As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Kim Heartwell.
As President and CEO for CRTKL, Kim Heartwell leads the firmwide vision and market growth strategies with a nuanced understanding of making organizations thrive. Her lasting commitment to CRTKL is evident. In her three decades at the firm, she has held numerous positions — from junior architect to D.C. office leader to global Workplace practice leader. Specifically, her expertise in workplace design, change management, and mobility strategies for complex organizations will directly influence the growth and advancement of CRTKL as it expands its footprint.
Kim’s tenure with the company has led to some of the most impactful workplace projects, growing the business into an impressive global force. She has a genuine affinity for working with complex corporations and agencies to create spaces that unify and exemplify her clients’ mission-focused environments that boost morale, increase efficiency, facilitate communication and collaboration, and incorporate green principles.
Kim believes the relevancy of a global, ideas-based practice like CRTKL is more relevant than ever to address the challenges humanity faces today — from health and well-being to resiliency and security, as the built environment impacts all. She ensures that every location across the firm is advancing positive outcomes in their communities.
Kim began her education with a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and progressed to a Master of Architecture from the University of Virginia. In her spare time, she and her husband enjoy dog-walking, cooking and the occasional puzzle to unwind.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My path to architecture began as a child wandering through half-built houses in our suburban neighborhood, imagining what the house would look like and going home to draw up the plans. Architecture wasn’t a consideration professionally until I was in college, studying art history, and found I was more interested in buildings than art. After architecture school, I started my career focused on buildings but realized early that I had a far greater interest in designing from the inside out. That interest led me to transition to interior architecture, affording me the opportunity to partner with my clients and focus on the end-users experience of space. My interest and involvement in the design of human-centric environments, workplace strategy, and change management continue to deepen.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I was the lead on my first large project as a younger architect, and we were in the midst of a very fast-paced and complex construction process. On behalf of my client, I had to respond to a list of contractor delay claims. After drafting a fiery response, I sent it off to the client for review. In a one-on-one meeting the next day, he suggested that we discuss what we wanted to achieve with the letter. At the end of our conversation, he leaned forward and, with a smile, said, “Well, this letter is perfect, just go back and remove all of the emotion.’
It was a wise lesson to learn and one that I have practiced and passed on throughout my career.
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?
I believe many successful careers advance by having someone identify your potential and trust you enough to toss you into the proverbial water to ‘sink or swim.’ That, for me, was my first CEO. He put me on our board of directors as a young leader, allowing me a seat at the table. In the architecture industry, gender equity has always been a struggle. While there is more awareness about diversifying and building an inclusive and equitable practice, I started at a time where that was far from the norm. Thereby learning from much more seasoned leaders, driving me to focus and work harder than ever before, and ultimately giving me my voice and confidence.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
CRTKL is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. In the early years of the firm, urban planning served as a guidepost. By leveraging the urbanist perspective, focusing on developing urban environments to serve social needs, the firm flourished. Today, CRTKL addresses the imperatives of resiliency, well-being, and technology and their influence in the built environment through a human-centric design approach. At the core, we are still purpose-driven and addressing critical issues facing humanity.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I was essentially appointed CEO over Thanksgiving weekend last year during the surge in Covid-19 cases; what a way to start, right? Taking on this role at such a pivotal point, where the road to recovery post-pandemic is still ahead of us, could be viewed as absurd, especially when I was leading one of the more robust practices in the firm. However, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape the future of a firm I adore. While there were many significant decisions to make quickly, trusting yourself, leaning in, and listening to my colleagues — allows you to make informed decisions and helps you navigate uncharted waters more soundly.
Transitioning into a recovery mode from the effects of the pandemic has shown me that the more willing you are to be honest and have the hard conversations, the faster things will turnaround. Being part of the conversation rather than talking at your team, heightens your compassion and understanding, and allows you to connect. I have found in our firm, that collaboration, as well as a willingness to share and build together, is at an all-time high; which is one of the positives that has resulted from the challenges of 2020.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Tenacity is one of my strongest traits, and, sometimes to my detriment. if I believe in something I don’t give up. This does not mean that I am unwavering or unable to compromise or adapt, rather I innately believe that almost all problems can be solved. Solving problems or overcoming challenges frequently requires that you move out of your comfort zone and look at the problem from a new perspective. It is the process of engaging others to challenge your thinking and then creatively solving a problem that energizes me.
Having spent a significant portion of my career leading the design of workplaces for large multi-national corporations, change management has been an integral part of my work. Through change management, you learn that change does not happen quickly, but takes time to build towards a resolution. It is essentially training for a mental marathon; you may hit that proverbial wall, but you have to push through, often resulting in more positive outcomes
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I would say that the most critical role is to actively focus on the vision, staying connected to the business and people, and communicating clearly and honestly. One of the more challenging aspects to leadership is being transparent as possible. You have to take responsibility and align your actions to get through the challenge while engaging feedback from your team. This means both communicating and listening, and empowering people to use their voices to understand their concerns.
