Joseph Makar, managing partner of WRA, focuses on common missions and goals

Joseph Makar embodies the leadership-by-professionals approach of Whitman, Requardt and Associates, an engineering and architecture firm headquartered in Baltimore.

Since its founding in 1915 by Ezra Whitman, who led the design and construction of the city's Montebello Water Treatment Plant, WRA has been led by partners who are longtime engineers with the firm.

Makar, this year’s winner of the Top Workplaces leadership award among large companies, joined WRA in 1993 as a University of Maryland-trained civil engineer and rose to become is managing partner.

Employees of the firm called Makar “focused, driven, hardworking” yet “understanding, willing to work with employees.”

“They care about the company and offer the employees opportunities to break bread and share stories and laughter about one another,” said another employee of the firm’s four partners.

Makar took some time away from his work on transportation-related projects to answer The Baltimore Sun’s questions about leadership:

What is a leader’s role in building a place people want to work?

Above all, a leader must work continuously to create a culture that attracts and retains talented people who share a common mission and goal. To do that, a leader needs to regularly conduct critical analyses of the organization, and himself (or herself), to ensure that the company is moving in the right direction under his/her guidance.

A leader is also responsible for guiding and inspiring the entire leadership team in order to meet the company’s short- and long-term objectives. Decisions then are not always easy, as they must be made based on what is best for the company, not the leader or other members of the leadership team.

A leader must strive to keep the company nimble. He or she should not allow process and bureaucracy to become part of the company’s culture, as that will hamper both innovation and organic growth. Leaders should also instill a constant drive for improvement in other members of the leadership team. Leaders are always positive and approachable to the staff. Once leadership becomes complacent, the company stops improving.

What is your influence on your organization’s culture?

Senior leadership, including myself, play a major role in the company’s culture. It is our responsibility to lead by example and to set the tone for a culture that attracts and retains talented people who share our common mission.

How do you decide when to be hands-on and when to delegate?

The decision to be hands-on or to delegate depends on the experience level and ability of the individual or group. As you bring in less-experienced staff, being hands-on offers opportunities to mentor and grow staff, both professionally and culturally. As the staff grows professionally, gains experience and understands the company culture, it is very important to let these staff members be independent. Senior management needs to understand that although a person may approach a problem or perform a task differently than they would, it is important to recognize that the end goal is met with accuracy and efficiency.

What’s the hardest lesson about leadership you’ve learned?

Letting go and encouraging other senior management to let go is very hard. It is difficult to determine when an employee is ready to become more independent. WRA is a firm comprised of detail-oriented individuals who have a professional responsibility to our clients and the public to design infrastructure and buildings correctly. So there is tremendous responsibility on both a personal and professional level that the job be done right and to the highest standards.

Additionally, when making major changes in a company, it is important to recognize that the transition to change is the most challenging period in the process. Most people do not like change, and successfully transitioning employees through change is difficult. To minimize confusion and prevent dips in morale, it is vital to clearly communicate that the changes are being made to keep the company — and jobs — more secure and competitive. The transition process also needs to be well thought out.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in leadership?

Assess yourself and lead in a way that matches your personality. You must have a passion and commitment for your business. If you don’t, avoid the leadership track.

Listen to everyone. I mean really listen. Then think about what they have said and truly absorb it. Treat each employee as a valued individual. Learn who they are, understand that they may have different skill sets and goals, and recognize what they bring to the work environment.

Work hard to create a diverse group of employees. Your company should reflect the world outside its walls. With advancements in business and technology, the world is becoming smaller, and we need to include employees who represent different ethnic backgrounds, faiths, and genders if we hope to be successful. The world changes quickly, and you need to be able to adjust the company’s culture in order to keep up with change. To do that, it is important to continually recalibrate your organization around your staffs’ strengths and weaknesses and fill in with new staff where necessary.

Finally, have a personal exit strategy. Grow new leaders from within the company so it can continue to thrive once you have retired.

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