to the architecture and design firm, and she is a champion of community-based arts and design outreach.
“I am accountable to my team members to ensure that they are well-trained and set-up for success,” Chipman says. “I am accountable to our clients to ensure that we are making them successful in their growth, and I am accountable to our leadership to continue to inspire them to lead to greater heights.”
A conversation with Lauren Chipman.
The Zweig Letter: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
Lauren Chipman: I think it’s incredibly important to have long-reaching SMART goals that are incorporated into daily tasks. No matter your role in the company, it’s easy to get stuck in “blinder-mode” where you keep answering the never-ending string of emails, the daily interruptions of someone popping into your office, and the conference calls.
I plan my day the night before, leaving an open window at the start of the day to work on long-term projects, on the business, and the future that it holds for all of us. I have found that this planning not only allows my day to start focused (despite the beautiful chaos that may follow), but allows me to clear my head before sleep.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
LC: As a third-generation, family-owned firm, there is no separation! Celebrating our 40th anniversary this year, I’ve been reflecting on what family means as well as what it means to “grow up” in the business. My parents joined my grandfather in Chicago and started the architecture firm in earnest in 1979. For a long time, it was just the two of them working together with a handful of employees until growth took off in the early ‘90s.
They would come home from work every day and we would talk about our days around the dinner table, which always ended in talk about work. This history allows me to have a holistic view of the industry and how we can most successfully run our business, from architectural and design expertise to the personnel items that pepper the week. Even though my parents are no longer involved in the daily operations, my brother, Kyle, and I are proud to carry on the firm’s legacy.
TZL: What, if anything, are you doing to protect your firm from a potential economic slowdown in the future?
LC: Our firm is well-known across the restaurant and retail sectors, growing brands nationally while providing architectural expertise. In the last decade, we have focused on becoming known for our design expertise as well, in addition to growing smaller brands and providing the infrastructure stability and process development they may not internally have on staff.
We are continuing to diversify across sectors, successfully developing hotels, multi-family residential properties, and senior living communities. Cross-training our team members and making sure they are well-rounded allows us to be prepared to respond quickly and be an agile company in the next recession.
TZL: What novel approaches are you bringing to recruitment, and how are your brand and differentiators performing in the talent wars?
LC: We pride ourselves on a flexible workplace and the ability to truly reach a work/life balance in an industry that has historically consisted of late nights and weekends in the office. With flex hours, summer hours, and investment in a mobile workflow, we invest heavily in our company culture to create an atmosphere of appreciation and transparency. We are proud to cater in hot breakfast every Monday morning, provide free yoga instruction Friday morning, and host four to five events every month, including athletic leagues, wine and cheese socials, and the always popular National Pickle Day! We believe that an environment where our team members feel valued is an environment in which they will thrive.
TZL: Is change management a topic regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.
LC: I am honored to be able to work with my brother, Kyle, who is our process manager. You have never met a man more adept at leading and communicating change management. Working with team members one-on-one as well as addressing holistic challenges on a firm-wide level, Kyle finds solutions through custom-developed platforms for addressing every facet of our business, from our QA/QC process, project scheduling, accounting set-ups, and tracking the passage of time as well as developing tools for our clients to streamline their internal processes. He has spoken on panels and written white papers for such CDA-implemented platforms including Smartsheet, Bluebeam, and Miro.
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?
LC: In growing our team members and the accounts on which they work, we have created numerous training and mentorship programs including CDAcademy (monthly, targeted training sessions for every level of team member), Lessons Learned (catered lunch series in which leadership presents pertinent information from recent projects), as well as my monthly series, Lunch with Lauren (sharing project information from around the office, discussing current design trends, or even just bringing in a meditation instructor to impart stress-relieving methods). We believe that together we are stronger, and structure our talent training to cumulatively leverage the shared knowledge across the country.
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?
LC: A principal is the one position in our firm for which there is no job description, because no two principals are alike. All of our leadership members have a unique skill set that makes them indispensable to the firm, however a number of things set them apart: design and/or architectural expertise, leadership and mentorship excellence, and the innate ability to problem solve. I believe that time develops these skills, but that development happens at different rates for everyone, so there is not a minimum age for being named a principal. As a CEO/principal in her 30s, I know that I still have that ability to continue to grow, but I am buoyed by my strong leadership team.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
LC: Accountability. I am accountable to my team members to ensure that they are well-trained and set-up for success, I am accountable to our clients to ensure that we are making them successful in their growth, and I am accountable to our leadership to continue to inspire them to lead to greater heights.
TZL: What happens to the firm if you leave tomorrow?
LC: My voice carries and I love to walk around the office and catch-up with my team members, so the office would probably be a lot quieter.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion is lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
LC: I am proud to say we are a diverse team across the spectrum of gender, sexual orientation, religion, and race – it’s something that we truly celebrate. I believe that empathy can be informed by diversity. By engaging with someone different from you on a daily basis, we are able to become better listeners, better mentors, and better designers.