Case Study: Gensler

46 offices (co-CEOs based in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles)
5,000 Employees
Two CEOs, one is a woman; board of directors—40 percent women; office leaders—37 percent women
An Inclusive Culture
Leadership Training

Gensler, the world’s largest design firm, has a strong track record of promoting women to senior-level leadership.

The spirit of partnership is driven from the top of the firm and with many of the offices led by two-person teams. Andy Cohen, co-CEO, explains how this leadership model reflects the firm’s overall philosophy: “We all have ‘aces’ and ‘spaces,’ and we prefer a co-leadership model because we find we get better results by pairing leaders with complementary strengths.”

Founded in 1965, the firm prides itself on being not just the world’s largest but also the most collaborative design firm and offers multiple opportunities for advancement, including studio and practice area leadership. There are more than 100 individual studios throughout the firm’s 46 offices, which provide ample leadership opportunities. The leaders of the firm’s 31 practice areas become experts in various product niches, with different levels of leadership at each career stage.

The commitment to collaboration goes beyond lip service. All office leaders coordinate globally through a weekly call, and the incentive pay program is structured to share revenue across the firm, further reinforcing collaboration and shared goals across different offices. Furthermore, employees participate as owners in the firm through the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). The firm is 100 percent employee-owned.

Innovation is encouraged by research grants provided to those seeking funding to explore new ideas. These grants have funded everything from the creation of the model shop leveraging the use of three-dimensional printers to the founding of a new practice area focused on health and wellness.

“We have a welcoming environment for innovation. If you can make a strong case, you will get a ‘yes,’ ” Cohen says.

Diane Hoskins, co-CEO, explains that learning and growth are encouraged at every career stage. “We see ourselves as a constellation of stars,” says Hoskins. “We want each person to find his or her unique place.”

Gensler’s Leadership Programs

Rather than taking a women-specific approach to development, Gensler has consistently taken an approach that welcomes top performers across all aspects of diversity into professional development programs. This approach has resulted in promoting a significant number of women.

“Women are attracted to Gensler because of our strong reputation in the field for advancing women. In many ways, this fueled the explosive growth of the firm in the ’80s and ’90s,” says Cohen.

The professional development programs are geared to providing leadership development at different career stages. These programs are tightly tied to the Gensler culture of collaboration and ownership and support the development of a strong internal network of connections across the “big G,” as employees fondly refer to the global firm.

The Gensler programs go far beyond the classroom and build relationships and skills that strengthen the firm’s culture and ultimately lead to leadership opportunities for those who represent all dimensions of diversity. They reflect the types of development programs we recommend in our WLI Research.

Janine Pesci, director of global talent, leads a team that is dedicated to creating professional development programs for the firm’s 5,000 employees. Pesci’s work was recognized by Chief Learning Officer Magazine, which awarded Genlser the Gold Medal for Global Learning in October 2015. “We measure return on strategy versus return on investment,” explains Pesci. “We are looking for shifts in behavior—stepping into new opportunities, self-sufficiency, and leveraging the network.” Examples of a few programs that her team has created include the following:

  • gConnect—Participants are high-potential future leaders with fewer than 7 years of experience. The focus of the program is on business development.
  • Emerge—Participants are high-potential future leaders with at least one year of experience. The focus of the program is on client relationships.
  • NextGen—NextGen is part of the Gensler University (GU) curricula. GU was founded in 1990 as a platform for leadership development. Since then, more than 300 people have participated in GU. The NextGen program targets those with seven to 12 years of experience and is focused on building leadership skills.
  • Global Leaders—Global Leaders is also part of GU. The program targets those with 13 to 25 years of experience and is held in four different emerging markets each year.


Joe Brancato, regional managing principal, launched gConnect in New York City in 1999 to help young practitioners learn valuable business development skills. The 12-month program is now offered in many offices across the firm. Participants meet twice a month to hone leadership and business development skills.

