A Conversation on Leadership, Expertise and Innovation with Frances Ridlehoover and Sarah Meeker Jensen FAIA
We sat down with Frances Ridlehoover and Sarah Meeker Jensen FAIA to learn about how they started a leading healthcare and facilities strategy planning firm. Sarah and Frances share insights about building a firm with an excellent reputation, working with clients across the nation, and the innovative approaches that set Jensen Partners apart. We discuss women’s leadership in architecture and hospital management, as well as the value of an interdisciplinary team of experts.
Sarah, when did you start Jensen Partners, and how did you start working with Frances and your team?
Sarah Meeker Jensen: I started the firm in 2002. Before that, I had worked with Frances during my time at UCLA where I served as Assistant Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences Design and Construction. Frances had a series of roles culminating in serving as Chief Operating Officer of UCLA Health.
When we had the Northridge earthquake in 1994, I led UCLA’s effort to receive federal funds to replace the damaged Center for Health Sciences. For the hospital design, we brought together I.M. Pei, Perkins + Will and others to envision an entirely new healthcare paradigm. The result of that design, the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center, is perhaps the most beautiful and practical hospital in the world. After Frances and I worked on that project together, I started Jensen Partners upon recognizing the large demand for the kind of expertise we had in healthcare master planning, as well as project and construction management services. One hospital CEO wanted to redevelop a 13-acre downtown campus and that became the firm’s Project Number One. Project Number Two was the master plan for the City of Hope Cancer Center campus, about 100-acres, in Duarte. More projects flowed from there: we worked on the Century City Doctors’ Hospital, we were asked to support with Northridge Hospital seismic upgrades, and so on and so forth.
I had been in business for about five years with colleagues Tom Yang AIA and George Conde AIA, and Frances emailed me in the summer of 2007. George, Frances and I had worked together at UCLA. Up until her joining the firm, we had focused on master planning from a physical standpoint, as well as project and construction management, but Frances came in with an excellent complementary set of healthcare operational expertise. We had lunch at a restaurant in Chinatown we always used to dine at and she said: “If I joined you, we would be able to build healthcare strategy, operations and programming.”
Frances brought a whole new set of capabilities and service lines to the firm. Our capacity has more than doubled since — both in revenue and headcount. Also, in 2007, we got our first national project at Emory University in Atlanta. From there, we went to Minnesota and grew from a local Los Angeles-focused enterprise to a nationally recognized company.
That’s excellent! Frances, what was it like for you to join Jensen Partners in 2007?
Frances Ridlehoover: Before joining the firm, my experience had been with large institutions, similar to Sarah’s background. At Jensen Partners, it was exciting to be in a place where we were directly engaged with client leadership in defining and implementing the strategic direction for leading healthcare organizations. Here, we bring a nimble, smaller firm approach to drive complex decisions quickly and move forward with implementation. The ability to develop innovative lean planning approaches while having the interdisciplinary foundations in place was very rewarding.
For healthcare strategy and operations, the firm was a startup. We developed an already successful firm into a more robust, growing, and highly competitive business. We were able to do so quickly, because we started with a team of senior industry professionals who had a shared working history of mega-projects, and we didn’t have to start at the bottom. We got to come in with immediate, large national projects that we had spent our careers getting ready for. A couple of fast years later, we looked around and said: “Wow, everybody here in the firm is nearing 50 years old; let’s go find some early-career people to support our long-term growth and build breadth with people who bring different skills and talents.”
What is unique about Jensen Partners is in part the size: we are large enough to be multidisciplinary, but small enough that everyone has direct visibility and engagement in shaping the firm’s direction –this is really exciting. But along with that, everyone had to learn to change the toner, as none of us had run a business independently. We were used to having administrative assistants, thinking large-scale and managing high level with many policies; we were not used to defining those policies and managing small-scale details. We learned quickly, enjoyed the hands-on aspect and made those things routine again to enable us to keep the focus on big ideas.
You work with such a wide variety of clients nationally. How do you select who you’re working with? How do you decide where to go?
Sarah Meeker Jensen: I would say more than half the time, the clients choose us. For instance, our first new client after Frances joined was a group that came and found us, asked if we would be the secret sauce to winning a project they were seeking. They didn’t think they could, on their own, beat the other competitors. We did win that project and spent a year working on it. Then, the next project in Minnesota was from a CEO who had previous experience working with our firm and brought us to their new hospital. For the first set of national projects, we didn’t seek them out at all. When we started to look for additional work, we got to go to Indiana, New Jersey, Colorado. But initially, it was by invitation.
You are both very acclaimed for your exceptional communication and engagement with clients and team members of different cultural and strategic backgrounds. How did you develop that mastery, and how do you continue to apply that to your work?
Frances Ridlehoover: We both enjoyed working with a very diverse group of people throughout our careers: from the most senior executives at a strategic level, to clinicians in every specialty, to hospital maintenance staff who are critical to operations. The positions we held required the ability to adjust a consistent message to audiences at any time. Sometimes, we speak with people that are focused on immediate, quality care for patients, and sometimes the focus is on planning 50-year buildings. The mission and ultimate goals of those people are shared, but we’ve learned to think about who we’re talking to, what their needs are, and what we need to learn from them.
Sarah and I have very different and complementary styles, and so it’s been fun. I think we have modulated our styles over time, learning from each other and others in the firm. We’ve been able to build and celebrate diversity in our team that contributes to a constant learning environment –the only truly engaging way to build successful careers and businesses.
Sarah Meeker Jensen: We were extremely unusual in many respects. First of all, the architecture, design and construction world is maybe nine tenths men. Today, only 14% of licensed architects are women. It’s a profession that’s really behind, and among all the construction guys, there were not a lot of women. Not only were we two women in our industries, we were two women as the leaders. That became powerful. Initially, I think a lot of people we worked with were not sure how to relate. But they quickly saw that we had become visibly different, and that was a great asset. I still don’t know of any other firms where two women are in charge of the entire firm in our business.
Frances Ridlehoover: Yes. Fortunately, healthcare leadership has changed over the years to include more women, but back in the 90s and early 2000s, a senior leadership meeting of 10–12 people rarely included more than one or two women. That is still true at many organizations today, so we do get noticed as a women-led firm. I think you have to find your voice in that environment and have a responsibility to represent well and drive change.
In your team members’ words, this reflects on the team you two have built. Many people express their appreciation for the strength of perspectives on the table. Jensen Partners does healthcare planning in a much more innovative way than usual. How do you chart your path in master planning?
Sarah Meeker Jensen: We’ve provided more senior, experienced, and creative teams than our competitors, but especially the big box competitors. Early on in our careers, we got to work on $1.5 billion projects, and that was rare. As Frances said, even in the beginning when we started the company and ever since, we have worked on large scale projects. If you look at what most people have really done, you find that they haven’t done anything large. To have the scale experience and bring a creativity, nimbleness and an intelligence that is unique is what our reputation is built on.
Frances Ridlehoover: And we made a decision early on that we were going to work in teams. First, we consistently get a better outcome for our clients, and we also learn more from each other. When we hire people, I’m looking for, along with specific skills, someone who will bring something new to the team and is smart and curious, confident but not cocky. We are able to bring on the brightest junior staff and help them quickly build expertise through team partnering.
At Jensen Partners, we build, respect and celebrate our differences, and our clients tell us that this integrated, multispecialty team approach is a driver of their project success.
Thank you for sharing valuable insights on how you built a company driven by excellence and run successful hospital master planning projects. We look forward to continuing our conversation and sharing your knowledge.