Visionary: John Kissinger

Aug 14, 2022

President and CEO of GRAEF (Milwaukee, WI), an international multi-discipline engineering, planning, and design firm that was founded in 1961.

By Liisa Andreassen

GRAEF, a structural engineering company, is dedicated to aligning its culture and business practices to be a beacon of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging for all people. Dating back to 1961, GRAEF has continually grown its staff and capabilities through acquisitions, projects with a true client-focus, and an invigorating work environment.

A strong focus on DEI. DEI is not new to GRAEF. It’s been a focus for the firm for a long time. But, John Kissinger, the company’s president and CEO, says that the murder of George Floyd in 2020 only deepened the firm’s commitment – one that’s active. They hired a consultant to help them create a path forward and to institute firm-wide unconscious bias training. They’re now just at the end of a two-year roadmap that continues to instill energy and change.

Focus groups allow GRAEF to gain valuable knowledge by understanding the opinions of employees. The groups provide input on what GRAEF can do to improve and build a culture of inclusion. Feedback from the focus groups helps shape leadership viewpoints to make firm-wide decisions that align with most employees.

Some changes that have emerged include enacting a family leave program for either spouse and for adopted and natural parents alike. There’s also a plan to eliminate discrimination among the technical versus non-technical staff.

“We learned that some of our non-technical staff felt they didn’t have access to the same types of growth opportunities that technical staff did,” Kissinger says. “We’re now looking at ways to develop stronger career paths in those tracks.”

Other efforts include fireside chats where an informal group of people come together to share personal experiences, juxtaposed to their own. Each chat is hosted by a different person, creating unique and diverse conversation in each session. There are also hack-a-thons – where there’s a problem, a solution must be found. In these hack-a-thons, a diverse group of individuals work together to solve a problem and reimagine the way the firm does things. And, the GRAEF Foundation supports STEM-based careers and promotes diversity in a variety of different ways that include involvement with the ACE Mentor Program in Chicago.

“I truly believe that if you’re inclusive, diversity and equity will follow,” Kissinger says.

Some keys to success. Kissinger is part of the company’s third generation and says that their path toward the future includes not forgetting the humble beginnings from which they came. To meet that end, GRAEF holds immersion events where staff learn about the company’s past which has created a strong foundation and has led to a consensus-based leadership model. After 60 years in business, the company remains on a steady path to growth and is proud to be a national firm with a focus on each of its hometowns.

“I attribute some of that success to having somewhat conservative financial management,” he says. “It’s important to not get over your ski tips.”

As part of that philosophy, once a year, GRAEF outsources a company valuation that reveals book value and profitability. Knowing the company value serves to add to leadership confidence moving forward. Success also stems from creating a culture that’s flexible – even before it was “a thing.”

“We want people to be proud of where they work,” he says. “Our core value is loyalty to employees.”

Offices are designed to encourage collaboration and bring joy. They’re modern, open and airy, and there are indoor and outdoor spaces for staff to enjoy and work in while they collaborate on a variety of projects.

And when it comes to projects, Kissinger puts them into three categories:

  1. Problem/solution (a business needs more parking; add more spaces)
  2. Problem/unknown solution (a bridge is structurally deficient or obsolete; how can we improve?)
  3. Can’t agree on problem or solution (i.e., climate change)

“We’re most focused on the type two projects,” he says. “They’re the most fun and allow us to be creative and innovative. They also allow us to continue to evolve as an industry and to embrace AI – it’s here and moving fast and furious.”

When asked what he personally feels are some of the greatest engineering projects of all time, two classics spring to mind – the Hoover Dam and the Brooklyn Bridge.

“The Hoover Dam shows the beauty of a truly-engineered structure and the Brooklyn Bridge had so much groundbreaking technology for its time,” he says.

Lessons learned. Kissinger reflects on the many lessons learned over the years and says he continues to learn, almost daily. One of his top mentors was a man named Bill Shook. As a colleague, Shook taught him how to manage large teams on complex projects and to have fun while doing it.

“He taught me the importance of moving everyone forward,” he says.

What he wasn’t taught, however, was empathy.

“That’s something that can’t be taught,” Kissinger says. “I wish that’s something I knew about earlier on in my career. It’s not just about knowing the facts; it’s about understanding feelings too.”

Over the years, he’s also learned not to settle.

“Just because it may be the easy way out, doesn’t mean it’s always the best option. In many cases, it’s not. For example, just because a person is next in line for a promotion does not mean he or she is the best choice.”

It’s a combination of these lessons learned and creating an open and successful business model that has fostered a culture of trust among clients too. In fact, Kissinger says that “trust is what we’re really selling.”

“It’s so important to be honest and own up when you need to. You can’t just push the easy button. You need to tell clients when things are good and bad. You need to work through the hard times together and celebrate the good times. Maintain transparency at all times,” he advises.

Having been with the company for 38 years, Kissinger is nearing retirement and says not to underestimate having a strong ownership transition plan in place. GRAEF has no problems in that area. As it’s moving into its fourth generation of ownership, leadership is constantly updating the plan and there’s no mystery among staff.

“Pay close attention here,” he cautions. “Know your expectations. You don’t want surprises in this area.”

As a self-described visionary and direction provider, Kissinger is looking forward to what the next five to 10 years hold. GRAEF recently expanded its geographic reach internationally, into Turks and Caicos and it’s well poised for what comes next.

“It’s certainly a challenging time in our economy and industry and I’m very curious to see how technology and AI will evolve. For sure, it will be interesting,” he says. 

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