April Meyer of Alliiance: 5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry

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Always be looking for the next layer to be explored. Once you have mastered a topic or approach, ask yourself what is next — don’t be complacent.

As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing April Meyer, Principal, Senior Terminal Designer — Interiors, Alliiance.

Airport design has evolved substantially in the past several decades with increasing customer expectations that now include quality, comfort, and even relaxation in an environment that traditionally has been known as stressful and rigidly functional in nature. Over the past 22 years, April Meyer’s work at Alliiance anticipates and celebrates these passenger expectations and encompasses notions of equitable access, and fundamental well-being.

She has brought her creative leadership to projects at 40 airports including Minneapolis — Saint Paul International Airport, Memphis International Airport, and international locations such as Reunion Island in the South Pacific and Quebec City, Quebec. An Interior Designer by training, April’s leadership extends beyond the airport’s interior environment, and shapes fundamental planning and overall architectural concept development.

Her specialty is in passenger-oriented airport terminal design that enriches the passenger experience by infusing terminal interiors with a sense of local identity, hospitality-oriented amenities related to the practical impacts of generational shifts, and equitable experience for all passengers. April’s approach to design relies on deep communication with airport staff, leadership, and their customers. She has pioneered methods of client engagement including facilitated workshops with visual and verbal exercises that help develop consensus and authentic “vision.” April routinely shares these ideals and approaches by speaking at international aviation conferences and articles she has authored.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington where my extra-curricular activities included playing and refereeing soccer, captaining the high school dance team and playing piano. While studying at the University of Minnesota I became enamored by the impact design, and in particular design of interiors, has on the quality of people’s lives. The inside is where it counts — it’s where people dwell and live their lives. I love color theory as well as exploring the differing needs and preferences we all have as individuals that can be addressed through design.

I have worked at Alliiance, a Minneapolis-based Architecture, Interior Design, and Planning firm specializing in airports, since 1999. Although I have worked in retail, workplace, and hospitality design, a majority of my career has focused on planning and designing airport terminals and concourses around the country and abroad. In the end, Minnesota is home. I am a big Minnesota United soccer fan, love to cook, entertain, and also enjoy spending time in northern Minnesota at our family cabin.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are a thought leader?

I believe great design is ultimately the result of the talents, efforts, and leadership of many. The notion of a singular visionary who accomplishes and leads all by themselves — that is self-delusion. Alliiance is a leader in the aviation design world in promoting design that is passenger/user-focused — it’s not just about technical functionality, but also de-stressing guests and creating a healthy environment both physically and mentally.

Likewise, Alliiance pioneered the notion of integrating meaningful expressions of place, including a sense of authentic regional place, within the interior design of airports. Part of my role as Principal and Senior Terminal Designer for Interiors at Alliiance is to rally our staff to these goals and educate the industry as to the importance of these considerations to enhancing the satisfaction of their customers, their guests.

I am frequently one of the first to talk to our clients early in a project, lead workshops, and work together to develop a vision that then can inform the rest of the design, then inspire the rest of the team for the long road ahead to realization. I speak at conferences and contribute to articles in support of these ideas — but in the end it’s when my partners join ranks in support of the vision that has been established, and lend their own individual talents, and lead in their respective areas, that great things happen. It must be a team effort.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

With my hospitality background I had the exciting opportunity to work with a major Restaurant group out of Florida to develop a new restaurant concept. They pulled together a diverse group of individuals for three days of intense brainstorming, food eating and concept development in Miami. The diverse group included an architect, a costume designer, an anthropologist, a cognitive psychologist, a graphic designer, a chef, and me. It was an incredible experience to partner with such a talented and interesting group of people.

This brought me to airport design, because one of the companies I worked at as an intern was in hospitality. When I arrived at Alliiance I had that experience, so it was a natural progression to think about airports from a hospitality perspective.

For example, now I’ve been working with Minnesota’s Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) for more than 22 years, and my perspective has always been to make it an extension of the hospitality industry.

Alliiance has also really pioneered the notion of creating design representative of the region where the airport is situated — it’s truly a civic gateway. We started doing that at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport back in 1996. An airport is a gateway to a community, so we always tried to find that authentic voice. For someone who has never been to a community, they can learn a bit about where they are from the airport. It shouldn’t just be a white box. You also want residents to be proud of their airport- that it’s a part of their community, part of their experience.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can’t think of a specific mistake though I am sure I have many throughout my career. One thing I do try to instill in my team is that mistakes will happen but it’s what you do with it that matters most. We are human and we will make mistakes but you need to own the mistake, move to a solution and learn from it.

In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different from a typical leader? How is a thought leader different from an influencer?

Leadership is the baseline needed to move organizations and projects forward toward established goals — and along the way people are inspired and give their best. But an end result is not necessarily ground-breaking, but rather accomplishing well, what was set out to be done. Thought leaders are needed to sense the opportunities and anticipate needs that are still out there and lead the charge to take them on. I suppose a true influencer is someone who is able to merge thought leadership with the ability to inspire people to take those next level challenges on, to make them their causes as well. (This is completely different than the “influencers” self-promoting themselves on social media platforms for shallow reasons of ego).

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

It is personally gratifying to know one’s efforts have made a difference in people’s lives — it’s most rewarding when the impacts of abstract ideas are made real. For example, our firm, Alliiance, has been introducing airports for more than 20 years to the idea of hospitality-inspired public lounge environments with a range of comfortable seating types for people of all physical abilities, art, calm lighting and amenities to allow a variety of activities from relaxation to work.

