When you expect a lot of others — as Donald requested a lot of me those long-ago summers — it teaches people to demand much of themselves. It’s true to my management style today, where I find ease in granting autonomy to others because of how much I value the same in return.

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 Jon Kramer.

Jon Kramer is a professional engineer who, more than 30 years ago, joined the architecture, engineering and planning powerhouse OHM Advisors as an intern and worked his way up to the C-suite. Regarded by clients and colleagues alike as a strategic advisor and trusted authority, Kramer now serves as president of OHM, the community advancement firm, which has 18 offices in multiple states and a 650+ person team that partners with leaders at all government levels, school districts, developers, universities and private companies to create great places to live and work.

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?

That’s a timely question because, in addition to my role as president at OHM Advisors, I recently took the reins as 2023/2024 American Council of Engineering Companies of Michigan (ACEC/Michigan) president.

ACEC is the premier organization advocating for the betterment of the consulting engineering industry, and I have spent decades of my career advocating at the state and national levels. I also have served ACEC/Michigan in several leadership roles and on the Board of Directors, and I’m thrilled to take the helm as president for a one-year term.

OHM Advisors’ mission of Advancing Communities strategically aligns with ACEC’s goal to strengthen the business environment for member firms through government relations, political action, and business education. As a longtime supporter of ACEC Legislative Day, I’m motivated to promote our industry’s priorities at the state and national levels. I routinely meet with senators and representatives to underscore the importance of achieving bipartisan support for infrastructure funding, water and wastewater issues, transportation infrastructure and more.

As president of ACEC/Michigan, I’m privileged to represent firms across the state and collaborate with firm leaders to share learnings and insights across the industry.

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

I consider Donald Jahncke, a 35-year Ford Motor Company executive, the most influential professional in my journey. I was his paper boy and did yard work for him for about 10 years, from junior high school through college. Donald was a Harvard MBA and taught me so much about business, integrity and life through the way he paid me for yard services and asked me for help with various projects.

I also have been influenced by John Hiltz, former president of OHM Advisors, who has been a valued and insightful mentor throughout my 30-year career. He’s responsible for taking our firm beyond the “AEP” industry moniker and transforming OHM Advisors into a category all its own: the community advancement firm. I watched how he would ask the right questions to uncover new possibilities that are unique and different, and that created “a culture of innovation” that is tangible in our organization today. John passed the presidential torch to me, and I continue to evolve and grow the firm’s expertise to meet our clients’ ever-changing needs.

John left an indelible mark on my leadership style.

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?

I have learned that I am the person who must make the tough decisions myself because I am the person who, ultimately, must live with those decisions. In the past, whenever I’ve made quick decisions based on the suggestions of others and contrary to my gut feelings, I have regretted it.

So today, I tell business leaders to listen to their intuition and have confidence in their own way of making business decisions.

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

I joined OHM Advisors as a 19-year-old intern, spending time in the field working closely with the construction, surveying and field services teams. Before becoming president at OHM Advisors, my most pivotal role was that of the firm’s first-ever COO, a position I ascended to in my early 40s after working as vice president of operations and in almost every facet of the business.

When I assumed the COO role, I understood the business backward and forward. I understood challenges from different vantage points; that breadth of experience helped me hone my definition of leadership and embrace the skill it takes to be a visionary, including making tough decisions and weathering turbulent times.

Three decades of longevity at one firm may be rare in today’s business climate. Still, whether you work at a place for three months, three years or three decades, I encourage everyone with leadership aspirations to climb into the trenches, comprehend challenges and understand the client’s perspective. It’s important to value what it takes to work hand-in-hand across disciplines and geographies and with clients to create smart solutions that build community sustainability.

It takes resolve and focus on learning an organization from the ground up. Developing a comprehensive perspective is among the most invaluable tools in any leader’s tool belt. It equips you with boots-on-the-ground and 10,000-foot viewpoints that allow you to see new possibilities and make strategic choices in times of crisis or change.

Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. How do you build legacy behavior?

I took over as president at OHM Advisors during the COVID-19 global pandemic and this certainly affected my leadership style. In my previous roles, primarily as COO, I kept a close pulse on operations, efficiencies, client relations, employee relations and our bottom line. However, with so many competing priorities in my role as president, I quickly realized the necessity of leveraging strong internal and external relationships, being flexible and trusting OHM’s leadership team and employees to live our core values — dedication, teamwork, people-caring, and integrity — as we all struggled suddenly to navigate a forever-altered workplace reality.

