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Weekend Interview: Hickok Cole Co-Founder Yolanda Cole

This series gets into the heads of the decision-makers of CRE, the people shaping the industry by setting investment strategy, workplace design, diversity initiatives and more.

Yolanda Cole believes in the power of teams. The senior principal and co-owner of architecture firm Hickok Cole, she said she didn't always envision herself leading her own company, but today her 25 years of experience doing so has informed her approach to remote work.

Hickok Cole has designed more than two dozen commercial spaces, but preparing for the 100-person firm's move from Georgetown to Union Market during the pandemic allowed Cole to take a fresh look at what the office space of the future will look like.

Yolanda Cole

"I believe we have experienced a big shift toward remote work, but also one that may ease its way back a little over time once we appreciate the value of being together with people again," Cole said. "We believe employers will need to provide enticing spaces that people want and need to use to do their best work — when they are in the office."

Cole has been busy on many teams over the past 25 years, but throughout that time she's consistently been a leader. Founding her first firm, Lyrix Design, in 1997 and starting Hickok Cole with Mike Hickok in 2003, Cole has previously served as chair of the Urban Land Institute's Washington District Council, president of AIA|DC and is a founding board member of the DC Concert Orchestra to boot.

Hickok Cole has also led on sustainability issues, designing what Cole says is the first Net Zero energy renovation of an urban office building in D.C. near Dupont Circle and the renovation of another office building with cross-laminated timber two blocks from Nationals Park.

Cole said the construction industry needs to take more risks and embrace innovation as a way to confront construction costs, labor shortages and supply chain issues, all of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

"We need to be looking at ways to streamline construction methods through component, pod and modular design and construction, at volume so we are not reinventing the wheel one building at a time," Cole said.

The following has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Bisnow: Tell us about your leadership philosophy and what experiences, words of advice or mentors shaped it along the way. 

Cole: I am a serial obsessionist and doer-leader, so I lead by example. I have many passions which I pursue with the intent to change the world in some way — large or small. I depend on my energy and enthusiasm to sweep others up in these pursuits and give them hope that anything is possible. I will then be in the trenches with them to develop a strategy and the tactical steps to work toward the goal, whatever it may be. I’m driven, like a dog with a bone. As for mentors, that wasn’t a thing while I was finding my way through the architecture profession. Women were few and far between, especially at the upper levels, so I just worked hard at what was important to me and took advantage of opportunities that came my way. My advice to others is to find their own passions and follow them. Rather than focusing on the title or the steps to succeed, focus on what you can do to make a better team, organization or community. Fill a hole that’s missing. Success will follow.

Bisnow: How has the role of CEO/business leader changed over time — especially when considering the early days of your career to now?

Cole: I became a leader of my first company in 1997. At that time I had little business experience, but had a lot of dreams about how to take this small company and grow it to the next level. At that time, young staff expected you to outline the plan and then tell them what to do to implement the plan. They looked to you for answers and steps for them to follow — to follow you. I grew and then merged that company with a larger company in 2003, which my business partner and I then expanded over the next 18 years. Today, young staff expect you to have a meaningful purpose behind the business and then set them free to help you fulfill that purpose. They see themselves as the vehicle to doing something that matters in the world and bettering themselves and their careers in the process.

Hickok Cole's design team

Bisnow: What will the role of CEO look like in 10 years?

Cole: Is that knowable? The role of CEO changes with social and technological evolution, and it is likely that technology is going to take us places we can’t even imagine today. Maybe there won’t be a need for a CEO in the future; perhaps there will be a web of amazing people who form teams to conquer the tough challenges ahead of us.

Bisnow: Was leading a company always a goal for you? If so, why?

Cole: No, not at all. My goal is to make things happen, have an impact, to pursue what interests me, or perhaps what's needed to be done. It is my fate that I end up being in charge of whatever that is, which has been a lifetime of many teams, committees, boards and two companies.

Bisnow: What has been your biggest mistake as a leader?

Cole: I can’t say it’s one single thing, but I would say my weakness is that I am impatient and want the world around me to continually improve — like now. That means I sometimes act before I should when it may be better to let things unfold. Here is a quote that rings true for me, compliments of George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” (Or woman in this case). I guess that makes me unreasonable! Frank Zappa put it more succinctly: “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” I always seek progress, which is sometimes a deviation from the norm.

Bisnow: Has your thinking changed about the workplace between 2019 and today? How? What will your office strategy be moving forward?

Cole: Oh yes. I believe we have experienced a big shift toward remote work, but also one that may ease its way back a little over time once we appreciate the value of being together with people again. We have adopted a hybrid, flexible schedule with a three-day minimum per week in the office. Wednesdays are “All-in” days so we can all feel the breadth of the firm and provide opportunities for town halls, happy hours and other culture-building activities. We are lucky to have designed and built a new office space during the pandemic which will support hybrid work through a variety of private and public spaces to work and collaborate. We invested in laptops for mobility, screens in every small, medium and large meeting space with microphones and cameras, a virtual reality station, podcast room, phone rooms, model shop, substantial library and a wellness suite. The space will be LEED Gold and Fitwel certified and has extensive natural light, volume with high ceilings, Big Ass fans (that’s a brand) and highly efficient, filtered HVAC. We believe employers will need to provide enticing spaces that people want and need to use to do their best work — when they are in the office.

