Using Leadership Development to Activate Growth with Lawrence Armstrong at Ware Malcomb

There are many levers to pull to create growth in your company. One essential strategy is using leadership development programs. When you develop influential leaders, you have more connections and drive within the culture. Using leadership development is one of the most profound ways to ensure growth. Today’s guest is Lawrence Armstrong, Chairman of the Board at Ware Malcomb. This company was ranked #4442 on the 2019 Inc 5000 list. Ware Malcomb is a residential and commercial design company. Lawrence shares how using leadership development has activated growth in their company. Discover the mistakes they made in their journey of using leadership development.

Don't miss an episode. Subscribe to Growth Think Tank.

Target Audience: Lawrence Armstrong is the Chairman of Ware Malcomb, a leading international design firm, an accomplished architect and a business leader. Strategic, visionary approach to the company’s management and growth. Strong design ability and focus on creativity and innovation. 2008 Winner of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Orange County/Desert Cities Region, and a national finalist.

Share the LOVE and TWEET about this episode.


Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Lawrence Armstrong
It was really identifying the best possible people and giving them sort of empowering them to go do their best. Teaching them, guiding them, coaching them to be able to perform at the top of their game. And, you know, that really, I think sunk in with me at an early, early time and his journey, you know, and it’s been great. We’ve put some very specific practices in place with our leaders to be able to help them.

Intro [0:31]
Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs of the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My name is Gene Hammett. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett [0:49]
Do you think about growth in your company, you may think about the strategies that you have to employ to get to where you’re going. Maybe it’s about servicing customers, market shares new products, maybe it’s buying another company. But one of the things that I’ve seen is most important for companies that want to grow fast, continue that growth is using leadership development across the board, to engage their employees, to be better leaders, and to connect better to really think about what it means to lead others and develop them. And today, we have a special guest. Lawrence Armstrong is the chairman of the board of Ware Malcomb and their design for residential commercial businesses, they do a lot of engineering work as well, and really had a great conversation with him today about what it took for them to grow into over 100 million dollar company, over 25 locations, over 600 employees. He said the core answer was using leadership development as a way to not only enhance the work that they did but also to develop the people. I want to talk about that today in this episode. It’s a very special one because leadership development is something I’ve been working on inside this company. You don’t know we are a coaching company. But we also develop leaders, we have a program called the leadership on-ramp. If you want to find out more information about that specific program. Make sure you go to you’ll find out some details about what it takes to create a leadership development program that is world-class, what you need to do next as a leader, and all of it is absolutely free. Now, here’s the interview with Lawrence.

Gene Hammett [2:29]
Lawrence, how are you?

Lawrence Armstrong [2:31]
I’m doing awesome. How are you doing?

Gene Hammett [2:33]
Fantastic. excited to have you on the podcast here. You know, you’ve had a long journey with Ware Malcomb but I want you to take our audience into just a little bit of background. Tell us about Ware Malcomb and what you guys do.

Lawrence Armstrong [2:47]
So we’re a Southern California based architecture, interior design, civil engineering, and branding firm. So design firm, based here in Irvine, California, we have 25 offices across North America, and we service the commercial and corporate real estate industry.

Gene Hammett [3:08]
Love it. Well, you’ve grown really fast over the years, you’ve over 100 million in revenue, I’m sure you’ve continued to grow since those numbers reported 2019 over 600 employees, what do you what are you most proud of besides the growth of the company?

Lawrence Armstrong [3:26]
So I think really, the diversification and development of our team, you know, and the ability to grow sort of our leadership team throughout the company, and really give people opportunities to grow their career here. You know, we’re obviously we, We service all sorts of companies and clients. And, you know, we learn a lot from the clients we service, you know, they’re in all kinds of different businesses. And so we’ve really learned a lot from all of them. And it’s given our people a really great platform to grow. I think.

Gene Hammett [4:07]
Well, it sounds like you believe in investing in employees. That’s a part of that the whole growth formula for you? Why is leadership in development important to the continued growth of the company?

Lawrence Armstrong [4:19]
Well, so you know, any of us I think that our leaders understand you can’t do it alone. You have to build a fantastic team to make your product, your club, your company, go and be able to service your clients. So very early in my career, I was given the opportunity by our founders to a go open an office and then be part of you know, the leadership team that took over the company and purchase the company. And I was very young and we were a Southern California based company back then. And so it was such an amazing opportunity that I was given. That I, you know, we decided really to try to create as many of those opportunities for people as we can. So that was kind of the idea is our clients, we were commercial real estate experts. That’s, that’s basically who we are. And so we set ourselves apart in the design industry based on sort of that idea. So what happened was clients ask us, and continue to ask us to go to different places to open offices to service them. And so as we did that, we began to give existing team members opportunities to go and move to a different city, perhaps, or take on a leadership position and growing office. And, you know, some the combination of those two things is what fueled our growth clients asking us to go places and assist them. And then which created an opportunity for us to promote people and help them to grow their careers, and experience a leadership opportunity?

