2022 Most Admired CEOs: Michelle Mongeon Allen

Career and Workplace: JLG Architects

Michelle Mongeon Allen didn’t join JLG Architects with any grand plan or strategy in mind. She didn’t envision herself leading their expansion into a new state. She didn’t see herself making partner. She didn’t dream of serving as chief operating officer or CEO. She merely wanted to work with them.

Mongeon Allen was seven years out of college and working at an architectural firm in Fargo, N.D., when she found herself envying a couple buildings designed by JLG.

“I thought to myself, why do they get all the great work?” Then, Mongeon Allen had an epiphany. “I suppose I could move to Grand Forks.” Not long after, Mongeon Allen had a job with JLG Architects. She sold her house, packed up her dog and made the move 80 miles north. It proved to be a good decision for both Mongeon Allen and JLG.

“My first two projects won American Institute of Architects awards,” she said. “I’ve never looked back.”

At the time, JLG Architects had one office and 15 employees. Just two years after joining the firm, Mongeon Allen found herself leading the company’s first expansion. She was moving to Minneapolis for love, but soon realized that the company could leverage her Minnesota address to bid for projects in the state. Working out of her duplex, it wasn’t long before Mongeon Allen had landed a major project in Thief River Falls and the Minneapolis office was born.

“I call it an accidental expansion,” Mongeon Allen said. “It wasn’t a big strategic move. I wanted to stay [at JLG Architects]. The company wanted me to stay. We figured it out.”

Mongeon Allen said the move put the company on a path for growth. Today, JLG Architects is an employee-owned legacy firm with 150 employees and 10 offices in three states.

Mongeon Allen made partner in 2004, was named COO in 2007, and took on the role as CEO in 2017.

“This is hard, but it’s a privilege,” she said.

During the pandemic, Mongeon Allen not only led the transition to 100% remote work, but recruited 25 new team members.

She also leads by doing, ensuring the firm does the same, currently having finished over 240 projects performing at or above the AIA Framework’s Best Practice level.

Mongeon Allen is dedicated to raising awareness of sustainable architecture practices in the Midwest. She also guides the JLG Gives Back program, which donates pro bono architectural services to nonprofits and encourages volunteerism within the company. She is active with the company’s student mentoring program, providing young architects with an expedited path to licensure. In 2022, Mongeon Allen was inducted into the AIA College of Fellows.

Quick takes

One thing I always have with me: My Full Focus Planner and erasable pen

Favorite local restaurant for a business lunch: Smack Shack

Theme song: The theme song from “The Office” is sort of an inside joke at our company and reminds us to not take ourselves too seriously — except when we need to.

A CEO I admire: Well, she’s not a CEO and as of her [recent] announcement, she’s stepping down as an executive leader at Facebook, but Sheryl Sandberg. One of the most powerful women in business, she has been unapologetic about her drive and achievement and has acknowledged that it did not come without sacrifice (while also recognizing her advantage). She champions personal accountability — for taking responsibility for your own career by taking risks and being your own best advocate — but is also doing the hard work of changing corporate environments to make success more accessible to more people. She has been a remarkable role model for accountability and empathy, regardless of gender.

Deeper dive

What was your first management position? My first management position was as a licensed project architect, accountable for leading our clients through the project development process (1999). Around 2009, I expanded my accountabilities to include firm operations: HR, technology and processes/systems/standards. I resisted the title of COO until I realized that the job description was “to do everything that the CEO couldn’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t do.” We joke that my title was “C-oh-oh,” since my job was to fix (solve) problems.

What was the most important lesson you learned from it? The biggest challenge/lesson in this role was to keep things “as simple as possible, and no simpler” (popularized version credited to Albert Einstein), recognizing that while we could build the best, most sophisticated systems, tools and processes, they only exist in support of our people and were only as effective as their implementation.

What’s the most stressful or challenging part of your job? In our industry, we don’t produce warehouses full of widgets. We deliver professional services, and so the only assets we have are the talents of our people. The most challenging part of the job is to keep this diverse team of talented individuals all rowing in the same direction, remaining a strong, calm and kind leader through the challenges of growth and the constancy of change.

How do you cope with those demanding aspects of your career? We have developed a very clear vision for our organization, so I really lean on that as our north star. Personally, I try not to get rattled by things we can’t control and surround myself with a remarkable team of internal managers and external advisers. And, as I learned as a COO, keep it as simple as possible and no simpler!

What are the three biggest challenges facing your industry and/or company right now?

  1. The macroeconomic climate: Clients’ decisions to move forward with design/construction projects are directly informed by their revenues, bottom lines and leadership attentions — all of which are influenced by the economy.
  2. Our industry’s value proposition: Elevating understanding about how architects can help our clients’ businesses thrive
  3. Complacency: Not relying too much on past successes to forecast future performance; staying nimble and curious.

What strategies do you have for mitigating those challenges?

  1. Expanding our scope of service to provide nonbuilt solutions to our clients’ challenges — strategic advising, long-range capital planning, space utilization, community engagement, etc.
  2. Again, expanding our scope of service to partner with our clients far upstream of physical building decisions
  3. Diligent monitoring of KPIs to stay abreast of internal and external trends; managing the healthy tension between preserving the core vision and values of our organization while stimulating sustainable growth by setting specific and measurable goals aligned to our corporate vision.

What are your top three goals for the year ahead, personally and/or professionally?

  1. In partnership with our vertical market leaders, meet our strategic growth goals.
  2. Win a national AIA design award.
  3. Fully implement our career advisers program to ensure that everyone is connected to someone who is fully invested in their success, helping to ensure that we are all rowing in the same direction!

Fast facts

  • Age: 53
  • Years with company: 22
  • Years as CEO: Five
  • Education: Professional Bachelor of Architecture, North Dakota State University
  • Family: Husband, Brian; children, Sam (16), Norah (15), Josie (12)
  • Hobbies: Music – guitar, piano, vocal performance; writing, golf, design, lake life
  • Board memberships: JLG Architects, Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation
  • Industry involvement: American Institute of Architects, AIA Large Firm Roundtable, The ESOP Association – Minnesota/Dakotas Chapter CEO Roundtable facilitator
  • Volunteer activities: St. Vincent de Paul music ministry, Twelve Ordinary Women service group
  • Employees at your organization: 160