BSA’s Sam Jackson on His New Leadership Role

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February 9, 2024

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For nearly 50 years, BSA has sought to create inspired solutions that improve lives. We specialize in the markets of healing, learning, and discovery, which meaningfully impact the communities in which our projects are located. Changing lives happens through solving real problems that healthcare and higher education facilities face, and we seek to partner with clients whose vision aligns with that quest.

On May 1, 2023, Sam Jackson stepped into the firm’s President role. In his 25-year career at BSA, Sam Jackson has served the firm in various roles, helped design hundreds and hundreds of projects, and had many clients. 

In our conversation, Sam shares insight on integrating the CEO’s vision into the firm, changes in engineering, and ensuring transparency and accountability in a leadership position.

What have you learned in your career that has stuck with you?

Aside from all the technical skills, one of the first lessons I learned as a young engineer was the importance of making others successful. I was on-site with a mentor who pointed to a facility director and said, “Your job as an engineer is to make that guy successful. If you make him successful, he will always hire you.” I’ve tried to apply that advice to all my relationships. It’s not just about the facility guys. This applies to our clients, their projects, and our people. If you help people achieve their goals, they’ll usually stay committed. The trick is keeping the staff’s individual goals aligned with the firm’s goals. When there’s no alignment, something needs to change, which is fine. It’s better to make a change than be frustrated.

What significant changes have you seen in engineering since you started in the industry?

The parameters of design have changed. Redundancy, reliability, and resiliency have always been paramount in our markets. Decades ago, this was achieved by overdesigning all the systems and making them much bigger than needed. This provided a lot of safety factors and surety, which let people sleep well at night. What is common knowledge now is the amount of energy that is wasted. The energy code has been adopted in almost all states, which has been great. We now design for redundancy, reliability, and resiliency as efficiently as possible. This reduces utility costs and equipment costs and reduces waste.

As President, how do you integrate the CEO’s vision into the firm daily?

Once a year, the leadership team meets for a two-day retreat to review the prior year and set the plan for the following year. Once a quarter, the leadership team meets for a one-day retreat to review the prior quarter and determine the most important things to do over the next quarter. We stay focused on the one-year plan to make sure we stay on track. The CEO and I meet weekly to ensure we’re aligned on the vision. The leadership team also meets weekly to solve the most critical issues and hold each other accountable for achieving our quarterly goals. It’s a lot of regular meetings to stay aligned.

After that, each leadership team member is responsible for a different company segment. It’s our job to keep those groups aligned and working towards the same goals. We use the weekly meetings to review areas that are out of alignment and figure out how to solve those issues to get things back in alignment.

How does BSA help clients navigate the current healing, learning, and discovery market?

It depends on the client and the project. Every project has been hit with price escalation and procurement issues. The time it takes to deliver new materials and equipment has doubled or tripled since 2019. We’ve also seen price escalation that this generation has never experienced before. A lot of what we do is educating the client and setting realistic expectations.

On larger projects, our design and planning group leads the initial effort. We focus on research and studies to start with a design that has a proven track record. This is a mix of published articles and some of our own research and studies.

We apply what the evidence shows to the client’s goals and objectives. Every project is unique and custom, so a depth of expertise is required to know how to apply the data correctly.

How do you ensure transparency and accountability in a leadership position?

We work hard to provide a culture of trust where people can be open and honest about what issues they’re seeing, what they’re struggling with, and how we can improve. At a leadership level, we have regular team-building meetings. Part of that is undoubtedly dinners and spending time together to get to know each other, but it’s also having the hard conversations about what’s working and what’s not. Open and honest. For the rest of the firm, the leadership team travels to a different studio monthly for town hall-style meetings to encourage conversation. We do a lot to make it easy for people to access leadership so they don’t have to seek us out. And we’re always open to new ideas and trying new things. We recently started a virtual ELT Exchange where a couple of people from leadership join a Zoom call and provide an opportunity for people to join and ask questions. It’s modeled after a college professor’s “open office” hours when students can stop by and ask any questions. People appreciate having access to leadership and a smaller setting where they’re more comfortable asking questions than a larger group setting.

At a more practical level, we have also defined the top three to five accountabilities for each role in the firm. This means that everyone in the firm should know what success looks like for them. We have also defined our core values so we know what it means to be the right person for BSA and to be in the right seat, which means to have the right role. The accountabilities and core values provide clarity and make conversations more straightforward.

How do data and analytics drive decisions on design projects and in leading BSA moving forward?

Like many things, data and analytics are where we start conversations. They help provide a starting point for what has worked in the past and what is most likely to work in the future. That knowledge is used to guide conversations based on the vision and goals of the organization to increase our likelihood of success. There’s no way to guarantee anything will work, but data and analytics remove many variables and reduce uncertainty and risk. They help get to a better solution faster.

Who has been a mentor to you in your career?

I’ve had a few great mentors. When I was younger, I worked with some great principals who took me under their wing and helped me. Bob Shea probably had the most considerable influence. He was a mechanical engineer who helped me develop by explaining what high-quality design looks like, what high-quality client service looks like, and what it means to be successful as an individual and a firm.

What are some books that have influenced your leadership style and why?

That could be a long list. I read a lot. But I read very purposefully. I don’t read just to read. If I take the time to read a book, I know going in what I hope to learn.

I really like some of the books by Patrick Lencioni and Jim Collins. Patrick Lencioni has fantastic books on leadership and team building, including The Ideal Team Player, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive. These books help reduce the noise and get back to the basics of leading a truly cohesive team that gets a lot done.

I like the Jim Collins books because they’re rooted in years of research. There are lots of ideas about how to lead and what people want. Jim’s team’s research removes many of the ideas and theories and exposes what has really worked. The depth of analysis is key. I particularly like Good to Great and Built to Last. Ultimately, we’re trying to create a great company that endures beyond any individual.