Amanda Carroll, a senior associate who leads a New York–based studio and is a Practice Area Leader for Technology, says that “gConnect helps us differentiate ourselves in a crowded marketplace. As they take part in the program, design professionals become comfortable with actively engaging in business development.”

Participants learn more about trends in select industries and examine what is shifting in the industry spaces of their clients. A hallmark of the program is combining a high degree of challenge and support. “gConnect begins to ignite the ‘fire in the belly’ of each participant. Once they take a risk in the program, they can do it again with clients,” says Carroll.

The current gConnect class in New York is made up of 50 percent men and 50 percent women, while last year it was 70 percent women and 30 percent men. The strongest candidates from each studio are chosen for the opportunity, regardless of gender or other dimensions of diversity.


The Emerge program is designed to train, develop, and mentor future client relationship leaders.

“We wanted to come up with a sustainable way to deepen our bench of client relationship leaders around the firm,” says Jared Krieger, a senior associate and NextGen graduate who helped create the Emerge program during his NextGen class. “At the cornerstone of Gensler’s success are our clients. As our clients’ leadership shifts and grows, so must ours.”

During the yearlong program, seasoned client account leaders (mentors) are paired with emerging account leaders (mentees) within their same studio. The mentor guides the mentee through on-the-job client interactions, observing and coaching him or her to develop successful client management, relationship building, and communication skills.

Mentees are exposed to guest speakers, client panel discussions, and classroom sessions on topics such as public speaking, financials, management philosophy, and account strategy. They are also asked to respond to requests for proposals (RFPs), do fee projections, and pitch to real clients in mock interviews. Aside from these exercises, “Most importantly, it’s what happens outside the classroom that has the most impact,” Krieger says. “It’s the impromptu client meetings and lunches where the most significant exposure occurs.”


The NextGen program facilitates career development for young professionals to advance their skills and accelerate their emergence as leaders. As a program offered under the GU umbrella, NextGen participants are selected via a competitive application process.

The six-month program is project-based, with six-person teams working together. “The program took me way beyond my office, and I instantly had great relationships with colleagues and was able to connect with teachers, mentors, and friends,” says Krieger.

One of the members of the inaugural class in 2012, Carroll found that each of the three weekly face-to-face sessions offered over a year in a different city helped her hone new skills. “Each project is presented to the co-CEOs, and our group formed a close bond, often gathering the weekend prior to the training, as we worked together,” says Carroll.

The project that Krieger’s team worked on, Emerge, and the project that Carroll’s team worked on, G-Venture, were both adopted by the firm, demonstrating the high value and relevance of projects that are the focus of NextGen.

Women are attracted to Gensler because of our strong reputation in the field for advancing women. In many ways, this fueled the explosive growth of the firm in the ’80s and ’90s,

Global Leaders

The Global Leaders program explores what it means to be a leader within a global firm. Like NextGen, the Global Leaders program is part of Gensler University and selects participants via a competitive application process. Participants are seasoned professionals with 13 to 25 years of experience.

The six-month program focuses on addressing specific opportunities within four
different emerging markets each year, including one week spent in market. The 2014 class was held in Bangalore, India; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Calgary, Canada; and Birmingham, England.

Whitley Wood, senior associate, took part in the India program and found working in that country extremely eye-opening. “I learned invaluable lessons as we explored difficult scenarios with a team of six ‘type A’ individuals to complete our project to present to the board.” The perspective she gained on doing business in India gave her much greater appreciation for the challenges that her clients face when working in that country. She had an opportunity to propose work in India for one of her clients almost as soon as she returned to her home office in Charlotte, North Carolina, and found that her perspective was much more grounded in reality.

Beyond Leadership Development Programs

In addition to the four leadership programs, the firm delivers on its values by bringing philanthropic efforts under one umbrella—gServe. All philanthropy is coordinated through this umbrella organization and offices select hands-on projects where they contribute while working together.

Three times each year “super meetings” are held, bringing together leaders from across the firm to focus on studio and practice topics. These leaders provide a key forum for the internal network to continue to strengthen, driving Gensler’s collaborative, client-focused culture.

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