November 14, 2014 | Source:

Francis Oda — Mastering the art of leadership

An executive with a lifetime of leadership behind him, Francis Oda was the judges’ choice for PBN’s 2014 Business Leadership Hawaii Business Leader of the Year.

His blended leadership style — practical business executive plus creative designer — drew praise from his peers in the business community in letters supporting his nomination:

Mitch D’Olier, chair of Kaneohe Ranch Management Ltd., called Oda “a business leader who has been one of the driving forces behind the growth of Group 70 International into one of Hawaii’s most important architectural firms.”

Art Ushijima, president and CEO of The Queen’s Medical Center, said “Francis and Group 70 have helped us envision our campus master plan for the generational redesign of health care for the future,” in ways that extend beyond the technical and into the personal and spiritual dimensions of healing.

Both aspects that describe Oda were in full force this year when he led Group 70 International to victory over 76 international competitors for the job of designing the Tahiti Mahana Beach Resorts and Spa, a $3 billion project. The potential design fee of $210 million is the single largest contract the firm has landed, roughly 10 times its typical annual billings.

Oda is also hard at work on two projects in Indonesia as well as projects here at home. For example, he designed Iolani School’s new Sullivan Center for Innovation and Leadership, which opened last year as a model of sustainability.

Oda spoke with PBN about his approach to leadership, design and life, and four key insights emerged as to why he is our Business Leader of the Year.

One, he still actively designs buildings. How many chairmen of 100-person businesses still perform the frontline duties at the core of their operations?

“It’s critical to design while leading the firm,” he told PBN. “You cannot lead a business you remember from long ago. To succeed, one has to be engrossed in the current creativity of the business, and its future realities. Unless you’re actually doing it, how would you know? In my mind, architecture is a hands-on business. The great pleasure is in design, not managing the business.”

Two, as the Tahiti project demonstrates, he is directly involved in growing Group 70’s business, taking it to new heights. To put it plainly — closing deals. When we describe it to him that way, Oda laughs.

“In [architecture] school, if you said the word ‘sales’ it would be anathema — yet, that’s what it is,” he said. “The best salespeople are so enthusiastic they are compelling — it’s the power to compel people to act in a way you want them to act, the ability to understand what the person’s dreams and visions are and how to fashion something that would address these in creative, fresh ways, whether in the design or in a business deal.”

When it comes to something as big as the Tahiti project, one has to be “a practical dreamer.” There are a complex mix of community desires, politics, entitlements, and more. Many audiences need to be sold on a community-size project.

“[But] I’m not trying to get someone to buy something,” Oda said. “I’m trying to get someone to join in something.”

Three, he never stops learning. He received his Bachelor of Architecture degree from Cornell University in 1964 and his Doctorate of Architecture from the University of Hawaii Manoa in 2000. It was UH that brought Oda home in the first place, enticing him from Berkeley, California, where he was in private practice, in 1970.

“This was during the riots and my wife and I really wanted to come back to Hawaii to start a family,” he said.

He taught at UH for two years and served as the university system’s in-house architect for campus planning. Then he signed on as a 50 percent owner with Gus Ishihara, who had already formed Group 70.

The firm, founded in 1971, was going its own way with its business model, and the name reflected that. Like law firms, architecture firms were typically named for their partners.

“We were the anti-hero architects,” Oda explained, hence the decision to refer to themselves simply as a group. The firm has grown — it totaled seven people when Oda joined and now has 16 partners and 100 staff — but the business model remains unique. Oda describes it as “independence and total dependency, with the partners operating within their own areas of expertise but relying on everyone else to make it whole.”

Like Oda, the firm itself is always learning.

“We’re going through a process right now in which we’re trying to reinvent ourselves,” he said. “While we’ve won plenty of awards and contributed to the community, we wanted to reassess our position in terms of future work, in terms of what might be appropriate locally, internationally. We’re trying to create the kind of company that doesn’t exist right now — we don’t know what to call it.”

Four, he keeps it real. A senior pastor with New Life Church Honolulu, Oda says his door — his office door — is always open to those from his congregation in need of counseling.

“I look at my day as not bifurcated [between the practice and the church] but one flow,” he explained. “I meet with CEOs and people just getting out of prison, the homeless and hotel developers. [In both communities] people need to be optimistic. They need to hear exciting answers to troubling questions, and the answers have to be practical.”

“I grew up in Kalihi-Palama,” he added. “That community is as much a reality as Kahala. To embrace that range of reality is essential for leadership. For architects like us — and at Group 70, we design whole cities — it’s important to embrace that reality.”

What can business leaders do to foster a business climate where new industries and companies can grow in Hawaii? One direct way is to leverage the resources you have to create new companies in new areas. Group 70 has incubated new businesses outside our normal professional business lines, such as a manufacturing company for custom-designed furnishing made in Indonesia, Vietnam and China; a lead generation solar company based on GIS technology; and a company that optimized the location and planning of sustainable communities through a computer-generated model, developed with Lockheed Martin.

How can business leaders promote greater diversity at the top levels of leadership? Leaders need to be intentional about this. At Group 70, we consciously hire for gender, racial and cultural diversity. This creates a base. Then, leaders must simply let talent express itself and support it with appropriate positions of authority. The more organic the process is, the more it will be supported and embraced by all in the organization. At Group 70, many years ago, we selected Sheryl Seaman to be our president and chief operating officer. She was the first woman president of an architectural firm in Hawaii, and an enterprising local reporter discovered that Group 70 was the largest firm in the U.S. with a woman president.

Read full article here.