Strengthening communities extends beyond my job as CEO of Wight & Company
By Mark Wight, Wight & Company
December 21, 2020
A few months ago, in a post titled Wight & Company’s Design Principles Advance Our Mission to Create Meaningful Impacts, I wrote about how the desire to be impactful is at the heart of why architects are some of the best people to work with and how that explains why many of us are in this industry. We strive to create inspiring spaces, the kind of legacy work which has the power to strengthen communities.
I wrote about how the culture of our multi disciplined firm of architects, engineers and builders centers the collaborative process as the key to discovering the most creative and responsible solutions. And that powerful collaboration is only possible when there is a healthy company dynamic throughout the entire organization, rooted in shared values like honesty, transparency and positivity.
I explained how hiring for character and fit are just as important, if not more so, than hiring simply for talent and intellect. So, early in my career, I changed the way we hired people at Wight & Company. We started to assess candidates based on character and shared values, which turned into a clear roadmap for communication, acceptable behavior, and performance across the organization.
In my time at Wight & Company, I’ve learned the importance of building an enterprise based on core values. We’ve talked about the values of honesty, transparency and positivity but equally important is the value of charity.
For almost 25 years I have had the privilege of serving on the Board of Trustees for Glenwood Academy, a non-profit boarding school for at-risk children who are academically capable, but come from very challenging circumstances. Founded in 1887 by Robert Todd Lincoln as an orphanage for boys Glenwood educates around 150 students at a campus south of Chicago. The students live on campus from Sunday night through Friday night and, if it’s safe, go back to live with their legal guardian for the weekend. During the week, students live in groups of six to twelve in cottages with house parents who are married couples often with children of their own.
These house parents are role models for the students, teaching them how to interact with each other. The program gives them a support system and structure they may be lacking in their home environments. In addition to academics, Glenwood teaches students the importance of appropriate social engagement. They learn basic skills such as learning to follow instructions, accepting no for an answer, how to disagree appropriately, the discipline required to study, find and keep a job and even manage finances.
One of the most remarkable things I’ve observed working with Glenwood Academy is how effective the organization is in giving students a sense of self-confidence. In a matter of a month or two, you visibly see the transformation. When they first come to Glenwood the kids are withdrawn and distant. They come in wearing an oversized hoodie covering their hands and face. They avoid making eye contact. When you ask a question, all too often, the response is a one word answer.
Soon after that, when you go back and visit that same student, they physically appear more confident and happy. They respond to questions in full sentences and even start asking questions themselves. They make eye contact and they smile.
At Glenwood Academy, if one student gets in trouble, say academically, often the whole cottage gets a consequence. You would think that the other students would get upset with the student that caused the consequence to the cottage, but in fact the other students get behind her or him to make sure it doesn’t happen again. This kind of teamwork response - moving beyond “me vs. us” - is core to a person’s growth. It is also the key to a healthy and functioning team dynamic in the workplace.
All kids respond well to structure. Young people from privileged backgrounds, get a lot of structure at home and tend to have friends and role models all around them. Kids in tougher neighborhoods often don’t have strong role models and haven’t really seen success as the people that are able leave the community.
Even in Michelle Obama’s book, “Becoming,” when she talks about growing up in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood at a time when African Americans were confined, life in many respects was better because on your block there may have been a doctor, a lawyer or other role models. Since then, as neighborhoods become underinvested, poverty becomes more concentrated and people leave - as soon as they can.
I am passionate about improving the lives of children. My wife and I never had any children of our own and it’s nice to have children in your life. For me, there is no greater reward than helping a child and Glenwood Academy is a beacon for the power of residential education to dramatically change the lives of at-risk children.
As the well known Biblical proverb states, “to whom much is given, much will be required” means that I must take responsibility for what I have been given and use that privilege to help others. With the holiday season upon us, in the midst of a global pandemic and rising economic insecurity, there is no better time than now to fully appreciate what we have and to lean on our values to help others.