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Bora Architects: Listening Their Way to 60 Years of Innovation

By Theresa Torseth, President and Managing Partner, Human Securities Executive Search

BORA is an architecture firm based in Portland, OR best known for designing creative learning spaces. This conversation with Principal Amy Donohue focused on the human factors of their business and practice.

Theresa Torseth
Amy, you’ve been a Principal with Bora since 2007, yet you were previously on the client side. How did you come to join the firm?

Amy Donohue
I was working at Nike when we hired Bora for a project in Miami. I enjoyed the process of working with the firm so much that I left Nike.

There was definitely something about working with Bora as a client that struck me. The values of collaboration and openness and constantly looking at the problem from different vantage points was very, very attractive to me. There was and is a great deal of investigation that happens here at Bora that I appreciate. I love being part of it.

Theresa Torseth
When you came into the firm, which cultural elements did you consciously decide to either enhance or bring?

Amy Donohue
When I first joined Bora, we were biased toward the exterior of buildings. The exterior was everything, and the interior followed along. We have greatly increased the diversity of voices since then. From a cultural standpoint, I think of us now as having a team of architects and interior designers who work together from the start, designing inside and outside together.

At the time, there was a group of us who were interested in a more holistic inside/outside process that included the architect and the interior designer, graphic designer and engineers. We wanted to maximize all of those voices at the table, and one way of doing that is making sure that they’re all there at the beginning.

We’re a very close-knit group now in the way we approach the work and think about it. It makes for a better product. Our interiors, in particular, have dramatically improved over the last two decades.

We think of ourselves as a family and try to hold onto our best and most talented people even through tricky financial times

Theresa Torseth
Bora was founded in 1958 and is thriving. What is the ‘magic formula’ that has sustained your firm through its history?

A couple of things. We have one office. We have looked a number of times at expanding into other cities, yet we’ve always decided we wanted to have one big design conversation and one very tight culture. We work well together in the design studio in Portland, and then we move out into the world and become deeply embedded with our clients in their locale. We haven’t really stretched ourselves too thin.

We also invest in our people. We think of ourselves as a family and try to hold onto our best and most talented people even through tricky financial times. To make sure that our people are supported and feel creatively challenged, we make conscious decisions about which projects to chase and what kind of work to do. And several years ago, we created a Paid Family Leave policy. As a result, we have a pretty incredible retention rate.

Theresa Torseth
How did you arrive at the decision to create a Paid Family Leave policy?

Amy Donohue
We had an employee who was about to become a single mother. Some of her colleagues came to us asking, ‘Can I donate my paid time off because she’s getting ready to leave and she doesn’t have any other source of income?’ Our CFO and I dove in and began researching the business case for a Paid Family Leave policy. When we came back to the Principals with all the information, it was an easy decision.

Theresa Torseth
It sounds like you’ve been able to make not only the human case for it but the financial case as well.

Amy Donohue
Absolutely! You know these statistics better than I do, but it costs 1 ½ – 2 ½ times the salary to replace someone. By the time you retrain that person in the software, and the way that we like to do things, and you get them up to speed on the project, and you’ve introduced them to the client, and they’ve established the relationship with the client that the previous person had—it’s a lot of cost and time and energy.

It’s very disruptive when someone leaves, and it’s well worth the expenditure to make sure we keep our people. It has also communicated to our staff that we are here to support you when you need it.

Theresa Torseth
When Bora was founded, many of the Schools of Architecture didn’t admit women into their programs. Clearly, the mindset of the industry has changed since then. How has Bora’s mindset changed over the years with regards to what it means to be an employer?

Amy Donohue
We think that diverse voices at the table make for a better solution to any design problem, and we’re always trying to consider other points of view. So, we’ve tried to hire a very diverse group of people.

We have a pretty high percentage of female architects. Currently two of our six Principals are women. Our Associate Principal group is about evenly split between women and men. So, we have a pretty high number of women who are practicing at leadership levels.

As a whole, architecture is not a very diverse practice profession. We are beginning to apply some pressure on schools of architecture to be more welcoming and do more outreach to various communities that are supremely underrepresented in our profession.

Theresa Torseth
The firm has generational diversity. Bora employs people from four generational groups: Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and now Gen Z. As a leader, how do you work with the different motivators for each group to enhance their benefit to your firm and to maximize their individual potential?

