So many CEOs talk about their firms being "one big family" that it's become the stuff of platitude. Likewise, any start-up VC will tell you that "breaking down silos" and promoting horizontal accountability--"data over eminence"--is the most productive way to organize teams.

Yet you wouldn't think there's been a CEO that's embraced both principles since the Johnson administration--until you've heard from Art Gensler.

The founder of Gensler, an architecture and design company that began in 1965 as a 3-person start-up with $200 in its coffers, Art Gensler has grown his business into the largest of its type in the world, with 46 locations and nearly 4,000 employees.

And despite knowing nothing in the beginning about running a business--like so many founders, billing and payroll were mysteries before he signed up for classes to figure it out--Gensler gravitated to a belief system: One firm, no stars, and all the money goes into one pot. The opposite of hierarchy, and the diminution of ego.

The "Constellation of Stars" System

"Instead of a star system where the person with the name on the door gets all the money, we created what we call a 'constellation of stars,'" says the 80-year-old Gensler, currently promoting his first book, Art's Principles. "I believe a successful firm needs everybody, from the receptionist to the office assistants to IT, communications, HR and accounting. We're all one big family and it's evolved and keeps evolving."

This "family values" system extends to the following:

Payment: If a job is won and completed by the London office, for example, all 45 other locations share equally in the profit. "Otherwise it limits firm-wide collaboration," says Gensler.

Subjective bonuses: There are varying opinions about bonuses. For Gensler, it's not about an algorithm. "We literally talk about and review all of our employees [during bonus time]," says Gensler. "It could take 2 days of us saying things like, 'Joe Smith, the receptionist in Houston, we really like the way he handles the phones and gets me what I need.' And then we give him a great bonus. It encourages people to talk up their colleagues."

Monday morning call--with all 46 locations. "From Shanghai to Seattle, every one of our 46 locations is represented in that call," says Gensler, who says that it lasts an hour and 40 minutes. "It's great because there are 5 or 6 clients that 7 or 8 offices are working with at the same time on different projects. So it's good for integration as well as a way of generating referral work. With everyone equally incentivized, it gets everyone sharing contacts and status updates."

Family-think: "If we have x number of employees, we have to generate enough revenue to pay that number times 12," he says. "These are people that are surviving off the paychecks we can provide. We think of it as a family that we have to take care of. It's a different philosophy than the 10 top dogs making all the money."

Published on: Apr 29, 2015