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Much like Robert Frost’s character in “The Road Not Taken,” Steve Klessig has opted for the road less traveled—and he chose it from the very start. Klessig’s father started a dairy farm in the middle of the Second World War with only four cows; he milked them by hand with a lantern and plowed his fields with a team of horses. By the time Klessig, a self-described “farm boy,” graduated from high school, the farm boasted 40 cows, as well as both electricity and a tractor fit with rubber tires.

His story is one less of fate, and more of inspired purpose—and of faith. It’s no accident that Klessig, vice president of architecture and engineering at Wisconsin-based Keller Inc., now serves as chair of the 2021 Associated Builders and Contractors national board of directors. Rather, his chosen path—leaving the farm and beginning a journey in construction—was a choice made by design, with a bit of divine timing.

“I always wanted to be a leader, and then I evolved into a volunteer leader,” Klessig says of his decision to dedicate his time to the national construction association. “I’ve always felt the need—and the desire—to step up and fill a gap where there is one in my community.”

While Klessig did not follow in his father’s exact career footprints, he carries his Midwestern farm values with him still. “I am surprised at the changes from the Greatest Generation to the Baby Boomers to today,” he says. “I would credit whatever work ethic I possess to my dad and whatever humility I have to my mother.”

Many of America’s youth who have grown up in big, open countryside, will find familiarity in Klessig’s upbringing. He was up before dawn to feed livestock and milk cows before walking either to school or to church, just down the road from his parents’ farm. Breaks were rare for the young Klessig. Besides being allowed to come in early from the barn to attend televised crusades by Billy Graham, “the only activity my parents took part in outside of the church and the farm was the county fair,” he says. 

Those coveted, four-day forays to the fair, in tandem with his early years, were so impactful that he chose to put each of his children into 4-H and National FFA Organization programs “because we wanted them to have the experience of—and understand the work that goes into—caring for animals,” Klessig says.

With his love of farming so obvious, why take the road less traveled? Why architecture?

Klessig says the word “always” doesn’t apply a lot in his story. He didn’t “always” know he would hold a high-profile leadership position. And he doesn’t “always” prefer one solution over another. But when it comes to architecture, “I always wanted to create things,” Klessig says. “I thought if I could create a building through a building design, then I could actually, on a continuing basis, see the birth of my ideas.”

FOUNDING PRINCIPLES

An immediate convert to ABC upon landing at his company, Keller Inc., in 1988, he has worked his way up to his present position in tandem with spinning as many metaphorical plates as possible—from councils to foundations to boards, Klessig has raised his hand every time he was asked. Serving as his company’s first-ever design employee at the time, Klessig didn’t balk when then-president Thomas Berghuis recruited him for ABC committee participation. He was elated. “I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I wanted to grow,” Klessig says. “I wanted to ascend within the Keller company and the ABC association.”

While each of these career development opportunities has been significant for Klessig, his extracurricular activity as a campaign manager for state representative, Alvin Ott Jr., is of special interest to him. In 1987, Klessig undertook the task.

“I went to campaign school because I had no idea what running a campaign meant, other than helping out a family member,” Klessig says. 

Thirty years later, the duo of Ott and Klessig can claim to be the longest-running Republicans in the Wisconsin assembly. They stepped down from service together—Ott from the assembly and Klessig from 30 years on the Brillion public school board, in tandem with 12 years on the state school board. The long-term, ad hoc experience of running a campaign, coupled with the elected service component of sitting on his children’s school board, have left their marks on the tenured architect. 

“At ABC, we stand for so many of the things that our country was founded on,” Klessig says. “And one of the things that was essential, according to Benjamin Franklin, in the survival of a democracy or true republic, is an informed citizenry. And if you are going to be informed, you’re going to need to be educated. I think education is an essential part of citizenship and an essential part of being an American.”

COURAGE DURING A CRISIS

Klessig’s fondness for decisive action has guided him from his agrarian childhood to the accrual of the necessary scholarships to attend the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to the love of his life and through a steady flow of award-winning construction projects. These achievements have been paved not on a road of happy accidents, but with hard work and a track record of leadership. 

“You have to have courageous leadership,” Klessig says. “Just because I’ve been elected chair does not mean I automatically am also a leader—that type of thinking, positional leadership, is the weakest form of leadership. You can hold a title, but you can’t be a great leader unless you are able to influence others and persuade them to a greater vision.”

