Last night, Board & Vellum hosted the AIA Seattle Happy Hour presented by the Young Architects Forum and Women in Design. This year’s Happy Hour series is themed “Leave it to Chance” – it’s one of those nice and vague topics that allows each month’s host firm to approach it from their own unique angle. Recently, I’d been thinking a lot about this, as we’ve been looking ahead at how we want to grow and evolve. (To be fair, that’s something I do on a regular basis as part of our strategic planning process.)
I thought back to how chance took a role in how I’ve come to this point in my career, and what bits of advice from it I could pass on to younger people in the profession. Here’s a little bit of where I came from and what insights I can pass on.
After working in a variety of jobs since graduation, I realized that architecture is traditionally a discipline that relies upon competition and years of practice to reach a point where you are ready to really lead. It takes years of practice to really figure things out in a normal environment. Consequently, it’s common to have firms inadvertently promote a culture of pushing others down so you can elevate your own career. You end up with firms with the old guy in the corner who does brick detailing and young project managers, like myself, who are great at running meetings, but don’t know enough about the guts of the building they’re working on. Firms inherently specialize. While great on many levels, it left me wanting more.
So, figuring out that I could keep on refining one set of skills, or take a chance and head off on my own, I decided to take that chance and push myself to be a true generalist. I made a little strategic plan for myself, got my ducks in a row, and left my pretty awesome and stable job in a recession. Board & Vellum was founded.
Success, right? Easy peasy!
Um, nope. Not even close.
Taking a chance is hard work, and you have to be dedicated. It isn’t the easy solution and requires constant retooling to ensure you’re headed on the right path. While I’m a giant fan of writing your own strategic plan (and I mean that personally and professionally), you also have to know when to throw it out. I wrote in my first plan from 2011 that “Board & Vellum isn’t anticipated to have a staff size of over two people.” Clearly, I know when to throw out the best made plans, as well.
Six years later, the chance that I took became the chances that we took as a company. We operate differently than most design firms I’m aware of, and work to elevate everyone together rather than operate in a competitive environment. There’s no old guy detailing brick façades at this office. It has been a big chance to take the path less traveled, but it has paid off.
So what can you do to make sure that the chances you take are best for your career?
- Plan out your chances. Write a strategic plan that states specifically what your goals are and, even more importantly, how you’ll achieve them. This isn’t about big fluffy “I’ll be the greatest designer” garbage; this is about quantifying how many meet and greets you’ll set up. Track your progress and retool as necessary.
- Keep your skill set diverse. If you’re at a firm that is pigeonholing you, learn as much as you can and then get out of there.
- Be humble. You have something to learn from every single person you work with. Design skill isn’t the top of the pyramid so don’t fall into that trap. Honestly, even the poor brick detailing guy I keep making fun of has a lot to teach you. Invite him out for coffee and get his perspective.
- Even when you’re right, it often doesn’t matter. Deal with it and learn why that is.
- Embrace the potential in every single project. If clients are paying hard-earned money to design a project you don’t like, suck it up, learn what you can, and treat that client with respect. Someone has to design gas stations. Don’t knock it. Those clients you treat well will speak well of you, and you’ll be referred the work you will want to do. It is a privilege to work and you should treat it as such.
- Learn how to listen, truly listen, to your clients and coworkers. Asking for honest feedback is way to keep you real and open to feedback. And remember that in many ways your clients don’t care what you have to say, they care what they have to say. Remember that and repeat it back to them.
- Be honest with your skill set and always be direct about what you don’t know, and then figure out how you can get there. As a young person starting this firm, I had to rely upon others for the things I didn’t yet know. That’s a strength not a weakness.
- Network your butt off. Volunteer, be part of your community (specifically: not just architects) and plug into the greater world.
- Most importantly, in the end, take some damn chances and live this life like it is the only one you’ve got… because it is. Just because it’s a cliché, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth following.