You have to exemplify the qualities you would look for in a strong leader. Inspire your team to persevere through the challenge, be nimble — and show your team that they can depend on you to have their best interests of the team. Strong leaders bring teams together in times of adversity no matter the circumstance.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Embrace the uncertainty and bring your team along for the ride. By, giving everyone an opportunity to contribute camaraderie is forged and guards lifted. It is a time where, as a leader, you can offer a sense of confidence in the future, while being realistic and honest. Employees will be grateful for the chance to make their voices heard, and it can also be a great way to get different perspectives and understand pain points that you can alleviate.
Another important tenet to boosting confidence is accessibility. If you only do the above, with little frequency and limited accessibility, the team’s walls will emerge and morale will dampen. You have to take the time to be there, be approachable, and listen.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
This ties into the traits of an effective leader. You have a responsibility to communicate honestly, concisely, and focus on the facts of the situation. It is imperative to clearly explain the reason for your decision or actions; and accept accountability for your decision.
To do this effectively create a roadmap/plan to encompass not only the facts of the situation but also the remedy. Identify required changes, layout what needs to be accomplished, and prepare responses to address potential concerns.
Equally important is the follow-through — you have to own the process and maintain communication throughout. Once the issue is fully addressed, the follow-up to ensure that this doesn’t happen again is as important as addressing it in the first place.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Leveraging what architecture teaches you is an incredible tool to address uncertainty. In fact, it is the uncertainty and unpredictability that fuels the greatest design solutions. The iterative nature of design gives you the ability to explore the unknown, and you inherently know you will reach a solution. Unpredictability helps you stay fresh whether it is regarding trends, ideas, innovation, or improvements. It staves off complacency or satisfaction with the status quo. At a personal level, it allows me the confidence to know I can test, rethink and retool my plans but know that my vision will be the guidepost to get to the appropriate solution.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stay true to your purpose. If you lose sight of the vision you have set forth for your company you will never recover fully. That’s not to say you don’t pick up a quick win here or there to keep things moving in the most turbulent of times, but being focused on who and what you are and most importantly why you do what you do, will allow you to forge ahead and come out of the storm whole.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
One key mistake would be doing the oppositive of your “number one principle,” and deviate from your purpose or mission. Purpose-driven companies are by far more successful than those that lack focus. If you are trying to be everything to everyone to pick up revenue, you may get a few quick wins but you will lose your brand strength and position against the competition. You also will lose members of your team who no longer feel that they have meaning in their work. It can be detrimental.
Many times if the markets you are in are being hit by an economic downturn or major events like the current pandemic, companies will try to pivot quickly into new markets without a thoughtful strategy in place. While difficult times can breed innovation and creative outcomes, it is important to make strategic decisions when attempting entry into new markets or marketplaces.
Similarly, making quick pivots without engaging your leadership and build buy-in can result in resentment and a disconnection from your team.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
From a financial standpoint, this is a timely question. We are actively refining our operational procedures and reinforcing better project management, through training, to ensure stronger performance across the board. I don’t think that architects are trained to develop strong business acumen or management skills. By actively revisiting and refining procedures, aligned with new advancements in project management technologies, we can better our performance — and I think this idea translates into other creative industries as well. Everyone in a company has to have accountability and be conscious about how they contribute to financial health.
In the case of business development, knowing who you are and where you stand against your competition is imperative — and it drives back to your purpose. For CRTKL, we are focused on a human-centric approach. From the interaction at the city scale city to the tactile experience at your office desk, we focus on the people we are designing for and drive a design solution to meet their needs. To support this, we have expanded our services beyond traditional architecture and built a research group, data-analytics, and advanced design technology to offer a robust consultancy to support our purpose and drive richer solutions for our clients.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Self Awareness — Be self-aware and focused on growth.; be willing to adapt and open to change.
- Communication — Communicate frequently and concisely, but humanly — be relatable
- Transparency — answer the hard questions, do not avoid them.
- Feedback — Engage and be open to feedback from others.
- Curiosity — encourage questions, debate, and strategic thinking; always look forward to where the business is going
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My father loved Mark Twain, and often referenced this quote — ‘I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.’ For me, that sums up the curiosity and openness to new ideas that I have found essential to growth, both in my personal life and my career. What I remember most are the lessons learned by experience — these are often harder and messier lessons, but so much more valuable to developing emotional maturity and critical thinking skills. In my career, I have also learned so much by observing others who excel in our profession, and equally as much by jumping into challenging situations.
How can our readers further follow your work?