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Eyeing the future Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

As John Kirksey continues to lay the groundwork for the future of Kirksey Architecture when he is no longer in charge, he realizes the delicacy with which he must take each step in the process.

“A lot of these professional service companies, the original founders control and manage the company way past the point they should,” says Kirksey, founder and president of Kirksey Architecture, a $21 million, 120-employee architectural design firm. “When they finally say it’s time for me to give some leadership to younger people, those people aren’t necessarily young anymore. They’ve never been given leadership, so they don’t know how to deal with it.”

By getting future leaders involved early, it becomes easier to achieve a seamless transition of power.

Smart Business spoke with Kirksey about the best way to develop leaders.

Q: What do you look for in a leader?

We put more of a premium on a spiritual leader than we do on a dollar-driven leader. People that exude self-confidence and a positive attitude and are supportive of other people and respect other people are much more powerful to us than someone who says they can bring in five new clients every month.

You really need to understand the characteristics that you are looking for in an individual that can translate into leadership in your company. Many times, it’s not going to be a Type-A personality. It’s going to be quietly self-confident people who have good primary skills that just need support and motivation and a good example to follow.

Q: How do you find these leaders?

We throw everybody in the pool, and certain people surface as being able to swim a little better than others. We just give them a lot of latitude to prove that.

They are people that take initiative and are proactive and want to be aggressively involved in developing their careers, not waiting for us to give them instruction. We ask a lot of the people that work here. We also expect them to take the lead.

We can tell people to be certain things, but unless they want to be it, it’s never going to happen. Instead of me telling people what they are going to be doing, you’ve got to listen. When people start telling you, ‘Here’s what I think I’d be good at,’ you can then really get behind them because generally, that’s what they will be good at.

Q: How do you gather employee input?

When we establish objectives, there are 11 team leaders. If you just take 120 people, divide it by 11, it’s very close to 10 or 11 people in a small political unit. We ask our team leaders to give us feedback on the pulse of what their team is thinking.

We break it down into units of 10. That gives you a lot better understanding if there are grassroots issues and problems that are happening within a team. An employee is more likely to share with their team leader than stand up in a meeting of 120 people and say, ‘I don’t really agree with this.’

We look at it both in front of our quarterly meetings and behind our quarterly meetings. In front of our quarterly meetings, we try to get our team leaders to bring issues to the table because they have weekly meetings with their team. After the quarterly meetings, we ask our team leaders to bring issues back to the table and respond to what people saw at the quarterly meeting. If anyone has an issue or a problem, we want to know about it.

Q: How do you deal with failure?

You try to get over it quickly. Instead of mourning the loss of that project, you go out, and there are plenty of other projects out there. The key thing for us is to acknowledge it right away and try to work to correct what it might be.

The only time we’ve really had big problems is when we tried to ignore a problem that we were part of versus immediately trying to deal aggressively with any problems we might have encountered.

Q: How do you empower employees?

We have a big commitment to personal respect for everyone and trying to allow people to find their own channel to success. When people have ideas, if we think it’s a good idea, we’ll give them all the running room they need.

Every Tuesday morning, we have a marketing meeting. Anyone in our company is invited to come to our marketing meeting. If people want to show some initiative, they’ll show up. That’s how you start identifying people that really would like to get more involved and take charge of their future and manage a little bit of their career.

HOW TO REACH: Kirksey Architecture, (713) 850-9600 or www.kirksey.com