How to create a fantastic work culture: “Let it happen — when one of your team proposes an idea, sometimes the best strategy is to trust them and encourage their initiative” with Mike Konzen of PGAV

Let it happen — when one of your team proposes an idea, sometimes the best strategy is to trust them and encourage their initiative. This approach has yielded some delightful results, including story-sharing sessions and constructing a really fun Mardi Gras float. As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture,” I […]

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Let it happen — when one of your team proposes an idea, sometimes the best strategy is to trust them and encourage their initiative. This approach has yielded some delightful results, including story-sharing sessions and constructing a really fun Mardi Gras float.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Konzen. Since 1986, Mike Konzen has provided consulting services related to tourism, attraction development, master planning, exhibit design and construction for a wide range of projects on five continents. His clients have included UNESCO World Heritage sites, major museums, national parks, zoos, aquariums, theme parks, resorts and destination marketing organizations. Starting in 1998, Mike developed and co-led PGAV’s Destination Consulting group as a global leader in planning and design of Destinations. PGAV has planned and designed projects at many of the world’s “must see” destinations, including the Grand Canyon, Biltmore Estate, Kennedy Space Center, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, the Georgia Aquarium, Gettysburg, Bass Pro Outdoor World, the Saint Louis Zoo, Universal and SeaWorld Adventure Parks. Mike continues to lead PGAV Destinations, and is publisher of Destinology, the group’s quarterly trendsletter which has distribution of more than 7,000 industry professionals. For the past nine years, Mike has served as Chairman and CEO of PGAV, which has a staff of more than 145 professionals in three operating divisions: PGAV Destinations, PGAV Planners and PGAV Architects. In 2015, PGAV celebrated its 50th year, and is poised to continue to grow and diversify its services to a wide range of clients worldwide. Today, PGAV Destinations is the largest independent creator of attractions and destinations in the industry, with projects equaling more than $7 billion over the past 10 years. PGAV has also redoubled its efforts to contribute to the Saint Louis community and the environment through the PGAVIA (Volunteers in Action) program. Mike completed his Master of Architecture at Washington University in Saint Louis in 1986, following a Bachelor of Environmental Design from Miami University in Ohio. He is a member of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) and is licensed as an Architect in 30 states. In 2018, Mike was recognized as a Distinguished Alumni by the Sam Fox School of Design at Washington University. He has also served on multiple community and industry-based boards and is currently serving on the Advisory Board Johnathan Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism at New York University, the Board of Commissioners of Tower Grove Park, and the National Council for the Sam Fox School of Design at Washington University in Saint Louis.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a boy in the 1960s, I visited the Kennedy Space Center for the first time and took a tour with my family. I was lucky to grow up in the early space era, where incredible men and women explored the final frontier and captured my imagination. Nothing held my attention quite like the Apollo missions. As I stood there marveling at this tribute to space exploration, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the rockets and the designs that not only powered man into orbit, but also protected them on their journey. It was a moment I’ll never forget. Although I realized the career path of an astronaut wasn’t likely for me, architecture and design — the same aspects that peaked my interest at the Kennedy Space Center — intrigued me. I decided to become an architect.

Fast forward to 1986, I’d just graduated with a Masters of Architecture from Washington University in St. Louis. I was confident, filled with ambition and adamant that no Midwestern architecture firm could provide the work experience I was looking for. Luckily for me, I didn’t have enough money to move away from St. Louis. I settled for a job with local firm PGAV downtown and drove my rusty, powder blue Oldsmobile Cutlass to work for the first time on May 21, 1986.

