Self awareness: This is probably one of the hardest traits to develop but one of the most important. Without self-awareness you can end up destroying your company or reputation quickly. For example, I recently learned of a CEO who completely changed the organizational, compensation and benefits structure for their company. This was done in a very short period of time without feedback from key people. The decision to make these changes was done for purely financial reasons and did not take into account the cultural impact on the business. The CEO thought she was a genius. The result was a major loss in key staff who went elsewhere.

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Colby.

Chris Colby is an award winning architect and the founder of Antidote One, a training and strategy solutions company based out of Columbia, South Carolina serving clients internationally. Chris has more than 22 years of experience as an architect working on over $2B in projects and specializes in debugging architectural and construction firm operations, increasing their efficiency, enterprise training solutions and staff effectiveness. Over the course of his career Chris’ work has been featured in Forbes, Lowes for Pros, numerous podcasts and interviews including EntreArchitet and the Young Architect.

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?

The two professional projects that I am most excited about are directly related to my passion and mission to help firms and individuals in the architecture and construction industry reach a level of affluence in their careers and business. The first project is a book to help those who are starting out or stuck in their careers. It’s sort of the “cheat code” of how to elevate your career in the architecture and construction industry. The book is basically everything I wish I had known when I first started out.

The second project is a leadership training program that will help bridge the chasm between firm management and team members. There is a huge difference in generational expectations that has been created from a series of events starting with the financial crisis and most recently the pandemic. There are voids in the workforce where there were no new employees coming to work for firms right after the financial crisis. This was compounded by changes in technology and the pandemic which completely changed how we look at work. During these major events management styles have remained stagnant while communication and employer / employee expectations have completely diverged. Our program will help create a common reality, build an amazing culture in firms and reduce friction and frustration in the workplace. The byproduct of this will be a more profitable business with less stress for everyone.

We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?

Throughout my career I have had several mentors, some good and some bad. Ironically I have learned the most from the bad mentors and leaders in my life about how not to lead others. They were the ones who led through “force” and ignorance. Often they did not take responsibility for their actions and had little self awareness about how they treated others. I learned a lot about how I did not want to lead.

That being said, there is one leader that stands out in a positive way. Lou Larizza, a developer in the Northeast. He was one of my first clients over 20 years ago. Lou treated me like a son, always willing to teach and provide guidance even when I was a “rookie”. The biggest lesson I took away from Lou is that everything is an opportunity, even when things don’t go your way. Recalling his words one day when we were having problems on a project “We will keep twisting this problem until it becomes our asset”. When challenges arise, I use his wisdom as a reminder to keep trying.

Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?

When I began in leadership positions, I mistakingly assumed my entire team would have the same business mindset and drive as myself. I was great at quarterbacking projects and growing the business. Once things were moving, I would hand them off to a team member and start hunting again for the next opportunity. Without knowing it, I was setting our team and the company up for failure. While I was being “successful” doing what I was doing, I didn’t give my team the tools they needed to grow and be successful. Things became top heavy quickly and I would have to stop what I was doing to clean up the mess I created.

I discovered quickly that if I took the time to articulate our mission and our team expectations then gave the team the tools and training they needed (and wanted), we could get more done in less time and were a more productive and happy team.

How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?

My definition of leadership has changed dramatically over time. I used to think leaders were people who were “in charge” and basically got to order others around because they were smarter or were the “boss” who owned the company. Basically the leadership style of do what I tell you because I made it here. Again, this was the form of bad leadership I saw when I was starting out in my career and still see in many pockets today.

To me, being a leader today is the opposite of bossing people around. It means being the one who can set a vision that inspires others. It means being empathetic enough to remember you were a “rookie” once too. A true leader is someone who can create a culture where you can help everyone reach their potential without sacrificing your own. It’s really your responsibility as a leader to mentor and coach those that are on your team so that they can have the same or more success than you.

Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?

