The Future of HKS: A Conversation with Our New Leadership Team

Celebrating its 85th anniversary, global design firm HKS recently announced a new joint leadership team. Dan Noble, longtime President & CEO, transitioned to the role of CEO & Chairman to focus on strategy and organizational culture. Sam Mudro, who served as CFO for 10 years, was elevated to President & CFO to oversee strategic implementation and operational performance.

Over the last decade, Noble and Mudro have formed a unique bond, achieving a partnership they say has a strong balance of “left brain and right brain thinking.” Together, they are charting a course to ensure HKS can continue to advance its position as an industry-leading architecture and design firm.  

Here, Noble and Mudro share more details about the transition, their partnership, and their shared vision for the future of HKS.

Let’s start by talking about the new structural changes within HKS leadership. Dan, what are the primary driving factors behind splitting the President and CEO roles into two positions?

Dan Noble: As HKS has grown, we realized that we needed to revisit our reporting and communication structure. We are a sector-driven matrix organization that implements our projects via 29 office locations in regions around the world — what we call our geographies. We have been putting more emphasis on the sector-specific design criteria for projects and not enough on design innovation and the implementation of our work. In our research, we found that it was common for organizations to split the roles of President and CEO when they want to focus heavily on strategy and vision and have an equal focus on implementation, accountability, and results.

I am personally passionate about strategy, vision, organizational culture and design. Knowing that, the firm’s leaders asked ourselves: who in our firm has the best handle on implementation, the financial picture, and how strategy can translate into business fundamentals? There was a clear answer, and that was Sam.

Sam, can you characterize what “implementation and getting things done” means? Why is it important to have somebody in the President role who can really focus on that?

Sam Mudro: It comes down to a couple of things. One, from an enterprise perspective, we want to streamline our operations to better support our business. For example, we are rethinking the role of the office and aligning our real estate strategy, design, and workforce policies. Our recently redesigned Atlanta office is one example of how we are leveraging our own research on the future of work, looking at our policies through a JEDI lens, and rethinking our offices and real estate strategy. On the one hand, it’s about better business—but the end goal is to achieve better design results.

As our practices and geographies have grown, so has the complexity of our firm. It’s important for HKS to get a more cohesive and connected lens across our enterprise teams.

Second, it’s human nature that when you lead something you want to grow it. The way that our firm is designed, our strategy is set by our practices, such as Health, Hospitality, and Sports & Entertainment. How we implement that strategy is really driven by connecting our geographies. The splitting of the roles allows focus on strategy and implementation, to ensure we’re executing according to our plan.

Dan Noble: I’ll add a historical note to this because I think it illustrates how our organizational culture is all about iterating and improving how we work. For many years, when HKS was based solely in Dallas, we had designers and production staff separated on different floors. Over the years, we organized ourselves differently, combining design and implementation in clusters and then in studios, which led to our sector-based strategy as we grew globally.

An unintended consequence of that was that the pendulum swung too far — we became too focused on sectors and practices and didn’t put enough emphasis on cross pollination and our offices, which is really where things happen, where projects get done. We want to bring that pendulum back into the middle, to find equilibrium. It was a sort of an obvious idea that we need a President to be leading how we navigate that.

Talk about your working relationship. What makes your partnership effective?

Sam Mudro: I didn’t come to HKS 10 years ago with many years of experience as a CFO, and HKS was the first architecture firm I worked at. Dan took a chance on me. He’s taken many risks in his time as CEO to help transform the firm and that’s endeared me to him and his leadership style. He’s not afraid to say we need to change, to do better and not settle. It’s not easy to be the leader that is always striving to do better.

Dan’s been engaged in thinking about the direction of the profession, and where the firm’s headed, for 40 years. That gives me tremendous confidence. The things that I don’t have a lot of insight into, Dan does have insight into, so being a partner to him feels like a good fit.

Dan Noble: Everybody who has met Sam knows that he’s very likable, approachable and patient. What struck me initially when I met him was that he didn’t give me the impression he wanted to just come in and fix things. He gave me the impression he wanted to absorb and learn, but he also wasn’t shy about giving input. When you get into leadership positions, you tend to encounter people that just want to be echo chambers, and he’s not ever been that.

I also just enjoy talking with Sam. If we stumble across ideas that we find compelling, we’ll share them and learn together. To receive conceptual, strategic ideas that seem counterintuitive to being efficient and profit-minded from your CFO is a gift, and it’s unusual. Long ago, my mind started to plant a seed that this person could do a lot more for HKS, and I thought we could be good partners in pushing the firm forward in a way that is visionary but accountable.

Sam, how will you transform the role of President to enhance HKS’ success?

Sam Mudro: HKS is a very destination-driven firm, in a sense. We make plans to get from one place to the next, help each other along the way, and keep pushing once we get there. We give our people freedom to find their own paths as needed. I think there’s a lot of value in that from a leadership perspective.