At the pandemic’s beginning, I held daily (and sometimes more frequent) operational meetings to address our employees’ and clients’ challenges. Throughout the crisis, I knew that establishing open, consistent and candid communication with all team members would be a critical component of my success as a leader — and I wanted to make the trait of being a good communicator one of my hallmarks. Today, I know first-hand the value of listening carefully to what employees want and need: primarily a desire to work in new and sometimes uncharted ways. As a result, we have created an innovative and collaborative culture that offers employees flexible and hybrid work arrangements.

In terms of building legacy behavior, I think listening is a key skill and one often underrated. It is not just an imperative of mine to remain laser-focused on strategic initiatives to propel OHM forward but to sustain an organizational environment informed by multidisciplinary, holistic perspectives from a cadre of diverse voices and people with varied experiences.

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

I have learned that effective leaders require clear work/life boundaries. My job requires long hours and a lot of travel, but I’m not beholden to only logging desk miles. In fact, I often do my most strategic thinking while out running, a passion I carve out time for every morning — even when I’m on the road. And when I’m on vacation? I consciously choose not to constantly check emails or return texts or phone calls.

It’s one of the many reasons why having complete trust in my leadership team is crucial: I know without question that they will act in the firm’s best interest — and that of our clients’ communities — regardless of whether I’m down the hall or hiking across the country. I am committed to leading by example with a healthy and sustainable work/life balance. If I can step away for a few days without the sky falling, our employees can and should, too!

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?

I like Dr. Maya Angelou’s adage: “You can’t really know where you are going unless you know where you have been.”

To successfully let go of the past requires a leader to respect what they have learned from the past while simultaneously making the most of present-day opportunities. It’s wildly inspiring to have OHM’s successful history to lean on as I imprint my leadership style on the firm as it is today.

Offering advice to other leaders would include encouraging them to be open to ideas and ways of doing business that differ from one’s own. Throughout my career, I have gained enormous insight from working with people who think differently than I do — and I consider understanding these differences a great asset to me and the firm.

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 it comes to leading people for the first time, I will use one word: Trust. Trusting the experts on your team to do what they do best is a pivotal challenge. Giving employees autonomy and articulating clear expectations is empowering and inspiring. I’m a firm believer that greatness is not born of complacency. OHM didn’t land on the prestigious Engineering-News Record’s Top 500 Design Firms by playing it safe. And we surely couldn’t deliver award-winning solutions for our clients and their communities without putting people first. In short: People are every organization’s greatest asset. A great leader can recognize this truth and harness the power of it.

Committing to doing things differently inherently means making mistakes along the way, knowing they will happen, and being okay with having to pivot. Assuming good intent goes a long way toward diffusing difficult situations. Communication, collaboration and connection will always win the day and maintain a culture of trust and empowerment.

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.

My top five traits of effective leaders are empathy, emotional intelligence, trust and integrity, accountability and empowerment.

My interactions with my childhood mentor, Donald Jahncke, taught me much about these traits that still guide me today. While I started simply mowing Donald’s lawn, our interactions grew to teach me about integrity, tenacity, and doing what it takes to get the job done, even if the tasks are not those expected at the outset.

Donald also showed me what value means from the client’s perspective. I was wholly unaware back then of how to negotiate or set prices for my services, but Donald would pay different amounts for different chores and tasks. I quickly realized he assigned greater value to tasks he didn’t want to tackle. This great man taught me the value of showing up on time, honoring commitments, and listening carefully — all foundational traits that have shaped my leadership perspective.

Some days I showed up expecting a quick lawn mow job but was tasked with hours more of unexpected work. Even if not the day I anticipated, it was important to me to do whatever it took to get the job done. Donald trusted me to keep my word, and I never wanted to disappoint him. Over time, I learned that trust, integrity and accountability in action — these lessons shaped who I became as a person and leader.

When you expect a lot of others — as Donald requested a lot of me those long-ago summers — it teaches people to demand much of themselves. It’s true to my management style today, where I find ease in granting autonomy to others because of how much I value the same in return.

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

I cannot control the past, but I can control what I do in the present. I love looking for “little wins” each day. Even if several things have already gone off the rails in the morning, I can still finish the day with something that will significantly impact the firm or those around me. As a lifelong athlete, keeping my head in the game is fundamental to feeling successful on the toughest days.

I must make lots of big decisions every day. Knowing that my choices today will influence tomorrow’s outcomes encourages me to focus on the importance of making great — not just good — decisions. Smart decision-making leads to the “masterpiece” days that John Wooden was talking about.

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

I aspire to leave a legacy of being a fair (and fun!) leader who makes an enduring, positive impact on people. I will consider myself successful if I’m regarded as someone who motivates and inspires others. I want to be seen as a leader who establishes a perceptive and meaningful vision for the future of our firm that others find compelling. I also want to be remembered as a person who doesn’t take myself too seriously — and can celebrate meaningful moments both big and small.

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

Let’s connect on LinkedIn!

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