Reflections on Three Decades of Architectural Recruiting

Photo by Richard Morgenstein

Photo by Richard Morgenstein

A/E/C Stories is an ongoing series of posts featuring individuals who excel in the architecture, engineering and construction industry.  Nominate someone.

Marjanne Pearson, founder of Talentstar, Inc., is one of the foremost recruiters and business strategy consultants serving the architecture and design professions. But she initially wanted to teach elementary school. After earning a degree in English/Linguistics from San Francisco State University, she realized that teaching wasn’t for her and decided to explore another career path.

“I got a job working in the office of the joint venture architects for the Bank of America headquarters building in San Francisco,” says Pearson. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven because I have always loved architecture and construction.”

The JV office was on the 20th floor of the unfinished 52-story building. The branch bank was still under construction, but the majority of the 50-person team was focused on interior design of the Bank’s offices and food facilities.

“It was absolutely fascinating,” says Pearson. “Literally, the most interesting group of people I had ever met, including people who became my role models and friends. From that point forward, I realized I wanted to continue working in architecture and design.”

Her career path has included leadership roles with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Robinson & Mills (later RMW) and The Coxe Group.

“I always say I got my MBA in design firm management in the two-plus years that I worked at SOM,” says Pearson. “I was able to learn a holistic approach to talent, leadership and organizational strategy — all necessary in successful firms. I worked with all of the partners and key people across the disciplines. I was also involved with finance, personnel and marketing, which was just emerging in the A/E industry.” From there, she joined a startup and became a partner three years later, as the firm grew from 15 to 65 people.

In 1982, Pearson left RMW to join her mentor, Weld Coxe, as a consultant with The Coxe Group. This not only exposed her to how different firms approached competitive strategy and organizational development, but also led her to recruiting as an area of specialization. “I took to recruiting like a duck to water," she says. "I loved working with architecture and design firms on talent and organizational strategies — helping them to put together the puzzle pieces to create the future they envisioned.”

With an additional five years of consulting experience, she started her own firm (initially known as Marjanne Pearson Associates), with Frank O. Gehry as her first client. Within a few years, she was working with more signature design firms as well as some of the industry’s most respected giants.

‘Reframing the Question’ 

Her consulting practice — Talentstar — is often contacted by design firm leaders who are looking for a marketing director. After delving further into the “why” of the request, Pearson has found it’s more likely that there’s a puzzle to be solved within its existing leadership. While the firm may need someone to lead the marketing effort, it’s just as likely that they need to look at their partner relationships and competitive strategy. With this knowledge, the leaders can solve the puzzle and propel the firm forward.

“That’s the kind of thing I’ve been doing for a really long time — what my partner Nancy Egan calls reframing the question. It’s not just understanding what a client wants, but what they really need to accomplish its strategic goals,” says Pearson. “That’s what I do for a living.”

Pearson recalls many inflection points throughout her career, including her willingness to embrace change and emerging technologies.

“I’ve been working virtually since 1982, before Microsoft Office and Apple Computers," she says. “I’ve worked with clients across the United States, and now around the world.”

In Asia, she currently consults with Space Matrix Group. “It’s the most tech-savvy firm that I’ve ever had exposure to," she says. "Over the past three years, their hospitality company — BLINK Design Group — has become the premier design firm specializing in integrated services for the luxury hospitality market globally. With multiple international studios, they work across a platform of digital technology and resources. It’s amazing to see what digitally enabled teamwork can accomplish.”

An active writer, speaker and teacher, Pearson has also served as an instructor in the Executive Education Program of the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Learn more about Talentstar’s expertise.