Peer Talk Profile: Mark Sexton
Perhaps no field was harder hit by the recent economic downturn than the design and construction industry. And despite having several high profile and successful projects to their credit, such as the Spertus Institute on Michigan Avenue and the Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park, the firm of Krueck + Sexton Architects was no exception. After watching their profession essentially come to complete stop, two of the partners from the firm – Mark Sexton and Tom Jacobs – decided they needed some proven strategies for navigating these difficult times.
To fill this gap, the two partners decided to enroll in the Chicago Management Institute at Chicago Booth. The program, which offers general management essentials for executives looking to keep their company competitive in today’s market and the future, gave them a new perspective to rethink some preconceived notions about their business.
By stepping back and critically examining their field and competitors, Sexton gained invaluable tools to help further define his business and its goals. “It enabled us to see our firm and our profession in a different light – in a more open and I think more general light – and that was quite helpful,” he says.
Getting Back to Basics
Sexton and his partners knew they needed a strategic plan in order to make it through this rough patch. Unfortunately, none of them knew precisely what a strategic plan involved. Sexton and Jacobs needed to start from square one, including understanding exactly what they were talking about.
“We knew that we had to have a plan moving forward, that the Design and Construction world was changing very rapidly and that without a foundational plan we’d simply be tossed in the surf of the turbulent seas. We really thought we did not have the business experience to even understand how to make that happen.”
After attending an informational meeting about the program with professor James Schrager, Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management, Mr. Sexton was unsure of what to expect. “We sort of figured, when you teach a class that many times, you’ve got all the answers.” But he soon learned that the program offered more than just idle promises. “What we heard him say in that introduction was followed through in spades when we actually took the class,” he says. In just six months, the partners received the background they needed to craft a plan for weathering the storm. Not through affirmations or motivational ploys, but with classic, time-tested methods.
“We actually learned something very simple,” he explains, “that goals are not strategies. ‘I want to be more relevant,’ is not a strategy; it’s a goal. The strategy is how you’re going to get there.” Sexton was able to take these deceptively simple lessons and use them to develop a strategic plan that they’re now using to gauge what course the firm will take.
The partners also found that one of the most basic tools of business education, the case study, was able to offer some comforting and crucial information. “We were under the naïve impression that we were the only ones struggling through this downturn in the economy and all you have to do is go through a couple of case studies to realize that’s not true.” In addition to offering some perspective on their situation, a competitive analysis also helped them find a path forward. “We thought, ‘Our competition – well, we don’t pay too much attention to that.’ But actually knowing what our competition is doing, how they’re doing it, and why they’re doing it is very insightful. We’d never thought about that before. And that’s one of the foundational things we learned as an instrument in evaluating a strategic plan.”
A Fresh Perspective
By taking the class with his partner, Sexton found that the two men gained different perspectives on the same basic principles, making their meetings once the class had ended much more dynamic. “That was actually very beneficial because both of us were in charge of guiding the firm, and so having us both take the class allowed us to collaborate in the development of the strategic plan in a way that really complemented each other. If we both had not taken it, it would have been more difficult.”
Sexton found benefits from working with his fellow participants as well. With the inclusion of engineers, manufacturers, and many other experienced professionals, he was pleasantly surprised to see how many of the challenges his firm was facing actually spanned across several industries. “It was good to see the diversity and then to see it’s not so much a business problem, it may just be a human problem.”
Though all the attendees were seasoned business professionals, they also found that there were industry terms that they’d all been taking for granted. “When people talk about strategy,” he explains, “what does that mean? That’s a very loose term and I think by taking this course we understood exactly what a strategy is and how to develop it, and it’s not something specialized in any one business.”
Obviously there is no magic bullet, and no class or business background – no matter how robust – can completely mitigate overwhelming market factors. The two partners were, however, able to find a way to refocus and concentrate on the aspects of their industry they could control. “The goal of a business is not to make as much money as you can without going to jail,” Sexton explains. “It’s about creating customers, creating users. That was very insightful for us to hear.” Today, the firm is looking toward the future and applying the skillsets they learned to strengthen relationships and keep the spotlight on the dynamic, creative work they love.