Additionally, Klessig is keenly aware that he is taking over a role during a tumultuous time for construction—and for the nation. During his tenure, the United States will hold an inauguration for President Joe Biden, the COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed and it’s likely another recession could occur. 

“I’m optimistic about vaccines and treatments that will allow Americans to function in a more normal way,” Klessig says of the new year. “I am concerned for companies in the industry; I’m concerned for the health and wellbeing of people in the industry; I’m concerned for those in construction through this process because I’m sure many of them have lost jobs or maybe even loved ones during this period of time.”

The new chair is, however, hopeful that “the sun will rise every day” despite all of the hardship. Focusing on the positives, Klessig says, “I don’t think calm seas ever made a good sailor. Because of COVID-19, good leaders are becoming better leaders; I can now use six different virtual meeting tools; and I learned that my staff could do their work from home. What we are going through will make us stronger, and we will learn new ways to serve the ABC membership.” 

Whether that is in person or virtually, Klessig’s eternal optimism is a trait he hopes to circulate to the entire construction community. Citing the 2008 crash as an example, Klessig says, “I didn’t expect to be living through another crisis, but just like we picked up our pieces and recovered a few years ago, I believe we’ll be able to move on again. I would never bet against America!”

WORK AS A BLESSING

Klessig’s favorite project is “the next one”—anticipation is a daily motivator. “I’m passionate and driven toward the next challenge,” he says. 
One of the reasons Keller, Inc. has been such a blessing to Klessig is that the company is a “generalist” general contractor. “One day, I might be designing a dental clinic. The next day, I might be designing a 5,000-cow dairy farm. And the following day, I might be designing a machine shop,” he explains. 

The forward-looking architect has taken the company’s motto, “Build it as if it were your own” completely to heart, and no two of his projects are the same. “I don’t want to live in the past,” he says. “I want to continually push myself toward learning new techniques, learning new things and coming up with new solutions.”

His leadership style is much the same. In fact, in April 2020, Klessig could be found pushing for change when he picked up the phone and asked ABC’s President and CEO Mike Bellaman, “Are we doing enough for diversity and inclusion within our strategic plan?” Klessig set to work in order to propose a diversity fund for chapters with D&I initiatives that would include a matching grant from ABC.

“We’re not just giving diversity lip service,” Klessig says. “We all remember as a child being pushed out or not included in a group. ABC and the construction world are an infinite pie—surely we can help to find a piece of pie for those that are not already sitting at our table?” 

Klessig’s abundance mentality is always on display; his determination to avoid the scarcity mentality and include diverse groups at the metaphorical “party” could open a lot of doors, for the industry and its workers alike.

“I think everybody wants to make a difference in life, and I can reach more people in more ways than I ever could by being ABC’s 2021 chair. It will give me a platform to make a difference for the betterment of people’s lives,” he says. 

FAITH IN HUMANITY

Philosophy and the study of leadership—including the pursuit of great leaders to study—are not only part of Klessig’s journey; they are an impetus.

After the passing of motivational speaker and author Zig Ziglar in 2012, Klessig began seeking a similar type of thought leader. “I was looking for a mentor with leadership skills, from a pastor’s perspective.” 

That is how Klessig found John Maxwell, a New York Times best-selling author. Maxwell’s ability to teach leadership (with a Christian humanity subtext) stuck with the architect, who says his own leadership traits can be boiled down into three “Hs”: humility, honesty and hard work. 

“I personally believe the highest of all human virtues is humility,” he says. Of honesty, Klessig is reminded of another book, The Speed of Trust by Stephen M. R. Covey. “Trust can only be obtained by being honest,” he says. And of hard work, his inspiration comes from home. “My dad said that if I wanted to get ahead in life (and I don’t mean ahead of other people—I just mean ahead), you have to work when other people are sleeping.”

Klessig’s mentors have meant that his enthusiasm for his profession is sculpted by a leveling counterweight: the three “Cs,” character, competence and concern, inspired by Ziglar’s maxim: “You can get anything you want in life if you just help enough other people get what they want.” 

All of his books and each of his mentors have one thing in common (something they share with Klessig himself). They each have a love for people, for their work and for personal development. 

“I believe in teamwork,” Klessig says. “I love my job. And I recognize that you can’t really accomplish anything by yourself. I believe that it does take a lot of people, all pulling in the same direction, with the same intensity and the same honesty and trust among partners to get somewhere worth going.” 

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