Mark Johnson | Crain's Denver

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Mark Johnson


Denver-based Civitas is an urban design and landscape architecture firm whose primary purpose is to design landscapes in cities. Civitas, which employs 25 people, is responsible for designing Denver’s Commons Park and many other urban features in the U.S. and abroad.

The Mistake:

I misunderstood the intellectual and personal qualities I needed to form a good team.

We are a creative agency. When someone calls us up and asks for our recommendation on a waterfront project, we have to have people who can investigate the situation, communicate and listen carefully, assess the different activities and investments that have been going on, and understand the barriers to success and the triggers that would create that success. Then we have to be able to illustrate those ideas to the public, elected officials and other stakeholders, and present them in such a way to create trust. They need to know that the investment we are asking for will get them the kind of return that they are looking for.

Initially, I hired really smart, highly talented designers, thinking that intelligent design was the tool we had to apply to make this happen.

In the year 2000, I had a firm of 60 of these smart, talented people, and we were churning out a tremendous amount of work. At the same time, though, I had a great number of people who required direction, reporting and management. I had various HR problems. I had various delivery and quality programs.

It came down to this: I was relying on conventional project management and project reporting systems to produce consistent quality.

Over time, it became clear that we could only reach so high with that approach. That conventional methodology of running a creative studio was not effective at truly challenging projects. For example, two years ago, we were working on a very important plan for Kabul, Afghanistan. We traveled there several times, but you just can’t bring run-of-the-mill American management strategies to a project in a place like that.

Eventually I learned that our investigative methods, our ability to associate and our ability to communicate were our core attributes, but those were not the qualities I had been looking for. I turned over my entire staff. Now I have the best people I’ve ever had.

What attracts the best people in this business is the coolest projects.

The Lesson:

Because the work we do is always intangible, we need multiple intelligences, highly creative minds. We need people who are driven, passionate and personally accountable. Our asset is our people and the approach we take is not a methodology you can go through the same every time.

So we really need the right people and the right mix of people.

What attracts the best people in this business is the coolest projects. It’s fairly simple. To design a neighborhood park in Denver can be interesting, but undertaking a strategic design for a mile and a half stretch of the waterfront in San Diego, that’s a more complicated and interesting problem.

We are working internationally on numerous interesting projects, so we get seven to 10 resumes per week. When we are hiring, we pare these down to maybe the five best and bring those people in for an interview with my partners. They will pick the top two candidates, based on their assessment of a candidates’ thinking skills, drawing skills, writing skills and personality. Then I will do an interview with them, still with everyone present.

My technique is to make fun of them. I poke at them. I ask difficult questions. I want to see how they react under pressure and unexpected circumstances because that is how the core personality is revealed. I learn much more about how people will perform on their own. The people that we hire are the people that can play catch with me.

Civitas is on Twitter at @civitasideas.

Photo courtesy of Civitas.

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