I am going to work to make sure we all understand what our best and highest value is to the firm. I plan to help strengthen the governance structure and create role clarity. I know it may seem counterintuitive to say so, but I think more clarity of structure will free us and allow us to be more creative.

How would you both describe your vision for the future of HKS? What are some ways you will guide HKS to achieve that vision?

Sam Mudro: When I think about the future of HKS, I want us to be a well-run organization and I want us to be a firm that leads the industry in innovation, creativity and solutions for our clients. We need to avoid being myopically focused on any one aspect of what matters. I say that because if we focus too much on profitability, it’ll kill our innovation. If we focus too much on innovation, it’ll kill our profitability. It’s a fine balancing act and dance that must occur. The future, to me, is how we impact our profession, through our clients and projects.

Dan Noble: For 40 years, we’ve had incremental changes within the design industry. We’ve basically had a fee-for-service type of relationship with our clients. A good portion of the fees we’re paid comes from the implementation side of our work. I believe that in the future those things are going to be automated. Machine learning and AI are going to help us put together buildings in a different, more efficient way. It’s already happening and we’re already a part of that transformation at HKS.

So, after all these incremental changes, we’re experiencing this revolutionary change, this quantum leap. This is why our vision statement includes the notion of limitless thinking. The future of design will not just be about how we put spaces together, it will also be about research, exploration and open-minded thinking.

For example, in 2022, HKS collaborated with the Center for BrainHealth for a six-month study involving 200 participating employees. The study evaluated current brain health and provided strategies to enhance cognitive function. It also explored the impact of office environments, workplace policies, and technology on brain health. Results influenced HKS workplace design and led to engagements such as advising clients, co-hosting and participating in the United Nations Science Summit on Brain Capital, and consulting with AARP.

We think we’ll shift from being a commoditized firm to being an ideas firm. Design practice will continue to transform rapidly, so we must think more innovatively and not lament the fact that things aren’t the way they used to be.

When I think about the future of HKS, I want us to be a well-run organization and I want us to be a firm that leads the industry in innovation, creativity and solutions for our clients. We need to avoid being myopically focused on any one aspect of what matters.

How does this shift correspond to the concept of “future proofing” our firm?

Sam Mudro: When we say future proof, we’re talking about where we think the industry’s going and how HKS can be a leader in the industry. Talent — our people — is what’s going to make that come to life. Future proofing our business means elevating the way we communicate with our clients and integrating more diverse solutions into all our work globally — whether that’s advisory services, research, artificial intelligence or other areas that could impact our business. We will also continue to elevate our design quality, while keeping focused on the things that we’re good at such as implementation, documentation and project delivery. Finally, we are committed to advancing Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) in the industry, which we know is imperative for a strong business and this transition will empower us to do that in a more intentional way.

How will this leadership structure help us create more meaningful outcomes for our clients and our partners?

Dan Noble: None of this would be happening if we didn’t feel it was a thing that our clients needed, and in the future, what they will want. There’s a value proposition for us to move more away from the realm of service and commodity and into the realm of value and partnership. We believe that what our clients and partners will want in the future will continue to rely more heavily on problem solving and creative thinking. We think one of our biggest allies in this will be technology and how we team with AI and machine learning to push forward and advance our thinking in a quicker way. By utilizing technology, we can be of better service to our clients. There’s a market for it. There’s a demand for it.

Sam Mudro: I agree, and to do that as efficiently as possible, we need the people that are leading those areas of our business to be able to focus. By creating more clarity in our structure and roles, we will connect as a leadership team to solve problems together and ultimately, instill a bigger value proposition with our clients.

Dan Noble: You could say it in a single word: relevance.

Lastly, in what ways is HKS — an 85-year-old legacy design firm — setting an example for other firms in our industry?

Dan Noble: HKS has always had an interest in innovation. What that looks like has changed through the years and what that’s going to look like tomorrow will be different. As an industry, we’re going to witness the most rapid changes that we’ve ever experienced. I truly believe nobody innovates like us. We’re setting ourselves up to innovate in more meaningful ways for our firm, our clients, the industry, and society as a whole.

We recently announced designs for The Arena in Diriyah. As part of in Saudi Arabia’s vision for cultural and economic growth, this technologically advanced venue, located in Riyadh’s Diriyah neighborhood, reflects the area’s geology and culture. It aims to connect residents and visitors with Nadji culture and architectural heritage. It’s also unique in that it had a digital master plan that will incorporate digital elements of the façade, art installations, and the interior video boards, which are mobile. Technology and architecture are becoming ever more interconnected, as evidenced here.

Sam Mudro: Yes,and if we think intellectual curiosity is the currency of the future, then we need to be intentional about how we empower people to be intellectually curious. That has to be driven by everything we do in the firm, and that’s how we set an example. We should always strive for more. I have great confidence that the firm can achieve the vision we are laying out, and we just won’t settle for good enough.

This article originally appeared in ARCHITECT magazine online.