Ireland-raised David Spillane likes both the past and the future, kayaking in the sea, and doing whatever it takes to keep his firm nimble.
By Liisa Andreassen
Like many of his colleagues, David Spillane, president of Goody Clancy (#7 Best Firm Architecture), a 75-person architecture, planning and preservation firm, went to Boston to attend graduate school. Raised in Ireland, he arrived in Bean Town after working in Dublin and London. His roots are in architecture, but over the course of his career his practice evolved to focus on planning and urban design.
In 2000, he joined Boston-based Goody Clancy as director of planning and urban design, became a principal in 2007, and president in 2014.
“As a leader of our planning practice, my work centered on working with large groups of people to envision change, build a coalition for change, and execute change,” he says.
A conversation with Spillane.
The Zweig Letter: What are some of the most significant changes you have seen within the firm since you have been there?
David Spillane: Over the past 10 years, we’ve expanded geographically and our areas of specialization have grown deeper. We’re working nationally with colleges and universities on science and technology facilities, business schools, student life buildings, makerspaces and innovation centers, and campus plans. In our preservation practice, we have worked on more than a dozen National Historic Landmarks and are central to the federal government’s single largest project this year, the transformation of St. Elizabeths Hospital to the new headquarters for Homeland Security. Our planning practice was recognized by the American Planning Association with its National Planning Excellence Award for a Firm in 2013, a very prestigious honor.
Our organizational model has evolved, and that’s made a significant impact. We’re nimbler and better able to adapt and make better, faster decisions on issues – big and small. We used to operate entirely on a consensus-based model; today, we remain highly collaborative, but it’s my job to ensure lack of consensus does not lead to inaction and missed opportunity.
We’re also increasingly transparent within our firm about every aspect of our business. There is an immense appetite, especially among our younger staff, for information about every aspect of our work – successes, failures, good news and bad. This has been really important, and it’s unlocking a lot of energy and creativity for us.
TZL: What are your key strengths? What do you feel the key strengths are for an effective leader?
DS: I like change. I like thinking about the future. I’m a pretty good listener. I have a reasonable amount of patience. I admire excellence, in any activity, however modest. Effective leaders have an orientation to action, to take responsibility for failure, and to have the awareness and flexibility to understand what’s needed from them in a given situation.
TZL: How would you describe your leadership style?
DS: Collaborative. My sense is that when we’re all swimming in the same direction, success may not be guaranteed, but it’s far more probable.
TZL: To date, what has been your greatest challenge and how did you deal with it?
DS: The period between 2009 and 2011 was a challenging one for us as a firm. It forced us to make difficult decisions around layoffs, salary reductions, and other changes. We said goodbye to people who had made important contributions to our practice. In retrospect, we should have made some of the tougher decisions faster, which would have enabled us to recover quicker and mitigate risk for everyone. We’re an employee-owned firm and it’s now my responsibility to everyone here to make hard, but necessary decisions faster.
TZL: What’s your vision for the future of Goody Clancy?
DS: That’s the big question. It’s a conversation we’re having now. In my mind, it begins with innovation, which is such an important success factor for a mid-sized firm like ours. We currently have a teaching partnership with Roger Williams University to lead an innovation studio. It’s the research topic where our interests and our future converge.
TZL: Tell me about a recent project you are especially proud of and why.
DS: We just completed the Chao Center for Executive Education at the Harvard Business School. Our team created a building that’s a linchpin of the campus, a beautiful and comfortable place expressly designed to foster interaction and engagement, and yes, a place where innovation in business happens.
TZL: How have you helped your firm to outperform some competitors? What do you feel sets you apart?
DS: We aspire to foster a culture of continuous improvement in every aspect of our work. We understand that our success is driven by the talent and capabilities of the people we attract, develop, and retain. We want to be known as a great place to work, so we are delighted that we were recognized as a Best Firm to Work For by Zweig Group in 2016.
TZL: Is there any news you care to share about recent projects or anything else?
DS: We’ve recently begun an exciting new project for the School of Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University. We’re also working with the University of Louisville on a new academic building – the first one built there in decades – that includes a student success center. Additionally, we’re doing a major laboratory renovation at the University of Connecticut and a new business school building at U Mass Amherst. On the planning side, we are part of the Hartford Interstate 84 design team, which is the single largest infrastructure project happening right now in the United States.
TZL: Are you married? Children? Pets?
DS: Yes, to all three.
TZL: What’s one thing most people at the firm don’t know about you?
DS: Most people would be surprised to learn that I was born in Guyana and grew up in Ireland.
TZL: Do you have a favorite vacation spot?
DS: Somewhere near the water with a book.
TZL: What’s the last book you read?
DS: The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver.
TZL: What’s the best piece of work-related advice you’ve ever received?
DS: Rosabeth Moss Kantor, a professor at Harvard Business School, once wrote, “Anything worth doing looks like a mess in the middle.” I find this to be insightful, inspiring, and occasionally reassuring.
TZL: Who is a leader you admire? Why?
DS: Bill Belichick, New England Patriots. It’s a wonder to see team-building, preparation, and precision executed at such a consistently high level.
TZL: When you’re not working, what types of activities do you enjoy?
DS: I love ocean kayaking. I grew up near the ocean in Ireland and any activity in, on, or by the water is compelling to me. These days I spend summers in a kayak in Maine. It can be a battle with hypothermia and I have to avoid becoming a speed bump for lobster boats.
TZL: What’s your favorite lunch?
DS: It’s not so much a meal as a place. I enjoy sitting outside on a park bench near our office. It’s a setting that seems to encourage informal and insightful conversations.