Vol. 49, No. 7
111 West Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53203-2501
Executives at Kahler Slater (KS), an architecture firm in Milwaukee, talk about the firm’s passion for creating structures and spaces that are so special they are “transformational,” yet there remains an undercurrent of playfulness in this firm, evidenced by the business card of John Horky, who carries the title “HR Guy.”
But ask Horky about the firm’s benefits, which are solid but not outstanding, and he is all business, demonstrating a head for strategy that complements an easygoing, approachable style employees seem to value.
“We know we need to have a good palette of benefits, but it’s not going to be the key for us to attract or retain” employees, says Horky. “Aligning ourselves to support people in their pursuit of their professional passion, that’s the key driver for a lot of people,” he says.
Most design professionals are driven by a desire to work on “cool” designs, to tackle interesting projects, to make a difference in the world, says Horky. He should know: He is an architect himself. Six years ago, he identified working with people as one of his passions, so the company helped him move into HR.
It’s a leap that is not so unusual in this firm, which actively encourages employees to identify their passions, create business plans to develop them and work collaboratively with the company to turn those plans into reality.
This process has led the firm down unusual paths, even helping employees develop their own businesses. For example, Marty Kleiber is passionate about helping religious communities build houses of worship. So KS gave him the time and support to become certified as a liturgical design consultant, even though the firm does not normally design religious structures and decided against moving into this line of work. Likewise, the firm helped Jeff Neidorfler set up a consulting practice in which he uses humor to help clients think creatively about strategic issues.
Both employees remain on salary, guaranteeing them a stable income, and receive marketing and accounting support from KS. In return, they lend their architecture expertise to KS projects when their businesses hit a lull.
This process of helping individuals identify and act on their passions resonates with employees. Just ask Matt Rinka, who has twice returned to KS—once after attending graduate school and again after moving to Seattle.
Rinka left a firm in Seattle because “their philosophy wasn’t quite the same as mine.” KS’s philosophy of building transformational experiences more closely matches his own.
“Whatever you do,” he says, “you always want to have a higher purpose.”
Rinka believes that when you give people room to explore their passions, “they always end up doing a better job, and they always end up working harder. I know I do because if I am excited about something, it’s harder to just drop the pen at 5:00 and go home.
“If you sort of take that away from people and say, ‘You’re not really in charge of your own vision,’ that’s where I think other firms get in trouble, where their employees just don’t feel like they’re part of what they’re doing. So they sort of disconnect themselves, and it’s easy to let mistakes happen because they don’t own it.”