CEO of MKSK, a collective of planners, urban designers, and landscape architects who are passionate about the interaction between people and place.
By Liisa Andreassen
Inspired to improve cities’ complex socioeconomic situations and the relationship to ever-changing land and water resources, Lucas believes we can do better for our world through sincere engagement, innovative ideas, and sustainable solutions – and he’s putting his beliefs into action at MKSK (Columbus, OH).
“Words spoken by leaders reinforce behaviors – positively and negatively,” Lucas says. “A leader best leads by example and is most respected when others see them walk the walk.”
A conversation with Eric Lucas.
The Zweig Letter: Your passion for travel seems to stem from a desire to learn how different cultures live and connect. Can you give me an example of how one of your travel experiences influenced an MKSK design?
Eric Lucas: I’ve practiced on three continents and in more than 20 states. In my personal time, I’ve visited numerous other places across the U.S. and around the globe. No matter if we’re practicing in our own communities or far away, the local culture, history, ecology, and customs dominate our response. We seek out, through dialogue and research, an understanding of the sense of place. We invite conveners to help open doors, we talk with residents and unofficial historians to learn of local lore, and we work alongside anthropologists and ecologists who lend specific expertise about a place, its people, and its culture. When we do all of this correctly, we can formulate responsible and sustainable solutions.
TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?
EL: My first mentor remains my most influential. Upon graduation, I took a job with Carol R. Johnson Associates in Boston. In my 10 years there, Carol taught me a tremendous amount about the creative and technical aspects of landscape architecture. But more importantly, Carol taught me about how a landscape architect acts, reacts, and interacts. Carol was masterful at owning a room and keeping an audience hanging on every word. I learned to practice with honesty, trustworthiness, and integrity. Every idea needed a reason and a story, and if neither were strong, then neither was the idea. Carol was tough and demanded that of her team too. You couldn’t be successful at her office without having conviction, reasoning, and the courage to stand up for your thoughts and ideas. She always sought “think on your feet” landscape architects to work alongside her. Those landscape architects embodied all of these traits because they, in any given situation, could act, react, and interact in ways that honored the profession and CRJA. Seventeen years after leaving CRJA, I still, and always will, think of Carol as my most important mentor.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
EL: MKSK places tremendous importance on the CEO being active in practice. Without this requirement, I wouldn’t have been interested in this role. What this means is that I spend about half of my time working with clients and teams on projects. This keeps me close to what it is we do, how we do it, and how we need to adapt. I’m also able to directly hear from clients and can collect feedback on our performance and the perception of MKSK in the marketplace. Those insights are essential for me to strategically guide the firm and maintain a strong connection to our team.
TZL: What do you feel is the greatest challenge affecting the AEC industry today? How is your firm setting up to meet it?
EL: There’s a shortage in qualified and talented workers. In the planning and landscape architecture realm, this is intensified in that client needs and resulting work is outpacing the number of graduates coming out of our colleges and universities. Competition is fierce. Companies hoping to stay relevant and thrive well into the future need to invest in their people and in their own knowledge base. On the people side, we’re committed to making MKSK sought-after as a top place to work with ample growth opportunity. We’re intentional in how we staff our projects, gather as a company, talk about our work, and recognize our talented professionals. Our office environments are collaborative, creative, and lively, but unique for each location. We strive to create a culture of “One MKSK” where we’re connected to a unified attitude and there’s a sense of belonging to a large company with vast resources. All of this, plus fun events and great benefits, help us to recruit and retain top talent. But we understand there’s more to it. We deliberately and thoughtfully plan for personal growth at each level, ensuring long-term leadership development, succession, relevance, and vitality. Part of that is developing advancement plans for identified future leaders and improvement plans for those who underperform. We believe in applied learning and give our staff project-based growth and client interface opportunities. We develop more trust in our staff, assign greater responsibility, reinforce successes, and use missteps as teaching moments.
TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
EL: Elevating to trusted advisor status with a client is one of the best rewards of a work relationship. To do so, you need to be mission aligned, bring inspiring ideas to the table, practice ethically and honestly, and help clients understand their blind spots on both project and personal levels. You may not know all the answers, but you can help clients see the issues and work with them to find solutions. Doing this with wisdom, friendship, and empathy will position you for long-term relationships.
TZL: Who are you admiring right now in the AEC industry? Where do you see thought leadership and excellence?