Amy Donohue
Part of it is being a good listener. I spend a great deal of time, honestly, going to coffee with a lot of the people in the office, checking in, asking ‘How’s your project going? What would you like to work on next? Can we match your skill set or what you’d like to learn with your next assignment?’ It’s constantly keeping your fingers on the pulse.

I also think good ideas come from all directions. We don’t have a top-down mentality here. Anyone on the team is welcome and invited to bring ideas to the table, and we make sure we’re listening to those ideas. Ours are more roundtable discussions, yet there’s also a lot of guidance and effort put toward giving people opportunities.

People here feel like they have a voice in their career and in what they come here to do every day.

Theresa Torseth
Bora has developed quite a reputation for designing educational spaces that help people to learn and to collaborate. The Global Innovation Exchange at the University of Washington is a great example. In the process, what’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about how adults learn?

Amy Donohue
There are some core principles of interaction that are universal, and they are so simple. People exchange ideas better when they see each other. And people learn by doing and getting feedback. But it’s amazing to me that our education spaces have gone away from those basic principles over the years.

In our work, we have designed university learning spaces more like campfire circles. It’s about a conversation. It’s not about the old model where content was delivered from one end of the room.

The idea of active learning is being talked about a lot now. I’m always surprised that is hasn’t been that way all along. We have been using active learning in architecture schools since the beginning. That was my entire education. I was in a studio; I was making models; I was showing my work to my professor and getting critiqued. It was never about a lecture or delivery of information. And I love that style of learning.

Some of those core fundamental principles of human interaction are timeless, and if we return to those that are quite simple, we can make really good spaces for adults to learn and innovate.

Theresa Torseth
In your hiring process, how do you discover if a person really possesses attributes like ‘learner’ and ‘innovator,’ or if s/he simply speaks well about them during the interview process?

Amy Donohue
I’m always interested to know the things that the person enjoys doing outside of her area of practice. There’s a lot of getting to know the person through a series of interviews.

Part of it is just trying to connect as humans and understand and listen. I’m always very interested in the questions that they have of me and about the practice. Similar to the way that we work with our employees, an interview is a conversation at the table. I’m just as delighted to learn what they have done in the past and what makes them interesting, and what they’re interested in as in their resume. I’m looking for some basics: do they make eye contact, can they hold a conversation, do you have a sense of humor—things like that.

Theresa Torseth
You can’t find the answers to those things in a keyword search! Do you have a favorite interview question?

Amy Donohue
I’m always, always interested to know what people are reading. It says a lot about a person’s interest in understanding the world. It’s about being curious. We have a whole group of curious learners here.

Theresa Torseth
Looking forward now, what’s the single biggest human factor that you believe will impact the future success or failure Bora?

Amy Donohue
We need to make sure that we’re listening at a very deep level to our client base. We can have a lot of impact with audiences that we have not yet reached. Homelessness, for example, is a terrible problem in all of the West Coast cities. As a firm, we’re trying to understand how we can use our skills and design thinking and our sense of responsibility to our city to help solve that problem.

In order to do that, we have to rethink the way that we typically would go about a project, then be very open to different perspectives. We will have to be open to letting what people need be the basis for the design in a very meaningful way.

So, it’s just ever sharpening our listening skills and making sure that we’re really hearing what people are looking for.

Theresa Torseth
It’s the holiday season—the time of year that promises to grant wishes. What’s your wish for the new year?

Amy Donohue
In the new year, I’d love to grow the practice to include some radical new thinkers. People who come to the table and help us to get sharper and better and to amplify our stories. Not to make us different, but to make us better.

We need to make sure that we’re listening at a very deep level to our client base. We can have a lot of impact with audiences that we have not yet reached

Theresa Torseth
If your wish comes true, you might be able to help make some movement towards solving the homeless problem you mentioned.

Amy Donohue
Yes, yes exactly!

Theresa Torseth
Here’s to wishes granted—and to your continued success!

About the Author

Managing Partner of Human Securities Executive Search, clients repeatedly turn to Theresa Torseth for her rigorous hiring process, revealing interviewing and astute assessment of the nuances of people.

By applying these attributes to both the candidates and her clients, she gets to know the organizations she works with—their structure, results they need to produce, and the specific weave of the human interactions. In the end, it’s her genuine curiosity and caring that make a difference.

Theresa has led over 300 recruitment searches for executives in commercial real estate and accounting & finance. Over 90 percent of Human Securities assignments come from referrals or repeat clients.