Empowering people: Kim Heartwell

May 16, 2021

President and CEO of CallisonRTKL, a global firm that has created some of the world’s most successful environments for developers, retailers, investors, institutions, and public entities.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

At CallisonRTKL (Baltimore, MD), Heartwell is responsible for the strategic development of innovative workplace environments for companies around the world. 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.

“We’re a company where people love the culture. We’ve had lots of rebound employees – in fact, I’m one of them,” Heartwell says. “People who work here are really purpose or mission driven. We are always asking ourselves, ‘What do we believe in?’ For me, it’s all about communicating, staying connected, engaging, and empowering people.”

A conversation with Kim Heartwell.

The Zweig Letter: Can you give me a recent example that illustrates how the company was able to solve an operational problem, effect cultural change, or prepare a client for the future?

Kim Heartwell: Well, we’re in the problem-solving business and in order to be able to effectively help clients, we have to be well organized ourselves. It starts at home. So, we recently re-organized our operations. We used to be organized by region – it was very silo-like – and we found that we were practically competing against each other. So, we moved to a stronger-based practice model. We evolved again and as we developed a more global reach, we became somewhat siloed again. About two years ago, we entered into a matrix model. It’s a little messier, but it teams up employees with office leadership. It forced us to collaborate across offices and practices and opened us up to create a stronger external message. Our organization now aligns with our key initiatives – resilience, well-being, and human-centric design. We created a level of collaboration and communication that positioned us well when COVID-19 happened. The transition was smooth and positive and helped to further reinforce the matrix model. We’ve created stronger relationships and can pivot faster.

TZL: How do you anticipate COVID-19 permanently impacting your firm’s policy on telecommuting?

KH: Moving forward, we’ll have a blend of virtual and in-person. I do know that 100 percent of the staff is interested in returning to work in some hybrid way. We’ve always had a flex work policy, but many people did not even realize it. My office is in D.C. and even before the pandemic I had remote teams. COVID-19 has allowed us to understand that we can be successful working remotely; it gave us more confidence in being able to manage from afar. In fact, it gives people more control. The policy won’t change, but the practice will.

TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”

KH: I’ve always been a multi-tasker. I enjoy the strategy side and my primary role is to guide the strategic direction of the firm. However, I can’t do it alone. I have a team to help me handle it all. I cannot manage full-time. I trust and connect with other leaders too. I also stay connected to clients – some key ones. I need to do that to stay in touch with the client experience. I don’t want to lose touch. It’s all about balance.

TZL: Artificial intelligence and machine learning are potential accelerators across all industries. Is your firm exploring how to incorporate these technologies into providing improved services for clients?

KH: AI is already a primary disruptor. We’re always examining the impact and asking, “How much automation can we bring into the business? How can we use this to make our drawings and evolve documentation?” While it continues to be a challenge, we know AI makes processes easier, often foolproof, and more translatable. We’re currently growing analytics and doing computational design. Clients want us to not just design, but to analyze performance. We’re making improvements to our data analytics to find out how space can improve performance. We’re also working to speed up process in concept phase and to present clients with a deeper understanding. A visualization tool helps to tie design to operational performance and helps us to think faster and deeper. The analytics and computational design tools that we use for design modeling include Rhino with Grasshopper, SketchUp, 3D Studio, Maya, and TestFit. We use Revit with Dynamo for BIM. For sustainability analysis, we use IES, Sefaira, Diva, and Cove.tool. There are others, but these are the core.

TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in developments have increased.

KH: We offer a great deal of many of the usual benefits – bonuses, promotions, etc. – but we’re working to balance the younger and older generations. We listen to staff to find out what’s important to them to maintain top retention. We’ve discovered that environmental and social issues are key for many and we are living and breathing that as a firm. CallisonRTKL signed on to the AIA 2030 challenge at its inception. In some areas of our practice, we’ve made significant strides in the right direction – while other areas offer greater opportunities to leapfrog current thinking. We offer our clients and partners the intelligence and opportunity to design all projects to be net zero carbon in operation by 2030. We also aim for all projects to be carbon neutral – including materials – by 2050. Our leadership team is committed to shepherding our four primary initiatives: wellbeing, resiliency, technology and mobility, and human-centric design to drive the change and shape the conversations that bring our world to a healthy balance. We, as a practice, are committed to advancing this agenda, increasing the urgency, and using our global platform to drive the needed change for our planet. We have a Social Action Committee which is led by the younger set but tied to senior leadership, and we’ve also recently received our Just Label certification (for our North America region), which is sponsored by the International Living Future Institute. Just is a designation demonstrating commitment to social justice, diversity, and inclusion. It’s really all about engagement.

TZL: Tell me about your “Happiness” initiative. I read your blog and it made me feel, well, “happy.” How did this come about and where is it headed?

KH: For the last five years or so, more and more clients are focused on the experience of not just their customers, but their employees too. They’re getting more human-centric across all sectors and are looking to create an emotional connection between people and spaces. It came about as our Environments’ Studio was working with an Egyptian residential developer, Mountain View, whose CEO had created his own company based on the values of happiness. We asked ourselves, do we dare imagine a world where happiness can become the basis for design, a new way to measure value? Together, we agreed to pursue a challenge: To create a movement to design for happiness. Joining our team was Delivering Happiness, a Zappo’s consultancy that specializes in coaching companies, cities, even countries, to create happy cultures. We each brought a unique perspective on happiness to our study, referred to as “The Three Ps”:

  1. Place. CRTKL sought to define how places impact happiness.
  2. People. DH sought to define how values nurture people’s happiness.
  3. Pathways. Mountain View sought to define how companies can build for happiness.

A “Happiness Survey” evaluates the metrics of what makes people happy. For example, spaces for mindfulness activities and more natural light were among the feedback. What started out as a measurement tool is now a concept that resonates across different practice areas.

TZL: Does your firm work closely with any higher education institutions to gain access to the latest technology, experience, and innovation and/or recruiting to find qualified resources?

KH: The pandemic has made it difficult as of late, but we hope to develop and deepen those relationships in 2021. We’re bringing back a research group and are actively involved in working with Berkley University. We also work with some schools where employees are on boards or work as adjunct professors. We keep our tethers tied and are working to grow that segment.

TZL: Is change management a topic that is regularly addressed by the leadership at your firm? If so, elaborate.

KH: For each practice area we have, there’s a formal process for looking at succession planning. We ensure that department leaders and principals have identified successors. It’s discussed during the annual performance reviews too.

TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?

KH: So far, we’ve been around for 75 years. We’re a company where people love the culture. We’ve had lots of rebound employees – in fact, I’m one of them. People who work here are really purpose or mission driven. We are always asking ourselves, “What do we believe in?” For me, it’s all about communicating, staying connected, engaging, and empowering people. During the pandemic, we’ve had virtual office tours to keep people feeling connected and continue to strive to be “human-centric.”

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