Blazing a trail Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007

Chaos is nothing new at Carrier Johnson Architecture, and as Chairman and CEO Gordon Carrier explains, nor is it anything to be feared.

“We thrive on a certain amount of constructive chaos,” Carrier says. “You can’t be stagnant and be creative. Creativity, by definition, is about what’s next, not what has been.”

Take, for instance, CULTURE — a new division of Carrier Johnson that specializes in branding workplace environments and is a far cry from the more traditional architectural design that has been Carrier Johnson’s bread and butter for the last three decades. It is an entity symbolic of the organization’s emphasis on staying ahead of the curve.

By concentrating on problem-solving, granting autonomy and encouraging collaboration, Carrier has created a culture that, he says, builds leaders instead of followers, which has been key in maintaining his organization’s flexibility and innovation.

Smart Business spoke with Carrier about being a mentor, making mistakes and the benefits of learning from experience.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

It’s largely hands-off. I’m a driven leader. I’m probably more of a doer than a talker in a leadership role, but I’m not very prescriptive, meaning that I really believe in hiring people that are more talented than me and letting them run.

I check in frequently, and I’m there to help, and the lessons learned from the things that both go well and go badly are teaching aids in the leadership role.

Q: How can that style benefit an organization?

I don’t believe I have all the answers, and the answers come from the collaborative. It allows my colleagues the freedom to grow. They feel like they really count, and, of course, they do.

It causes people to think through individual issues more thoroughly, as well. At some level, it reduces the fear of making a mistake because it’s not the first time someone will have to tackle a problem on his or her own. For lack of better terms, it defines responsibility at every desk as opposed to he or she coming to me and telling me what I’ve done right or wrong, which is not really a style I’m akin to.

In today’s business environment, things are so complex that it takes many minds to figure out the directive, and my job, in many ways, is to set the width of the walls within which people find their path. If I need to tighten the walls, I can do that, but if I need to relax them and give people more freedom because it will allow them to work better, that’s really my style.

Q: How does empowerment reward employees?

Everyone wants to control their own destiny. The less ominous ‘the man’ is, the more empowered people are to possess their own future. We try to direct people to understand what the endgame is, as well as the start. They are responsible for taking on a project and executing it front to back.

We are there as guides, as experience, as mentors and as critiques to keep their train on a successful path. From our point of view, the greatest thing that can happen is that an individual becomes successful by their empowerment.

This organization is about helping each other, but more importantly, it’s about people helping themselves and having the ability to do so within our cultural structure.

Q: How have you remained nimble during your growth?

We have a flattened pyramid. It’s not that there aren’t leaders — there have to be by definition — it’s that the leaders aren’t espousing their leadership; they’re empowering others to become leaders. There’s a big difference. The difference between leading and being a mentor is a huge experiential learning curve that, only now in my career, I’ve begun to understand.

Being nimble is a lot about having people making decisions on the front line as opposed to having to go through another filter to get to a decision. I’d rather have somebody make a mistake and make a decision than hold the process up over time. Being nimble is about making quick decisions, rerouting the boat quickly, and we really concentrate on that.

Q: What advice would you offer a brand-new CEO?

Use every experience you’ve had as part of an accumulated knowledge base that, ultimately, can serve the greater good of your company. While maybe a particular week or year may not have met expectations, each experience is invaluable in helping assess the next difficult situation.

Under this hindsight kind of business frame of reference, you discover there really is no bad day at the office. In reality, they all contribute to some ability to make a solid decision within the confines of that particular business challenge.

Even though when the situations occur, they may not feel the way you want them to feel, if you can think about what you’re going to gain from them that can be used in the next situation, that’s not a bad day.

HOW TO REACH: Carrier Johnson Architecture, (619) 239-2353 or www.carrierjohnson.com