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Preparing for the Unexpected: Our Leadership Transition

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As I headed into 2020, I had no idea how much change the year would bring. I had big vacation plans, new career goals and whispers of two principal-level retirements at our firm (Rick Burkett and Michele Ponicsan). The news of a virus was in the air, but I certainly didn’t imagine the scale of impact it would have on our world.

Well, thank you to that dumpster fire of a year for canceling my vacation, flipping my career goals on their head and magnifying the impacts of those retirements tenfold! But pandemic impact aside, the retirements still moved forward, so here are some of the lessons I learned planning for a leadership transition.

A transition opportunity not realized. I remember grabbing coffee last February with Rick – just one of the things I’m going to miss now that he’s retired. Anyone who knows Rick probably understands why. He can talk a lot while somehow imparting a massive amount of knowledge. At this specific meeting, Rick’s pending retirement was brought up. He shared one of his goals for the transition: getting our team connected to those in the industry who know him best. Rick had always been great about putting staff in front of clients. It didn’t matter if you had been with the firm for a week or years, if you were 25 or 45; if there was a meeting with information you could get value in, you were going. However, there was a whole swath of his contacts that many of us had never spoken to. With Rick’s name on the business for 25 years, numerous people knew Rick was “the guy” to call; and these were important people our team needed to get to know. Enter COVID-19 and exit all our best-laid in-person transition plans.

With “Plan A” out the window, we should have pivoted to “Plan B,” pushing harder to virtually get in front of Rick’s contacts. Instead, given what the economy was experiencing, we focused on keeping the studio moving forward, servicing clients in a now remote landscape, and letting Rick carry on, business as usual, leaving our team with more work in this coming year to rebuild those relationships.

A transition opportunity taken. On the other hand, there were other, more successful efforts made to ease the transition. Rick and Michele made conscious efforts to step back from meetings and let us run things our way, casually imparting valuable suggestions. They sought opportunities to bring us into conversations to gain face time and knowledge, and brain dumps became a normal part of conversations too.

But for all their conscious efforts regarding the transition, I would say it was their subconscious efforts, or, more plainly, their leadership styles that will benefit us the most. As I touched on earlier, Rick was not the hand-holding type; he took a fearless leadership approach, having staff learn on the fly, while providing a steady presence to offer guidance or support when needed. The way he subtly pushed our team to learn and grow has positioned us far better for the future, rather than doing what so many principals do, strictly using employees for what they are deemed capable of.

For Michele, a seasoned leader in her field, every question was an opportunity to teach or coach. In this last year of her career, the focus of these teaching moments shifted from code or design-related information to more intangibles and soft skills – how to read the conversation, what’s being said and not said, what questions to ask when.

Harnessing transition opportunities. Losing key members of any team makes an impact. Whether it is a lack of knowledge transfer, or a switch in the team roles, there are bound to be some storming and norming moments for the redefined team. However, an unforeseen benefit is that a switch in team members gives us the opportunity to step back and evaluate the current dynamic: “What are we doing well?” “What did we like about the departed team member’s contributions?” “What can we, as a team, do better?” If we fail to ask these questions, to understand what was working and what was not, there is a large chance for failure. As a potential new member to a team, ask “What do I need to know?” As scary as transition can be, open communication can put you at ease and set the team up for success.

While Rick’s and Michele’s efforts were the mainstay of our transition approach, they weren’t the only ones with this transition in mind. As far back as the acquisition, EUA knew this was coming. With an eye on the next wave of Denver leadership, there were strategic hires like our Studio Director Ryan Wallace and K12 Market Leader Jane Crisler. We also benefit from the larger support network, diversity and resources of EUA. Having a variety of market types and geographic locations enables us to share workloads. This past year when our learning environments team was busy, we were able to lend staff to support, and then when our workplace projects in Denver picked up again, we were able to grab from the pool of over 60 workplace experts from across the firm.

Some key lessons learned. Looking back, I’ve learned two big lessons from all the changes 2020 has brought. One is focus on the relationships; seeing the relationships Rick and Michele have built over their 70 years of combined experience leaves me with a renewed excitement for the profession. Relationships with clients and partners is at the heart of what I do. Knowing that I will be able to look back at my own relationships, some that will have stuck with me for my entire career, thrills me.

The second lesson is office culture is an art, not an accident. I’m so thankful for the studio that Rick and Michele built; they attracted countless people who have made this a fun, energetic and passionate place to be. I’m confident we have what it takes to keep that culture alive and vibrant. Looking forward, I see opportunities for immense growth both personally and as a firm. I look forward to seeing our Denver office take the skills we’ve been taught, combined with our abilities and provide great service and solutions to our clients, bringing EUA to new heights.

The lessons I learned from this transition can be applied to any office, at any point. Give staff at every level the opportunity to lead, to grow by doing. The more you allow them to learn and take on, the easier your job will be. I always think of knowledge transfer in the “what if I get hit by a bus” scenario. Not only does it make your life easier in the day-to-day, but the more we can all share our knowledge, our contacts, our abilities, the less any one person has to carry with the added benefit of preparing you for the unexpected, even a leadership transition.