While I never subscribed to the “pointy sticks and carrots” leadership model its human nature for it to creep in once in a while. Old leadership models worked off the idea that if you were the leader you must be smarter than those who rank below you. Ideas or methods that came from subordinates were frowned upon. It didn’t take me long to realize that being the leader doesn’t mean you are the smartest person in the room. It also doesn’t mean you need to have all the answers either.

What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?

Simple. Don’t invalidate your team and listen to what they have to say. I think the businesses that do the best have a culture of listening to what people have to say and validate each others strengths.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?

You have to understand that the world never stays the same, and neither should you. Those that adapt survive. This has a lot to do with having self awareness. If you understand that the world is changing you can seek out new information. If you are going to be successful as a leader you need to constantly be studying and reinventing yourself.

Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?

When you step into a leadership role you are going to feel like all eyes are on you. And they typically are. However this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is seeking answers from you. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of trying to solve every problem or answering every question. As a leader, your job is to set the vision and administer the vision. Problems will come up, your job as a leader is to support your team in solving those problems.

Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now? Please share a story or an example for each.

Self awareness: This is probably one of the hardest traits to develop but one of the most important. Without self-awareness you can end up destroying your company or reputation quickly. For example, I recently learned of a CEO who completely changed the organizational, compensation and benefits structure for their company. This was done in a very short period of time without feedback from key people. The decision to make these changes was done for purely financial reasons and did not take into account the cultural impact on the business. The CEO thought she was a genius. The result was a major loss in key staff who went elsewhere.

Empathy: As you move through your leadership career you will come across a wide variety of people with different backgrounds and skillsets. In addition to their backgrounds, the people who you will work with are dealing with life too. We never know what someone is dealing with personally or professionally. For example, you might have a team member that is suddenly or persistently underperforming. It’s easy to get frustrated with them and come down on them for their lack of performance. But what if you took the time to investigate why they are underperforming, while doing so, learn they are caring for someone terminally ill. This changes things dramatically. While this might be an extreme example, you just never know what people are dealing with.

Communication: Communication can fix almost anything, it is the universal solvent to brining a common understanding to any situation. I would encourage anyone who is in a leadership position or may be in one someday to work on this skill, it will pay dividends your whole life. One example I’ve seen of this was related to setting a new vision for a construction firm. The 2nd generation owners wanted to update the vision of the company to be more inline with the times so they could better adapt and grow. They took the time to communicate directly with their team about what they were thinking. Most importantly they listened to what their team had to say. This exchange went back and forth until there was a common understanding about the new mission of the company that everyone could get behind.

Multi Level Thinker: Great leaders understand that there are different levels to any business from the high level decisions that are made to understanding what is happening in the trenches. Too often I see business owners become tone deaf to various levels of their business. They in a sense have blinders on. A great leader is much like a symphony conductor. Every part of the business has to work in concert with the others. We recently worked with a firm that had made some very high level operational changes to their business. While these changes worked for individual departments they utterly failed to work for the business as a whole. The result was a less efficient organization with a drop in morale and revenue. In order to turn things around we had to get all the parts of the “symphony” communicating with each other.

Visionary: As I mentioned before the world is a constantly changing place, nothing stays the same and good leaders know this. You have to be prepared to change with the times and adapt with situations. The classic example of this is Kodak. We all know Kodak for its reign over the photographic film industry for almost 100 years. What most people don’t know about Kodak is one of their employees invented the digital camera. In hindsight this sounds like a great thing, but Kodak didn’t think so at the time and scraped the project. They failed to see that the future was coming and they could have dominated it for another 100 years.

American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.

I love this quote and its a great reminder that life is actually a form of art. For me I plan out my day in 15–30 minute blocks. It sets my intention for the day and eliminates distractions. If you can look at each day as a form of art then you are literally painting your life one day at a time. It’s only a matter of what you do with that time that will determine what your masterpiece looks like.

What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?

How many people I helped create better lives for themselves and those around them.

How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?

Please visit my website or feel free to DM me on LinkedIn or Instagram @ Christopher Colby

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!