Bisnow: There is a massive conversation underway regarding advancing more people of color and women into the C-suite. What are you doing to address those voices and that movement within your own organization?

Cole: We have certainly been affected by and support this movement. We are a firm of over 50% women already and over 30% diverse ethnicities, and yet need to work on greater diversity of race and bring all up through the leadership of the firm. We hired a consultant to educate ourselves, formed a working group to study and develop a DEI plan of action, which is now incorporated into our larger strategic plan. We were already working on our JUST label, which we received a week ago! JUST is a program developed by the International Living Future Institute to provide metrics and track progress for socially just and equitable organizations. We have a path and are on our way.

Rendering of cross-laminated timber addition to office building at 80 M St. SE

Bisnow: What do you think about the recent focus on sustainability and climate change? Is it overblown? Insufficient? Is your company tackling climate change in any way or taking it under consideration in your planning? 

Cole: It is critical. As a design firm, we have been doing this in some form, primarily through LEED, for over a decade. More recently, we focused our energy and research on Net Zero and are pleased to have completed the first Net Zero energy full renovation of an urban office building in D.C. We also invested in research on cross-laminated timber or Mass Timber and are about to complete the first CLT addition to the top of an existing office building in the Ballpark [District]. This has inspired us to look into embedded carbon and resilience strategies to broaden the scope of how we can mitigate the damaging effects of climate change. As for ourselves, our new office building and interiors will be LEED Gold and Fitwel certified and we are working toward the AIA’s 2030 Challenge.

Bisnow: What is something CRE gets wrong in your eyes?

Cole: We are not very good at taking risks in development and driving innovation in construction. This is proving to be a big barrier to being able to provide adequate attainable and affordable housing. Construction costs and labor shortages, and now supply chain issues, are driving up the cost of living and making it harder for us to build places for people to live in and around the city. This then translates into making it hard for businesses to attract and retain young employees. We need to be looking at ways to streamline construction methods through component, pod and modular design and construction, at volume so we are not reinventing the wheel one building at a time. The other barrier is our entitlement and approval processes, which have become long, costly and, at times, unpredictable. These vary across two states and many counties and cities in our region, making it all the more difficult to get things done at reasonable time and cost.

Bisnow: What asset class or location will perform best over the next five years? Why?

Cole: Demographics will continue to drive the need for more housing, and then some place or set of places for these same people to work. While our homes will likely include places to work, I believe we will also need a variety of spaces and places for people to work outside of their homes. Once we come out from under Covid, we could see a return to coworking, creative office, vertical and blended mixed-use and yes, office buildings — perhaps of a new kind. This might take the form of buildings designed and built for uses to change and evolve over time rather than for single-purpose use. We will also see a greater need for senior housing of the urban kind that appeals to active, “I’m never getting old” baby boomers. Related to that, healthcare is changing fast and focusing more on wellness and prevention, so some new form of wellness-oriented healthcare built into multi-use, walkable neighborhoods is on the horizon. There is always more we can do and more we can improve, so let’s do it!

Bisnow: What book, article or TedTalk meant the most to you? Why?

Cole: I have to be honest that I don’t pay much attention to business books and TED talks, but I have been influenced by the Gallup Organization’s Strengthsfinder books and assessment tools. What I love about it is that it defines and celebrates your top 5 strengths as positive attributes and then creates awareness and provides advice about how to work with people with strengths different than your own. This helps build highly functioning teams that tap the best in individuals who then contribute to a greater whole. Many of us spend too much time trying to “fix” people to fit into some abstract role or job description, which never really moves the needle. But if you focus on tapping into their strengths, you can move people by leaps and bounds. This has influenced us to build positions around people rather than the other way around.

Bisnow: What is your all-time favorite TV show? Why?

Cole: I’m sorry, it’s hard for me to think of favorites in TV shows, music, art, food or any of the entertaining distractions of life. Isn’t it variety that provides the spice? Otherwise, I could say I am currently enjoying Yellowstone and the prequel series, 1883, and am waiting for the historical gap yet to be developed.

Bisnow: How do you spend your Saturdays?

Cole: Right now, I typically do ordinary errands and practice my flute. I have a degree in music before I studied architecture and circled back around to it about a decade ago. I am a founding board member of the nonprofit DC Concert Orchestra Society and play in the orchestra as principal flutist. I also play in a number of small chamber music groups. It has been a joy to return to my pre-architecture exploits and gives me a welcome break from continually trying to change the world.