At the end of the nineteenth century, author Marcel Proust answered a questionnaire in a “confession album” belonging to his friend, Antoinette. Proust’s responses inspired a tradition that lives on today, most famously on the back page of Vanity Fair magazine. We couldn’t think of a better way to capture Jim Karambelas’ reflections on his career and aspirations for the future as he contemplates the next chapter of life after GLY.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
A few years ago I read an article about harvesting collective wisdom and empowering a group to move forward. It inspired me to restructure the way we collaborate and work together at GLY. Many organizations were, and still are, predominantly hierarchical and top down. GLY was no exception at the time.
The downside of this structure? However great the leader at the top, he or she can’t possibly understand how the individuals who make up the organization execute their jobs on a day-to-day basis. Pushing ideas through the company from the top down without surfacing the underlying issues from the bottom up is hardly a recipe for success.
With this realization, we experimented with our approach to strategic planning across the firm by creating multi-disciplinary task forces around various initiatives and empowered each group to create, author, and implement a strategic plan for their areas of focus. The theory: engaging the people with detailed knowledge of the various inner workings of the organization and allowing them to realize ideas to improve their jobs will also improve the overall performance of the organization.
This effort proved fruitful. Nearly 100 people participated in one of the many the task forces. The best ideas came from those with hands-on experience, deep-rooted knowledge, and most importantly, passion for their work. Driving accountability and trust throughout the organization by a simple adjustment to strategic planning reshaped GLY’s future and ultimately improved our project delivery.
What is your current state of mind?
The industry’s focus on schedule needs to change. When it comes to project delivery, budget and quality are important, but schedule tends to dominate. You rarely hear the term “fast track delivery” anymore since it is the new normal. The complexity of today’s projects require more man-hours, which increases cost and frustration across the board. We all know this needs to change but instead, we throw money at the same recurring problem. At some point, it will get too expensive. This might be the tipping point.
Declining margins impact our ability to make large capital investments in R+D; we’re starting to see capital from outside the industry invested in technology and alternative delivery methodologies such as prefabrication and modular solutions founded on factory-based manufacturing process efficiency. We need to break away from the traditional AIA contract and rethink how we’re producing and using design information. We’re seeing the convergence of technology, prefabrication, and vertical integration and know that there are huge efficiencies to be realized. Those who commute two hours each way to urban environments could instead work as part of highly functioning teams at a facility closer to home. These environments have more control on safety, are less abusive on the body, and provide a predictable, reliable work/life balance. These hardworking individuals are ready for—and deserve—a change.
On a personal level, I’m wondering how I want to spent the last third of my life. I definitely want to see more of the world, reconnect with folks I haven’t had time to see, and spend more time with my family. I certainly want to have fun and stay fit, but also have philanthropic and business endeavors. I want to stay engaged in the industry and make a meaningful contribution.
What is your favorite journey?
Jumping into something completely new. I used to be hesitant about the unknown and new places but my perspective changed dramatically over the last several years. Last month, I was in Toronto and went to a couple different Soul Cycle gyms. Walking into a new environment by myself and meeting new people was fun and emotionally uplifting. Once slightly introverted and shy, I now enjoy this type of experience and look forward to learning something new or finding a potential connection. You never know who you might meet in the most distant of places.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I’ve heard people say that I’m honest and have a good heart. I’m sincerely interested in people and care about them. I’m willing to put myself out there and say what I believe and feel. About a year ago, I hugged an industry stalwart who was retiring and overheard a colleague say, “I can’t believe Karambelas just hugged him!”
What can I say? I have soft heart … you’ll always know how I feel!
What do you most value in your friends?
My friends were supportive and stood by me during some of the toughest times in my life. They took the time to listen and most importantly, they didn’t judge. I realized that my true friends all have this in common and I’ve tried to emulate this in return.
Who is your favorite fictional hero?
Errol Flynn. I always loved the swashbuckler movies—Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood. I watched these as a child and again with my children. Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland were as much romantic as they were action. Errol was always my hero growing up because he was courageous, strong, and caring.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
It’s easy to be tough. When I started in the industry, toughness was the most revered quality, but over time, I realized it wasn’t that important. In many cases it was a defense mechanism. There’s a difference between being strong and being tough. Those who act tough don’t often have their emotions in check. To maintain compassion and fairness while making difficult decisions that you don’t necessarily like to make … that’s strong … and much harder to do.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
My daughter recently told me that I overuse the word “awesome,” but I truly think everything is awesome lately! Maybe it’s because of retirement. Or maybe it’s because so many amazing things happened in my life in just the last few years.
What advice would you give your young self?
Be patient and composed. Be strong but empathetic. Be understanding but know that you’ll have to make difficult decisions while controlling your emotions. I saw very few, if any, good examples of that when I was young. Thankfully, the industry today emphasizes communication and being part of team.