We have pushed for equitable access. People are talking about this now, and maybe for the last ten years, but Alliiance was on the forefront of that conversation. We must stop looking at airports as just a space for moving people and moving baggage. We are sensitive to providing a variety of landscapes and situations.

Airports are a unique building space — you’re designing for and have to be sensitive to the fact that every single person from the grandmother with not much mobility to the young woman who’s pregnant deserves an equitable experience. With bathroom stalls, for example, we’ve designed every single stall to be ambulatory, with space for suitcases. We bring in a variety of different types of seating, so passengers can customize their experience. I’m a gen-xer, so I want desks and tables to do my work, but younger people might be seeking out different places.

Now, when I travel, I see families lounging in these spaces that were the direct result of our advocacy, young and old alike able to use work hubs that have been integrated, couples are entranced by the art. All of these people are living their lives if for but a brief while, in an airport, and they have been lifted up.

It all started with our firm identifying, then communicating, the potential — and intentionality of seeing these environments through.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

In most industries, and certainly mine, not only is there a lot of competition, but it can be overwhelming to clients and potential clients. In the end architects and interior designers are all too commoditized — tissue paper is tissue paper — right? I can “buy” design here or there — right?

That is absolutely not true — there are vast differences in the abilities, end product, and importantly, experience of working with different designers. It pains me so much when I know a firm who themselves view their own work product, design, as simply a commodity to be sold, is hired, and invariably the project performance and end user experience — will be less than it should be.

Being a successful, i.e. impactful, thought leader can help differentiate what you are able to provide as opposed to your competition in an authentic, non-gimmicky manner. Believing in something makes it so much easier to communicate successfully, and ultimately be successful in business. Thought leadership gives you something to believe in.

Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

  1. I think the most important thing is to find your passion. Passion will drive you to deeper commitment to pursuing your topic, your message, and allow yourself to be comfortable and authentic when talking to others.
  2. Avail yourself of others’ insight — self-promotion should not be at the core of leadership in any case — and interacting with a team or partners on the topic you care about will help unearth other dimensions.
  3. Try to find ways to engage your audience beyond simply providing your conclusions. At Alliiance, we frequently use “visual listening” exercises to engage our clients in developing their vision, to get to more fundamental, authentic core design ideas, than “likes,” “trends,” or “fashion,” might otherwise yield.
  4. Engaging in the same type of exercises for yourself can help you advance your thoughts.
  5. Always be looking for the next layer to be explored. Once you have mastered a topic or approach, ask yourself what is next — don’t be complacent.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach?

I have a tough time naming one individual — there are so many innovators from whom I have taken inspiration. However, in my mind, someone who innovates, is true to herself, and exemplifies great leadership is Anna Wintour, Editor-In-Chief and Artistic Director at Vogue. As a creative leader and fashion icon, Anna has a leadership style I greatly admire. She makes no apologies for her success, but she is quite humble about that success, by pointing out her success is because of the team and individuals that surround and support her. That is a lesson we should all learn. Success comes from teamwork, respect, vision and a genuine appreciation for each other and each other’s opinions. Great leadership starts with passion and vision. It focuses on empowering individuals, always giving them credit, and creating an environment where people feel confident making contributions and sharing ideas.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

It’s a forever problem — the waxing and waning of semantics and the misplaced sense of cleverness people get from shooting down semantic trends. The concept is not trite — being able to make a difference and advance the well-being of society relies on those who are intuitive, innovative and are able to meaningfully communicate. There are also those, at least in the design industry, who rely on star power versus substance — we sometimes refer to them as “black capes.”

There may legitimately be a reason for their star reputation and some clients really do simply want that type of affiliation. I believe, however, those who really are most impactful in enhancing the quality of people’s daily lives are not concerned about ego and titles. Though the term thought leader, can get conflated with ego and fame, if it’s used to describe and encourage those willing to shake up preconceived notions and better the world in both small and big ways, then it’s a valid and meaningful term. I am sure there will be a new favored label in the future — but the focus should not be on semantics, rather on striving to be better and helping others along the way.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Go back to the basics — recognizing your insight didn’t come from a vacuum and relies on interaction with others. Embrace those around you, revel in exploring ideas together, find your place in advancing these ideas while respecting those who inspired you and who will be there with you in their implementation.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Something wholly unrelated to design that I have long wanted to do is to provide urban gardens, cooking, and life-skills opportunities for urban youth. Unique gardening techniques such as straw bale gardening and/or hydroponics would allow the use of otherwise difficult to repurpose urban plots — and would be transferable to their one homes and neighborhoods. It may not touch the most people, but it does hold the possibility of enriching many people’s lives in healthy and life-long ways while connecting to my personal passions.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Make results not alibis!” — Dr. Benson, my high school band conductor.

We are all faced with various challenges on a daily basis, but I prefer to focus my energy on solutions as opposed to wallowing in reasons why something cannot be done. When faced with adversity on a project, perseverance is key. Stepping back and taking a different approach than initially intended frequently results in unexpected and marvelous results that inform your next endeavor, fueling thought evolution and ultimately leadership. Plan B, or even C, is often better. So don’t give up, don’t put energy into excuses, step back, try something different and get it done. That may not exactly be what Dr. Benson was getting at back in band practice — I think he just wanted us to practice, but it is certainly a mentality that benefits me, and the teams I work with, now.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Michelle Obama. She has certainly taken stands for the benefit of many, with a compelling focus on youth and well-being. While doing this she has shown fortitude, integrity, and grace even when surrounded by antagonistic individuals in the public eye who had ulterior motives in trying to diminish her, her goals, and leadership. She has touched and inspired so many. I think Michelle Obama is fierce in the best possible way.

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

April Meyer of Alliiance: 5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.