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Coffee with a CEO: An Interview with Mark Isaak, President of Isaak Advisory Group

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

In this edition of ‘Coffee With a CEO’, we are talking with Mark Isaak, President of the Isaak Advisory Group. We have collaborated with Mark for a number of years and know that he strives to be a lifelong learner. After 35 years as a practicing consulting engineer, Mark received an MBA this past May from The Citadel. Today, Mark shares with us why he started his firm, his journey of becoming an engineer, how surrounding himself with great teams drove his success, and what being a servant leader means to him.

Juli: First off, congrats on starting the Isaak Advisory Group. How did that come about?

Mark: Well, I have been working in the business side of engineering consulting for over 20 years. Starting my own consultancy has been a dream of mine for about 10 years. I have always been interested in strategy and growth initiatives as well as operational turnarounds. My firm focuses on serving small to mid-sized A&E firms as they create and implement their growth strategies and update their internal process as operations become more complex and sophisticated. Helping our clients maximize their firm’s value regardless of where they are on their growth trajectory is our mission.

Juli: Mark, you have crafted yourself a very unique career opportunity that seems to combine your love and passion for engineering with your love of the business side of engineering. Tell me more about that.

Mark: As a practicing engineering consultant, I was involved in operational turnarounds, adding new services to existing business units, and growing the business in new geographies. The firm I joined out of school went from 650 to 3500 in the 25 years I was there before it was sold. I was fortunate to grow as a business person as the firm grew and I found I had a passion for it. One thing that frustrated me through the years was the disproportionate amount of time spent on operations versus strategic growth. It seemed that time spent in our meetings was 90% operations and only 10% strategy. Strategy deserves more than the last 30 minutes of an all-day meeting. I developed the StART System software to bring an efficient and disciplined approach to strategic growth initiatives so that it can be memorialized, measured, and monitored.

Juli: Can you tell me a little more about the software - I haven’t heard of anything like that before.

Mark: The StART System software was developed to be a framework on which each business unit manager develops their five-year growth projections. Using the firm’s strategic plan as an overarching guide when mapping out their monthly actions over the year ensures alignment within the firm. When all parts of an organization acting independently are aligned on a set of common goals, the overall strategy will have the best chance of success. Each unit manager prepares their own plan and then the plans are rolled up per the firm’s organizational structure. Management and leadership prioritize key hires and investments. “Many hands make light work” was a central theme in the software’s development and the idea results in accountability for unit managers, management, and leadership of the firm. Team accountability is supportive and reinforces existing relationships. I have found punitive accountability to be the number one reason our people don’t stretch our growth goals. So, the plans also identify risks that management and leadership will have to address to make the plans credible. Accountability is a two-way street.

Juli: OK, let’s go back to the beginning. Tell me about your journey to become an engineer.

Mark: My dad says he knew I would be an engineer when I was just a kid. Apparently, I was constantly using his tools and taking things apart. I remember disassembling an old Electrolux vacuum cleaner to see if I could fix it. Unfortunately, that vacuum cleaner was never returned to service! When I was old enough to ride a bike around the neighborhood, I found I had a knack for bike repairs. I could usually figure out how the components worked and then either fix them or replace them. So, I became all my friends’ mechanic. I’ve always loved working with my hands to repair or restore bikes and eventually I moved onto cars. In high school, I took an aptitude test that was designed to help you make a career decision. The result suggested I should consider becoming an engineer. That sounded really exciting to me and given my hobbies, it just seemed to fit. After that, I took AP classes in science and math to prepare for college.

Juli: What things were you involved in as young person that prepared you for your role today?

Mark: I believe that team sports taught me so many things I use to this day. Playing football from age six through high school gave me the experience of being a leader, a teammate and a role player. It’s hard to accept a back-up role when you’re competitive and want to be a starter. But there are times in your career where we will be asked to serve in all three roles. Understanding and being aware of all three roles helped me be a better leader on and off the field. Team sports taught me accept my varying roles and always put the team first. The Citadel is a military college and for four years everything about your life is structured. While it is structured, you must learn time management and self-discipline. The Citadel’s honor code “A cadet does not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.”, is obviously a core foundation and shaped my leadership style.

Juli: How did you select your school?

Mark: So, it was more like my school selected me. Neither of my parents had attended college and I was raised in a working middle class family. My parents could not provide the resources required for college, so I had to figure things out on my own with mentoring from my family and friends. We had a family friend that had graduated from The Citadel and he offered to help me apply for a scholarship. Once I was accepted into the civil engineering program, I worked on pulling together the funds for tuition. The Citadel awarded me a half scholarship, I received a Pell grant and I took out student loans for the remaining costs. The Citadel has offered engineering since its founding in 1842, so I knew it was a great program and I was thrilled to be a part of it.

Juli: When you were graduating from college, did you ever think you would be leading a firm as the President?

Mark: I had aspirations of leading something but did not think in terms of being the president of a firm. I worked for one firm for 27 years and so I had numerous opportunities to advance through the leadership cycle. I was always striving for the next leadership position but didn’t really think about the end game of starting my own firm. I certainly didn’t envision leading a business consulting firm that serves A&E firms.

Juli: What advice would you tell your 25-year old self?