Gene Hammett [6:09]
Aren’t What do you think are, you know, one of the biggest mistakes that companies are making when they’re they are investing in leaders and leadership development?

Lawrence Armstrong [6:17]
I think, Well, we’ve certainly made our share mistakes. And I think over time, we’ve, we’ve learned that you know, people that are practitioners in any field, I’m sure, but particularly in the design field, you know, are great at their craft, or technical and design and artistic ability. But when people begin to lead people, that’s a different job, right. And so, we learned over time, we had to spend a lot of time with our people training them to be able to do that. And so we’ve created, you know, over time, we’ve put a lot of pieces in place here. To create what I like to call kind of a leadership academy, you know, we sort of learned this, I learned a lot from Jack Welch and people like that, and what he was able to do at GE and creating a leadership sort of Academy were produced so many leaders, business leaders that went out into the world, and grew up in his company in a way that really emulated that idea here.

Gene Hammett [7:26]
Well, we’ve had a guy named Frank Blake, who is a former CEO of Home Depot. on our show, before he was a mentor, and also worked under Jack Welch. He talked a lot about that. Is there one core principle in the Jack Welch thinking of leadership that kind of drives you?

Lawrence Armstrong [7:49]
Yeah, it was really identifying the best possible people, and giving them sort of empowering them to go do their best, teaching them, guiding them, coaching them, to be able to perform at their top of their game. And, you know, that really, I think, sunk in with me at an early, early time in this journey, you know, and it’s been great. We’ve put some very specific practices in place with our leaders to be able to help them.

Gene Hammett [8:24]
What are some of those practices that you feel like have moved the needle? Because I know we sometimes we try things, and they all work out. But what are the one or two that stand out?

Lawrence Armstrong [8:32]
Yeah, so I, you know, these are, this isn’t rocket science, but I, you know, we are very well connected. And we continue to be as a company, culturally, from a leadership standpoint, I use a metaphor here called fleet of ships. So the idea is that we’re not a big giant ocean liner, that takes a lot of time to change and turn and adapt. We’re a fleet of smaller ships, so that we can turn and adapt quickly. But that means we all have to be going in the same direction, at all times. So we stay very connected, we have monthly business calls with each off each one of our offices and group leaders to go over everything from new opportunities and business development and, and operations and financials and HR issues and all that sort of thing. We have leadership meetings three times a year, where we bring all the leaders from all around the company together at one time to go over important topics and, and share information so that we can stay as connected and stay a fleet of ships as much as we possibly can.

Commercial [9:47]
Hold on for a second. Lawrence just said, well connected as something that he thinks about within the organization, the culture of the people. How often do you think about how connected the people are and their ability to collaborate together? To communicate, well, a lot of leaders disregard that little touchy-feely kind of things inside of leadership, they want to get the work done. They want to measure the metrics, they want more sales, or revenue, whatever it is, they never take the time to really think about being connected. So here’s my call to action to you think about what would it take for you and your organization to feel more connected? It’s a really big question. But something that you will see comes up with really amazing opportunities for you as a company to grow. Back to the interview.

Gene Hammett [10:35]
When I talked to Frank Blake about one of the core principles, they have his core values, his entrepreneurial thinking has that kind of made its way into the way you guys develop people to get them to kind of think like their own CEOs.

Lawrence Armstrong [10:50]
The big toe, absolutely, each office leader is really empowered to do that. And again, we have, we have certain, you know, core principles that we want to each leader to achieve. But we have a platform, and we’ve developed our platform of services over a period of time and diversified them so that we were more resilient in downturns. And so everything from building out their org chart to writing a strategic plan every year, to diversifying their service offerings in line with the platform that our company offers. All of those sorts of things on the entrepreneurship and business development piece is very, very important and critical to the, to the growth of each one of our offices in our company.

Gene Hammett [11:39]
What is that entrepreneurship means to you? I was talking to a group of leaders the other day, and I asked them, you know, you know, we want people to feel empowered in behind this, but what does it feel like when people truly think like leaders? Who what, what do you think that word is?