Now, more than three decades later, I’m still at PGAV, where I serve as CEO & Chairman. And — in a neat twist of fate — had the honor of overseeing a 10-year strategic master plan for renovations and expansions to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. In the 1960s when I visited Kennedy with my family, the visitor facilities were trailers. In 2013 we opened a $100 million museum called Space Shuttle Atlantis, celebrating 135 shuttle missions over a 30-year period. I even got to meet my childhood hero, Neil Armstrong! All of us are shaped by our past and the adjustments we make along the way. For me, it’s all come full circle.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

As our practice has grown more global, many of the best stories come from international travel. Prior to the Arab Spring in 2010, I had the opportunity to travel extensively in Egypt on a series of projects for National Geographic. I worked with UNESCO World Heritage sites along the Nile River from the Giza Pyramids, to the Temple of Luxor, to the Temple of Philae at Aswan, to Abu Simbel near the Sudanese border. It was all like a dream, visiting these ancient sites and imagining the ancient culture that produced them. While we were in Cairo we always stayed in the Four Seasons on the Nile, which had the best bar in town for power-brokers. My client and I would find a table every evening and end up sharing beers with top level officials of the Egyptian government! The Egyptian people were wonderful and welcoming, and we made many great friends.

In 2011 I made by first trip to Viet Nam. Flying there through Tokyo, I found myself growing increasingly curious about what I might find. I was in grade school during most of the Viet Nam War, so my impressions of the country were shaped by the visceral images of war scenes on the television news and in Life Magazine. We had family friends who fought there to stop the spread of communism. Landing in Ho Chi Minh City, I quickly realized that contemporary Viet Nam had become one of the most capitalistic places I had visited. New businesses were burgeoning everywhere, and western-style hotels were being rapidly built.

My hosts had placed me in a new western hotel, called the Star Hotel. As my driver dropped me at the front door, I noticed that the lobby was decorated with elaborate floral wreaths arranged in a “V” shape leading to the front desk. In front of each wreath stood a uniformed staff member greeting me with a smiling nod. At the front desk I noticed that the staff looked terribly disorganized, as if they’ve never checked anyone in before. And then it occurred to me: They hadn’t — I was actually honored guest #1! It turns out that the “new” hotel was truly brand-new. The next day my partner Jim Moorkamp arrived and checked in as guest #2!

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of the true joys of this job is that we’re always working on something exciting in some part of the globe. Currently, PGAV Destinations is conducting a seven-year renovation of America’s most popular museum — the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC — as well as a plan for a museum and interpretation at the Alamo in San Antonio. It’s such a joy to help preserve and improve such important cultural landmarks for future generations.

In our hometown of St. Louis, our employees are transforming Union Station, a 19th century National Historic Landmark, into the Saint Louis Aquarium — one of the first aquariums in the world to be sensory inclusive.

Overseas, we’re bringing China’s newest waterpark to life at the Chishui Peninsula Resort Changjiang Peninsula Cultural Industry Park in Chishui, China. These destinations will help people by providing new avenues for fun, self-discovery and education. For every project we touch, I look at it this way: visitors give us their precious leisure time and we must do all we can to make their experience memorable and meaningful. This is our mission and how we help people.

Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the U.S. workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

As the 21st century marches on, it’s my belief that too many companies have not evolved to identify and answer the needs of younger generations entering the modern workforce. Employees today don’t just want a job that pays the bills — they want a job that provides a sense of direction and purpose. I think we can all agree that each and every one of us needs a mission. There are many people who have jobs, but even fewer who find their jobs meaningful. I feel much of life is spent searching for meaning and if companies can help provide that at a deeper level, then it connects employees to work in a more profound way. It’s possible that the unhappiness of many employees today comes from that disconnect between “just a job” and employers providing opportunities for a fuller purpose.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability and c) employee health and wellbeing?

The biggest danger of an unhappy workforce and its impact on company productivity and profitability is retention. Especially in the design and architecture industry, high turnover is the kiss of death. It’s vitally important for us to have employees committed and happy, taking past experiences and applying that knowledge to current projects, building upon knowledge to become master designers of the world’s best destinations.

Can you share five things managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

A strong company culture is our greatest competitive advantage at PGAV. I have a strong belief in the below five qualities/tips to improve work culture and reflect on these frequently:

1. Have a mission — this gives meaning to our work. PGAV Destinations’ mission statement is: We believe in the power of destinations to enrich lives, strengthen communities, and unite our world.