Mark: I would encourage him to ask more questions and be open to learning from others instead of just working harder. I think I was worried about people thinking less of me or figuring out that I didn’t know everything. I see now that everyone knew my secret already! I wish I would have realized earlier that no individual can out work or out perform a team. Once I started working with or leading teams, I realized the power of collaboration. I believe younger people today understand and utilize this concept even before they enter the workforce.

Juli: How would you describe your mindset as a leader?

Mark: I’m a big fan of Good to Great by Jim Collins. He introduces the concept of a Level 4 leader and Level 5 leader. There is a great detailed description in the book, but the analogy of the mirror/window has always stuck with me and involves what a leader does when things go right or wrong. Level 4 leaders look in the mirror when things are good and look out their window to staff when things are bad. Level 5 leaders look out their window to staff when things are good and, in the mirror, when things are bad. That simple concept has guided the leader I strive to be. To me, it is servant leadership where the leader removes barriers, facilitates an individual’s development and inspires the team.

Juli: As I look back on my own career, I feel like each decade is filled with new lessons. What’s one of the biggest lessons you have learned in the past decade?

Mark: We started the decade in the middle of the Great Recession and finish the decade in a pandemic. I have been reminded of a single lesson over each decade of my career, but it really seems appropriate now. I have learned that we will all look back on these challenges and remember how we rose to the occasion and solved the problems presented. These are the “good ole days” believe it or not. Today will be the “good ole days” in the future. My point is that we need to be in the moment every day and enjoy it now and not just upon reflection.

Juli: How did the Great Recession change you?

Mark: Other than localized slowdowns, our industry has been full throttle since I graduated in the 1985. We have always been short on staff and looking for talent. The Great Recession was the first time I ever had to implement staff reductions due to a lack of work. Afterwards I vowed to never again complain about having too much work. I have a lasting awareness that our industry is not immune to downturns and I have more heavily scrutinized how I invest my available working capital. Lastly, I came out of that time thinking if we could survive the Great Recession, we could make it through anything. COVID-19 is putting that concept to the test. But I have always found that reflecting on challenges met in the past is the best way to have confidence facing current challenges.

Juli: What’s the thing that keeps you “up at night” with regard to leading your firm?

Mark: Early in my career, I lost sleep over prioritizing my efforts. I used to get up in the middle of the night, write a “to do” list, estimate a level of effort for each item, and then prioritize the tasks. I would then be able to go back to sleep knowing that I had it all out of my head and onto paper. Later, I would lose sleep over some of our leadership’s decisions. I was frustrated with having to follow what I thought were flawed paths forward. These days, if I do lose sleep, its over my own company and I know I can work through the issues and fix things. Learning how to start IAG from scratch and getting the word out is something that I have been focused on in 2020. As we enter our second year, we are updating our website for new staff and expanded services, creating a demonstration video for our software and launching a digital marketing campaign. Reaching more potential clients is priority one.

Juli: What’s a piece of advice you would give a younger engineer who has just gotten their first leadership role?

Mark: I would quote a mentor I once had as I was leaving Florida to come to Texas where I would lead a completely new group. He said, “Look at each member of your new team and imagine they have a sign hanging from their neck that says, “I am the most valuable resource you have and I have great things to contribute.” I can’t say that I was entirely successful at first but over the years I came to realize what he meant. So, I would tell a young engineer to remember that each person wants to be valued and they want to contribute. Your job as a leader is to facilitate the realization of their goals. Explain your firm’s goals and align the team accordingly. Providing the environment where people feel safe contributing and even failing will produce a highly functioning team.

Juli: What’s the best book or the best movie you have seen lately?

Mark: As you can imagine, I haven’t been to a theater in 2020. But I do have a movie in mind that is very relevant to me right now. Every Christmas I request a “no phone” “no multi-tasking” zone so that my family can watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” together with no interruptions. This past year, its message has resonated with me in a very personal way. Almost too late, George Bailey realizes that he has positively impacted so many people in his very ordinary life. As I launched IAG, help and advice came rushing to me from past colleagues and former employees that worked within my teams. Many are leaders of their own firms now and have engaged IAG based upon our previous relationship. While I’m not finished by a long shot, like George Bailey I have had a wonderful career and I’m fortunate to have worked with many great people. It’s been very rewarding to rekindle old friendships and to have another opportunity to contribute to others’ success.

Juli: Any professional regrets?

Mark: No. I have made so many mistakes but each one made me better the next time around. I have erred on the side of action and timely decisions. Perhaps I’ve had to adjust quickly and pivot when I have made a bad choice but even those examples are lessons learned. But perhaps on second thought, I wish I would have been a better listener over the years. Active listening is a very powerful tool.

Juli: What’s one career achievement you are most proud of?

Mark: From 1998 to 2002, I was an office manager in a small rural town in central Florida. We grew from 6 people to around 40 over that time frame. Things seemed to be really humming in the office and I noticed that we had a great mix of personalities and technical abilities. Everyone was pulling in the same direction and there was mutual respect between team members. In 2002, the firm completed an employee satisfaction survey. At that year’s annual meeting, an outside facilitator shared the survey results with the firm’s management and leadership. When she came to the happiest office category, she explained, “I don’t know what they are putting in the water in Bartow, Florida but they are the happiest of all your offices.” At that time, we had over 80 offices. I felt like we had something special going, but to get validation from my team remains my most cherished career achievement.

Juli: Thank you Mark for sharing your wonderful wisdom & knowledge with us!


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