Lawrence Armstrong [11:54]
I think, is freedom. You know, I think that, or a company that, you know, sort of mix it, I think we found a good mix of sort of top-down leadership and bottom-up input in and expression. And so I think, you know, understanding what our company is and wants to be. And then the freedom to go build that in a community, every community we work in is a little bit different. So it’s not a cookie-cutter kind of a thing. Our leaders, you know, are given sort of parameters to work in, but then it’s up to them to go build. And I think, you know, the building with sort of freedom, I think, is really kind of what drives us. Collaboration is huge in our company. You know, we, we try to be very connected, we try to show our clients, we’re unique in that way. So our offices are not competing with each other, they’re collaborating with each other, and they share work with each other. We have a lot of accounts that are national in nature, we work for the fortune 500, and we work for national development companies. And we share that work across the platform, no matter who is in charge of an L or were killed might be centered, we’d really try to maximize our, our footprint, I guess, in the ability to serve as a client across the country.

Commercial [13:32]
Hold on, Lawrence just talked about the feeling of freedom. Now, I don’t know what the feeling is for you. But it is a big question. If you had more people around the organization taking ownership of their work, how would you feel? Would you feel relief? Would you feel freedom? No matter what it is, I guarantee you you got a smile on your face thinking and imagining what it would be like to have people truly take control of their projects, take ownership of the client experience driving growth, and all because they knew that’s what they were supposed to be doing not because they had to because it was a part of their identity. And this is what I’ve been talking about for years on this podcast, I wanted to bring a spotlight to it today because you may feel freedom, you may feel relief, it may be something else, but undoubtedly you have a smile on your face back to the interview with Lawrence.

Gene Hammett [14:28]
I know we talked about mistakes earlier, but is there a mistake that kind of stands out in your mind where you had to shift revolve your perspective of leadership?

Lawrence Armstrong [14:39]
You know, I always say we learn everything in recessions and downturns, you know. And, you know, our industry, the whole construction industry, the design, and construction industry is certainly vulnerable, in the cyclical right to economic swings and so on. I think that over time, you know, we’ve attempt we’ve probably been in previous downturns late to try to diversify. Right. And so it hurt us we, we get smashed, we used to get smashed during recessions, recession’s, you know, we got a lot smaller, but we’re always chasing the buildings downward. And then, you know, we rebound, we, we try to build in some more diversity patients, and I think we’ve been through enough of these ups and downs now that I think we’ve gotten a lot better at that. I think the other thing is we, we learned that to, you know, to keep the company healthy, you have to act fast, and face the facts when you’re on a downturn. And I think, you know, in the past, he can make sort of the mistake of holding on too many people too long. Because it’s hard, it’s hard to get smaller, hard to lay people off, you know, extremely hard. But, you know, one of the things we’ve learned is, if you want to save the company, for the long term, you have to make those tough decisions, and you have to make them early. And so you know, we’ve fought very hard to diversify our company so that we’d be less vulnerable. But we’ve also, I think, one of the things we’ve tried to teach across our platform is, you have to face facts, too. And you have to face them early. Otherwise, you’re just losing, you know, losing money. And you can’t afford to do that when you’re a for-profit enterprise. Right, so.

Gene Hammett [16:46]
I’m gonna read between. I want to read between the lines here, Lawrence, I know, you’ve probably made some changes like that, through this, you know, COVID experience, you would tell me, you’re just this is the first day back in that office this week, after months of us, I guess, working from home, is that right?

Lawrence Armstrong [17:03]
Yes, our whole company shifted 600 people shifted two and a half months ago, or however, on to work from home. And so that’s been a very challenging time, as you can imagine, for everybody and including our company. However, I think we were very well set up for it. We have a diverse client base, our people are very committed and smart. We had already been experimenting for some years at rotating people in and out and some work from home scenarios, to keep our real estate footprint kind of tight and in check. And so when this came, we were well used to working from home, not the whole company, but at least our IT department was and you know, some of our staff was, and we you know, we bulked up our cloud capability. And you know, when, for a company like ours, we use very robust software to you know, 3d, you know, BIM software, and now to execute design on our building. So it needs a lot of power. And, you know, we’ve really, our company’s done, you know, our people have done an awesome job during this downturn, producing great work. And as we transitioned back into the offices, I think we’re back into 10 of the offices now, as of today. We got, you know, 15 to go. But, you know, it’s been, it’s been, I would say, very smooth.

Gene Hammett [18:39]
I know a lot of companies have had to adjust things that they go on in their culture, and how people stay connected. When you think about the future of your organization. And I don’t really want to go technical here, I want to kind of go with that leadership development standpoint, what will be new, as you come out of this new change?

