Inspire by example: Jeff Justice

Jan 30, 2022

President of Hafer (Evansville, IN), a firm that has created environments that impact people’s lives with fun, thoughtful. and inspirational design since 1978.

By Liisa Andreassen

Since 2004, Justice has provided design leadership across a wide spectrum of company projects. His responsibilities are two-fold: helping to shape Hafer’s strategic vision, and empowering employees to use their imaginations to create a better world.

“I hope my friends view me as a servant leader – a person who does not seek recognition, but spends time building others up,” Justice says. “The mentality is to do whatever it takes to help the team be successful. The goal is to inspire by example.”

A conversation with Jeff Justice.

The Zweig Letter: Part of your firm’s philosophy states, “We don’t believe our designs should simply tell a story – they should enable it.” Can you illustrate what this means with a real-life example?

Jeff Justice: When we design a project, we start by finding out what matters most to our clients and we listen intently to understand their mission, their story. Once we know these things, we design a space that not only tells their story but allows them to live it each and every day. For example, a hospital client’s mission is “to be an innovative leader in health and wellness through unsurpassed quality, clinical care, and compassion for patients and their families.” As designers, our job is to then create a space that exudes excellence, allows staff to work efficiently, and provides patients and their families with safe and comforting spaces. Another example is when a corporation wishes for an office space where employees are inspired. Our role is to bring that company’s story to life by designing the space that emulates their brand, creating workspaces that give employees the flexibility to be creative and to collaborate to achieve their goals, and a space that sparks positivity and happiness.

TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?

JJ: I hope my friends view me as a servant leader – a person who does not seek recognition, but spends time building others up. The mentality is to do whatever it takes to help the team be successful. The goal is to inspire by example.

TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?

JJ: Trust is absolutely the main ingredient for long-term relationships. It is not only developed during the “good times;” trust is earned as you work through consensus development, through difficult decision-making processes and through conflict resolution. All relationships and projects have challenges. What forms the bond is how you resolve the problems in a manner that demonstrates you have the clients’ interests in front of your own.

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

JJ: At Hafer, we purposely choose not to highlight the distinction. Our strategic plan focuses on integrating activities of both concepts into the typical work day for all employees. It’s our goal to build a culture where continuous improvement, client service, employee development, and business development is embedded into everyone’s mindset. The result is not shifting focus back and forth, but a collective understanding of holistic approach to the accomplishment of both concepts.

TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

JJ: My roots are firmly grounded in the baby boomer mentality. Therefore, I have often focused on the accomplishment of tasks and many times failed to experience all the opportunities life and family have to offer. The emergence of current generational cultures has reminded me the importance of work-life balance late in my career. My hope is that future generations are able to achieve work-life balance better than me.

TZL: What skills are required to run a successful practice? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?

JJ: I learned the joy of creative thinking in college, but it wasn’t until I competed for work, dealt with human resource challenges, and “paid the bills” that I discovered true creativity in a holistic business practice perspective. I have learned that successful business practices are what ultimately allow you to be in the best position to experience the creative joy born in college and to produce truly inspiring work.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?

JJ: My first priority is to be a facilitator – to help our future leadership navigate client relationships, conflict resolution, encourage growth, and to be a resource. Ultimately, it’s all about sharing the information and building the confidence necessary for greater future success.

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

JJ: I spend a great deal of time thinking about our firm’s longevity. Our firm is in its 43rd year of existence. I am its second president and part of the second generation of leadership. My mission, as we transition into the third generation, is to teach them what I know and help build a strong foundation. From there, I will be their greatest cheerleader as they work to achieve their dreams. We know staff stay because of compensation, benefits, and culture – but I suggest the reason they thrive is the opportunity to mold their future.

TZL: Over the past year or so, your firm has made several new hires and made several leadership promotions. Is this growth part of a current strategic plan? What’s your growth forecast for the next five years?

JJ: During 2020, our firm completed an enlightening and comprehensive strategic plan. The plan focused on four pillars: Clients, Process, Financial, and People. While we know you can’t succeed without a strong financial statement, excellent service to clients, and an efficient process, we realize that there should be an even stronger focus on our own people. They are crucial to our current and future success. This awareness has led to more visible appreciation of our staff and an emphasis on their overall health and happiness – both for our long-time team members and new hires. At Hafer, we’ve experienced great success over the past few years in terms of number and size of projects and geographical reach. We now have clients all over the country. As our company grew from two states to four recently, we concentrated on assembling a talented, motivated group of professionals who love our culture. This became the foundation to executing our plan. As far as future growth goes, we certainly realize growth is a goal, but the growth is not focused only on a tangible number of staff or revenue, but rather the intangibles of creating an inspiring work environment with great processes that leads to holistic design excellence. If we can do that, the numbers will take care of themselves.

TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?

JJ: As your question indicates, the evolution of a firm must be a transition, not simply a “change.” A planned, informative, and transparent process is critical to building a new generation of independent, courageous leaders who will guide the firm to new heights. It’s important for staff firmwide to have respect and admiration for the future leadership as well. Externally, attention must be given to continuity of client relationships and community involvement. 

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.