Chris Gorney is Creative Director at Second Life Studios (SLS), which exists to design purposefully built spaces with repurposed materials. Gorney is also one Kansas City metro’s emerging and influential leaders.
The Kansas City-based commercial and residential architectural design/build company operates design and fabrication studios under one roof. This gives it the ability to design space and structure as well as fabricate furnishings and aesthetic treatments.
You’ll see SLS’s impressive work at the Up-Down Arcade Bar, at Brigthergy (a local energy company), and at Underdog Wine Co.
How long have you worked at Second Life Studios?
Gorney: I have been at Second Life Studios (SLS) since its inception, two and a half years ago. Prior to this point, SLS existed as a loose association of three independent businesses; a wood shop, metal shop and design consultancy.
What is your title at SLS and what are your responsibilities?
Gorney: I am the Creative Director at SLS. Put simply, this means I am responsible for either designing or overseeing a design solution to each client’s aesthetic and programmatic objectives.
I believe that good design is a sort of quasi-mathematical formulation; one seeking to solve a problem through massing, planning and programming. The fun part comes with whimsy — the brand specific design touches that begin to create spacial identity. Without these touches we would just have an efficient programmatic hierarchy.
At SLS we believe that both the pragmatic and the artistic must coalesce to create a successful space. This is one of the reasons we use repurposed materials. They tend to have an inherent narrative and deep character.
My responsibility is: guiding the client and company through the design/build process, keeping the team and space on the right path.
What do you look for when you hire and what is your leadership style?
Gorney: I believe in replacing yourself. Hire people you could see yourself working for and trust them to do their job. Good leadership to me is casting clear vision and letting that define your strategy. People do not follow strategy, they follow vision. This means knowing what “isn’t but should be,” within each design situation.
Without clear vision people are cast off and wander. I believe in trusting my team and helping them utilize their specific gifts. I admit that this sometimes means giving people enough rope to hang themselves, so to speak. But we learn best by doing and failing.
I want my team to do things worth achieving and worth failing at. I want them to work in such a way that if we fail, we are proud of how we fail. We learn by each experience and move forward as experts. I am certainly not a micro-manager. When we hire I always say that we have no room for mindless cogs. I need ass-kickers and leaders.
How do you engage with your employees and create effective teams?
Gorney: At SLS our vision is to design purposefully built spaces with repurposed materials. We do this through reclaiming nouns; people, places and things. Always in that order. People are above all things. Without a good team we are nothing, and our team is the best. Each of the three members of our leadership team (LT colloquially) take one member of our staff to lunch or coffee each week. This is relational rent, building time and energy into each employee. This is because we want our team to know that they truly are our priority. If your team feels cared for, supported and trusted, it is easier to challenge them and encourage them to be better. A cohesive team works harder, better and more effectively. Spending time with them allows them to know us and to trust us on a deeper level than a simple, “I work for them,” mentality.
What is about your culture that appeals to your team at SLS?
Gorney: We believe our environment is attractive to our generation. Additionally, we bring on difficult and diverse projects. We get the call when you do not know who else to call. No project is alike and each project is new. Sometimes it feels a bit like running a pirate crew, but we get the job done and are learning along the way, building the plane while we are flying it so to speak.
What do you look for in a mentor?
Gorney: I look for someone who I want to be like, a person that runs their business and life like I want to. Honestly, I look for a man who I want to be like. I look for a man who values many things more than his business and in the right order. Never trust a man who values work and business above all else.
When I see an honorable man faithfully running his business in such a way that is challenging, unconventional and inspiring, I chase after that man. My Dad is one of those men. So is my Uncle. Both of my grandfathers were men like that — honorable and steadfast, bucking cultural convention and emphasizing the higher and better.
There are also a few men from college and the KC professional world that I think of daily; men I call when we are in crisis. We are a young business run by young men after all. There is a lot we do not know and a lot more that we don’t even know that we don’t know.
Where did you learn your leadership skills?
Gorney: I don’t think you ever learn leadership; it is evolving and changing. However, many of my benchmark leadership lessons come from watching the men in my family and from an internship with Redeemer Fellowship, a church in Midtown, KC. It is led by a group of the most qualified leaders I have ever seen.
There is also a man named Will Cunningham. I worked for him during college summers. There is a lot to be said about him but mostly I would say I want to be a man like him; to lead like him. He captivates people and knows how to slow down enough to truly engage with people on every level. At every level, business is a people game, not a numbers game. The day you only focus on the bottom line is the day you lose the game. No one wants to work at a place where you are solely a number or unit of measurement within a feasibility analysis or GANTT chart.
How do you recommend leaders network within the Kansas City metro?
Gorney: Be involved in the city. Eat at local restaurants, spend money at local businesses and champion other organizations, regardless of competition or not. I truly believe that a rising tide lifts all ships. This is especially true within the entrepreneur community. We try to be aware and involved in the local business community as much as possible. This means referrals, connecting and sharing information when possible.
What is in store for Second Life Studios in the future?
Gorney: Our goals this year are to slow down, value people and walk the walk. The future will be a success for us if we achieve these. I hope the future holds continued team growth and many more quarters in the black. We want to be a profitable company both in relational equity and fiscal equity. We are about to be featured on HGTV. This could be a fun new time in our company’s history. Hopefully greater national exposure will give us more opportunity to achieve our vision; designing purposefully built spaces with repurposed materials.
What’s your favorite leadership book?
Gorney: Favorite book, that is hard… I love the books ReWork and the E-Myth, both fairly well-known books. There are also a few other lesser known books that do not speak directly to leadership. I am a big fan of anthropological studies, learning from how other cultures view the world and consider leadership. I think my favorite leadership essay is by C.S. Lewis called “Men Without Chests,” a topical survey of man’s responsibility to not fall idle to relativism, but be men believing that the idea of truth does hold weight. It makes me want to lead boldly with reasoned objectivity.