Lawrence Armstrong [19:00]
Yeah, so I think one new thing is that our leaders have learned how to communicate, I mean, obviously, everybody’s adapted to zoom meetings and Microsoft team meeting. But, you know, beyond that, staying connected to Team teammates, and people in your team and across teams and all that sort of thing. You know, I think we’ve gotten we’ve learned a lot, gotten a lot better at it. And so now, teams that really were doubtful about, well, can we have some people work at home and some people in the office, I think, no, all those arguments are gone. Right? I mean, that’s over. Well, I think everybody knows now, that if some of our teammates are, are more comfortable working from home for a while, it’s totally fine. You know, we’ve had others that just can’t wait to get back to the office and get a little more human contact, you know, so I would say it’s about from what I can see. Maybe it’s fair 50 you know, right, it’s a little heavier towards coming to the office. But, um, you know, it’s also, for some of our teams that are in a very traffic-heavy place like LA, it’s way more efficient, right? You know, you don’t have to drive five miles, that takes you 45 minutes to go to see a client, you can do this over zoom in, right, and you do your meeting, and you go, and you do your work. So, you know, that’s been a very interesting thing that I think was gonna stick a little bit.

Gene Hammett [20:39]
I want to wind up our talk today, Lawrence, with a question that hopefully, you’ve got an answer to. But, you know, people inside of leadership is a very intangible kind of metric to measure. Is there anything you’ve put in place, as you’re developing these leaders, you’ve got your leadership academy, that you can share with how you measure that intangible aspect of people.

Lawrence Armstrong [21:02]
Yeah, so you’re right. It’s not I would boil down to culture, I think, you know, we have a very, very specific culture here, where Malcolm, and it’s a mix of a lot of the things I’ve talked about, you know, there are the metrics that you can measure leaders performance on, but it’s also how effective they are at leading people, how effective are they working with their colleagues, other leaders across the platform? How much do they really get our culture? Are they embracing the culture of the company? And, you know, those are definitely intangibles you know, and so it’s just sort of a feel you have and you know, really we base a lot of it about how, how, how much are they supported by their colleagues, you know, in this culture? And I think that if they are, then they normally do quite well. And if they get are we kind of like sit, we usually say things like, well, if they get us to forget what the platform’s about, they usually do great. If they usually if they want to come in here and work, as I’ve always worked somewhere else usually doesn’t work so well.

Gene Hammett [22:19]
Is that because of the level of collaboration and what you expect to people taking ownership of their work and whatnot, is just different than it is elsewhere?

Lawrence Armstrong [22:29]
And we believe so yes. And of course, I’ve never worked anywhere else for a long time. But you know, we get a lot of input from a lot of our people, let’s say that, you know, we’ve been able to achieve a cool mix of people who have come up through the company like me and a lot of others, and young people that have been promoted. And we’ve added some senior people into the team, in different markets and different groups. And those that sort of get the concepts that I was talking about, do really well. So it’s a cool mix of people. But I mean, we’ve also made mistakes, we’ve had people that come in and they just don’t get us and you know, they’re probably better. Some working somewhere else, you know?

Gene Hammett [23:16]
Well, Lawrence, thank you so much for being here part of the show, sharing your wisdom and insight.

Lawrence Armstrong [23:21]
Absolutely. Thanks for the opportunity. great talking to you.

Gene Hammett [23:24]
I hope you enjoyed that episode here at Growth Think Tank, we really want to cultivate the best interviews for you, as a leader of a fast-growth company, as someone who wants to activate others to take ownership. Our job is to create content that allows you to grow as a leader. I really love what I do, because I work with leaders that are in the defining moments of their own leadership. They know that there’s something else that they’re meant to do. They’re not sure how to do it, they need to get more clear about it. But also, they’ve got to show up at a different level. Maybe they have to let go of something. They don’t even know what it is. I sell this because this is what I do for a living.

Gene Hammett [24:00]
I love working with leaders who want to continue to grow and to work with their teams that want to grow beyond where they are today. Make sure you check out all the resources at and the podcast interviews at as always the brokerage we’ll see you next time

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

GTT Featuring Lawrence Armstrong



And lastly, please leave a rating and review for the Growth Think Tank on iTunes (or Stitcher) – it will help us in many ways, but it also inspires us to keep doing what we are doing here. Thank you in advance!

If you want more from us check out more interviews:

Transformational Leadership Productivity Tips Best Selling Author Interviews