2. Let it happen — when one of your team proposes an idea, sometimes the best strategy is to trust them and encourage their initiative. This approach has yielded some delightful results, including story-sharing sessions and constructing a really fun Mardi Gras float.

3. Play together — Playfulness lives at the heart of creativity, which is the lifeblood of our business. Nerf gun fights break out with stunning regularity in the Studio.

4. Be a family — Like any family, we support, love, and challenge each other. And especially in times of loss or tragedy, we look out for each other. In 2013 my business partner Jim Moorkamp succumbed to cancer — we all pulled together as a family to help each other grieve and become stronger from that experience.

5. Encourage exploration — designers draw from their life experiences for creative inspiration. We encourage this through a program called PGAVGO!, which gives each team member $2,100/year to seek self-directed enrichment. After five years, our employees have traveled to more than 40 countries, sought advanced degrees, and learned a wide array of new hobbies.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture.” What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the U.S. workforce’s work culture?

The overall theme of PGAV’s culture is that culture is not created from the top down. It’s something everyone creates and evolves over time, changing constantly through the values and actions of our people. I relate work culture to societal culture. Societal culture isn’t defined by political leadership — it is shaped by the people who contribute every day to its evolution. We as a society can remind ourselves of this in the workplace. Employees — the ones who are looking for purpose and meaning in their careers — don’t want to be told what the workplace culture is, they want a chance to build upon it and contribute to it.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

The quality that best describes my leadership/management style is “empathy.” I’ve always said that design is the ideal blend of creativity and empathy, and it’s how I try to lead as CEO & Chairman of PGAV. To be an effective leader, you must have empathy — a deeper understanding — for the people you’re leading. Empathy is what spurred our efforts as a company to complete a multi-year $3.2 million renovation of our St. Louis headquarters or how we created a life-size elephant float to support the end of ivory trade.

Empathy goes beyond our company culture. The work we do day in and day out also requires empathy. To be successful in the attractions business, we must have a deep understanding of the visitor in order to create an experience that will be memorable and sought after.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

If I had to pick one person, I would choose my father, Leo Konzen, who exemplifies so many of the traits that I value as a professional. He’s an attorney. As I grew up I learned that his professional ethos was to place the needs of his clients first, and to respect everyone. He exudes a strong sense of integrity and is widely known for this. He taught me never to shy away from difficult problems. From him I also learned to work hard at my profession, and to know that the best rewards will come over many years of consistent effort, rather than quickly. He showed me the value of giving back to my community. His example is my north star, and I find myself reflecting on him most days. He is my Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird” — a man of deep integrity and quiet strength. Fortunately, he’s in his ninetieth year and I still benefit from his example of how to lead a meaningful, impactful life. He still goes into his law office every weekday!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I believe that for a company to be successful, its community must be successful. We’ve continued to invest in our hometown of St. Louis, including the revitalization of the downtown area as a creative core. PGAV has led efforts to build a creative collaboration zone with the more than 130 creative enterprises located in downtown St. Louis, fueling growth and business opportunities in the region. We’ve continued to grow as a company and are bringing creative employees to the Midwest and, in turn, exporting creativity around the world. By working together with other creative businesses, St. Louis can become one of the premier destinations for creative companies and employees in the United States and impact people on a global scale.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorites is the old Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is today.” I think the message is important to keep in mind. You can’t let past failures keep you from acting in the present to make a difference tomorrow. It’s inspired me to help PGAV invest in things like the Alberti Program at Washington University in St. Louis. We have a widening diversity gap in the architecture and design industry, especially among African-Americans, and must do something to encourage diversity in the industry. The Alberti Program was started in 2006 with the goal to engage diverse students in fourth through ninth grade with architecture/design programming. The program is free for students and, to date, has reached 145 elementary, middle and high schools throughout St. Louis.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

As I get older I become increasingly aware of the importance of introducing young people from many different backgrounds into the design fields. It’s my dream that the Alberti Program starts here, in the heart of America, and could one day be implemented as a model for schools around the country. A program of this nature truly has the potential to change the design and architecture industry for the better and have a ripple positive effect on the way people experience physical spaces.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click here to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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