EL: I admire those firms that elevate our practice and tackle society’s biggest problems. As a firm, we strive to do that on each project and we applaud others who are helping to create new conversations about climate, the future of our cities, livability, and our connection to nature. Some of those are firms in the AEC industry, others are in technology, manufacturing, the arts, or business sectors. I’ve taken interest in a broad range of people and industries in order to make my daily practice and management skills deeper and more balanced.
TZL: You were a partner for quite some time before becoming CEO. In this new role, was there a learning curve? Any surprises? Please explain in a little detail what that transition was like.
EL: As a principal overseeing two highly successful and profitable offices for 10 years prior to becoming CEO, I made daily management decisions and regularly considered ways the firm would evolve into the future. I also led several MKSK leadership transition planning initiatives, was integral to our change to a 100 percent employee-owned company, and was an active member of our strategy committee and our compensation committee, where I developed models for how principals can plan their time around their professional strengths. Purposefully, our transition process was elongated, starting with coaching from our past CEO, Brian Kinzelman. Throughout the eight-month transition, Brian mentored me as we met weekly to discuss various aspects of the firm’s management and to problem-solve real-time issues. Months after the formal transition, Brian remains a key principal at MKSK and we still connect on a regular basis. I will always consider him a mentor.
TZL: What do you like most about your new role? Why?
EL: I’m a practicing professional. I must know the ins and outs of what we do in order to connect with our staff and promote MKSK from an experience-based perspective. This deep sense of our practice is complemented, of course, by a sound business understanding and a keen interest in industry trends. I have to be strategic, applying scenarios to decision-making, weighing benefits and consequences and understanding nuances and ramifications. I rely on the expertise of other firm officers to enhance decisions and contemplate legal and financial matters. I trust colleagues and know when to delegate responsibilities to ensure the best possible outcomes. Given the pace of our work and our clients’ expectations, I have to act quickly to identify problems and feasible solutions, but also remain open to other views and ideas.
But perhaps my favorite aspect of this position is that I have to motivate and inspire our principals and staff to provide exemplary services, abide by high ethical standards and develop an admiration of MKSK as a special place to work. If I do my job well, I can cultivate ideal employees. Part of that is celebrating success and acknowledging failures, in a manner that promotes healthy accountability. I’m visible and accessible to staff so that all feel connected to firm leadership as a way of feeling more connected to MKSK. Being CEO allows me to convey understanding, humility, and awareness, and gives me the opportunity to listen, learn, and evolve. In doing so, I lead by example and show staff the importance of connecting to people in a genuine way.
TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?
EL: I’ve heard some at my firm call me the “people’s leader,” which I cherish because it means that I’m connecting with our team.
TZL: You’re committed to maintaining the company’s reputation as a national leader in planning and landscape architecture, as well as workplace wellness and culture. What are you doing to meet those ends?
EL: I must have a passion for this company and possess the language and confidence to speak about how we “Shape Place, Improve Lives, and Tell the Story.” As that person, it’s critical for me to be visible and vocal in leading and promoting the firm. In doing so, I work to elevate MKSK in the marketplace and demonstrate the ideals of thought leadership. But words can only take you so far. Our goal is to be counted among the best landscape architecture, urban design, and planning firms in the U.S.
We’re investing in thought leadership areas that will allow MKSK to be at the forefront of combatting climate issues facing our communities. We’re seeking out “stretch projects” to extend our expertise, capability, and desirability and we’re elevating our reputation in the marketplace by promoting our best work in innovative ways. We’ve also invested in two new offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C., both of which will elevate our profile and give us the opportunity to practice on an even bigger stage.
Internally, we’re embracing growth by giving our team members tools, guidance, space to operate, and ultimately the mission to be invested in their own professional path, thereby extending individual and team capabilities. Central to this is a genuine eagerness to listen and learn, to teach and to be honest in making decisions and handling issues. Words spoken by leaders reinforce behaviors – positively and negatively. A leader best leads by example and is most respected when others see them walk the walk.
TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?
EL: When I interview candidates, I speak about family leave, PTO, continuing education stipends, our travel research program, our annual Design Summit, our Rally in the Alley celebration, our DEI task force, our Staff Council, our QA/QC program, our Women’s Employee Resource Group, various committees, and many other unique programs. Taken together, it’s a very impressive array of opportunities at all levels. Candidates are thrilled at the chance to influence firm culture and decision-making. But the benefit that excites people the most is that we are 100 percent employee-owned. Everyone has a stake. There’s a real sense of pride and togetherness that comes with employee ownership. It plays a major factor in retention.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?
EL: Making MKSK relevant, viable, and successful in a constantly changing world.