Chaya Weiner
Aug 13 · 9 min read

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave Madson, who is a Principal at the internationally-recognized Boston design firm CBT and has over 20 years of professional experience in architectural and interior design. As Director of Workplace, Dave brings to each project tailored design solutions that reflect organizational culture, support core business goals, and encourage efficient work. Currently, he is a visiting design critic and thesis advisor at Wentworth Institute of Technology.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was in fifth grade, my parents decided to move and build a new house. Most adults, in that same situation, would likely choose a layout and style that they’ve long envisioned for themselves. However, my parents felt differently. My father purchased four pads of graph paper for each family member and we were individually tasked with identifying what was most important to us in a home, particularly in regard to the configuration and character of the space. We spent months sharing our ideas and refining them into one cohesive design that would work for our family.

This activity was the first time I realized that people can dictate the nature of the spaces they occupy. I learned that the process of arriving to critical design decisions can be democratic and informed by an amalgamation of ideas from different perspectives, versus a singular, dominating source. That understanding of the possibilities of design and how space impacts everyday life stuck with me and propelled me into the design industry.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I first joined CBT, I attended a Halloween party that a co-worker was hosting. I was young and still felt relatively new to the firm. When my girlfriend and I arrived, another co-worker answered the door dressed in-costume as me — quite a surprise!

It was completely unexpected. However, it was also validating in that I knew I was now a part of a community that thought creatively, took risks and found light-hearted ways to establish personal connections.

At CBT, I’ve made a concerted effort to instill the notion that professionalism should be balanced by fostering meaningful human relationships with colleagues, clients and peers alike.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

As a designer specializing in workplace interiors, every day and every project is different. We work with a wide range of industries, from technology startups to legacy legal firms, meaning that one company’s design aesthetic and work culture may differ wildly from the next.

Understanding these nuances, I find identifying and implementing design solutions that improve employees’ daily experience of work extremely gratifying, whether it be infusing a sense of brand throughout the space, establishing quiet areas to help employees shift their state of mind or bringing natural elements of the outside world in to promote a sense of tranquility.

All of these projects have one thing in common: to help companies communicate better, feel culturally unified and perform at their best. For instance, my team has been partnering closely for over 18 years with an international economic consulting firm to design each of their offices to be locally unique and adherent to their individual workplace needs, while also cohesively aligned with the company’s overarching brand identity.

We’re also working with a blue-chip insurance company to create an innovation center that reimagines partnership in the healthcare industry. Doctors, researchers, providers, patients and other stakeholders will be able to access the space to share ideas, conduct workshops and tutorials, and innovate together. This center stands to improve how experts in different healthcare-related industries gather and work to solve its challenges.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

There is a significant mix of generations in the workplace right now that have different ideologies regarding responsibility, participation, influence and leadership, which is causing frustration and impatience.

Employees or soon-to-be employees of younger generations belong to an era that produces people like the Parkland activists and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are single handedly shifting our society and our government. Young upstarts have influence and want to be influencers within a traditional work environment that pushes back by saying “slow down.” The idea of having to wait years to be a leader is no longer acceptable among highly-motivated workers.

To bolster happiness, it’s critically important to create an office environment that promotes openness and the understanding that we all come from different backgrounds. The workplace, from a built perspective, should embrace the notion that not everyone has to inhabit space or work in the same way by offering a variety of areas for individual and group work, socialization, wellbeing and creative exploration.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

There is no benefit to an unhappy workforce. Unhappiness leads to disengagement and stress; disengagement and stress lead to inefficiency and poor health; and inefficiency and poor health lead to financial setback.

The more engaged a workforce is, the healthier the environment. There must be a resolute effort made by company leadership to embrace the needs of employees from the bottom-up, rather than from the top-down.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

When we begin a new project, we like to conduct a “Vision Lab” with our new client, a one to three-day brainstorm session in which a representative cross-section of the future workspace — from the intern to the c-suite executive — participates in a series of activities formulated to gauge how space can address their needs thoughtfully. Having led countless Vision Labs over the years, I’ve identified five takeaways that workers want leadership to keep in mind:

1. Always listen before you speak

2. Interact with your staff as much as possible and be accessible to them

3. Every person plays an active role in contributing to the success of the company

4. Establish a clear company mission and definitive strategy for achieving company goals

5. Don’t withhold from your staff; they deserve a seat at the decision-making table

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Culture imitates life. Right now, our society is fractured and divided, which has established a work culture that is fractured and divided. It’s more comfortable for people to only speak with and listen to like-minded people. There needs to be a societal shift towards learning through listening to others and being accepting of difference. In the office, it’s shifting the mentality away from comments like “they’re not working at their desk right now, so they must be slacking off” to “maybe that person is thinking creatively away from their desk right now or needs to take a break before refocusing.”

Our society also continues to uphold a work culture that promotes success through exhaustion and burnout. We shouldn’t be celebrating making ends meet through 18-hour work days, but rather enforcing and applauding a healthy work-life balance.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

My management style is non-hierarchical. I don’t isolate myself from my colleagues, but rather work among them and welcome the chance to address challenges and opportunities as they arise in the moment.

I also believe in the importance of regular check-ins. I reserve significant amounts of time to talk with members of my team to ensure that we’re identifying together the best ways to support their professional growth.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Our firm has an internal mentorship award named after Frank Coyne, a senior Project Architect who passed away unexpectedly many years ago. He was known as a mentor of mentors and for shaping young staff into design professionals. If you asked, he would make time to teach you how to work with a contractor; evaluate the quality of a product; interact with a salesperson; and improve your design technique. He filled in the gap between what is taught formally and what is learned through practice and experience.

Frank taught me that growth is a conveyor belt; that what is learned must be passed along further down the line, and I’m truly grateful for how his patience and openness influenced my understanding of the kindness and wisdom a true leader should bestow.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I am a firm believer in the power of education. I currently serve as a thesis advisor for students enrolled in the Interior Design program at Wentworth Institute of Technology and consider it my responsibility to share what I’ve learned over the course of my career with the next generation of designers.

In addition, working with my clients to help them understand how design can impact their business is extremely rewarding to me. Getting someone to achieve an ‘a-ha’ moment during a Vision Lab — or realize that workplace design is not just about how big an office they will have in their new space, but how their team can work together more productively — is something in which I take pride. Working to positively shape corporate culture to be more inclusive and engaged is something that will positively influence our shared culture.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is by Ralph Waldo Emerson, in which he says, “the purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

My happiest professional moments are when I visit a client months or years after they’ve moved into a space that was designed specifically for them, and I feel the positive energy, the buzz and the happiness in being there. That’s a great feeling for me.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Don’t think that you know the answer before you ask the question. It’s critical that we, as a society, listen to one another before we form world views that isolate and discriminate, or hinder progress.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Chaya Weiner

Written by

Director of branding & photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator, helping leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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