Sunday, January 24, 2016

What had happened was...Part 1

I've been wrestling with the best way to describe what happened at Design Associates. I'm trying to find the place in between a brief, overly-professional, and un-informative paragraph and the three-post-long gory-blow-by-blow truth. Hopefully the following achieves that.

Y'all recall that I made associate at DA a few years ago. Well, the joy of that lasted about 4 or 5 months until I realized what it really meant to be an associate with DA: you still have to maintain the project workload that you had before, but now you have to lead and/or run initiatives, meet with various staff members on a quarterly basis to discuss job satisfaction and conditions and see how things were going, and attend a crapload more meetings. Great. I clawed my way to middle management for this shit? But something darker (dare I use that term) began to reveal itself in the big meeting room with all the partners and associates (aka middle management and senior leadership). I was excited to finally join this group and help DA on its new path of thoughtful leadership and management and evolution into an awesome 21st-century firm. I was finally going to help make a difference. I was finally able to see how decisions are made. I was finally able to watch the interactions and the dynamics between members of senior leadership (the partners) and between the senior leadership and the middle managers (associates and some senior architects). 

And I was appalled.

With his unwarranted and unprovoked explosions at colleagues, not paying attention to whoever is speaking or even flat-out leaving the meeting before it was over, Bosley was a bully. Howie was a jittering, pushy, micromanaging bully. Audrey, whom I once thought was a great role model for women in leadership positions, turned out to act like a passive-aggressive, hypocritical micromanaging flake. Molly, an associate partner whose arrival had also given me hope for DA was, simply put, a fucking nightmare for my colleagues and me; a master manipulator with poor listening skills and even poorer senses of boundaries and propriety, she was Bosley's syncophant for as long as it helped her get ahead and avoid blame for any project gone wrong. Other partners popped in and out of meetings to deliver their own flavor of seagull management (fly in, make a lot of noise, crap on everything, and then leave). I would sit in the meetings and watch the other partners bulldoze over Sven, one of my favorite partners, and Patty, an associate partner I had long worked with and admired. Sven would sit back quietly in his chair, and Patty would sigh and look down with her head in her hands after being shot down by Bosley and Howie yet again.

After my experience with the St. Ermahgerd project, I vowed that this truly would never happen again. As a somewhat leader at this firm, I needed to make it work, if not for me then for the others who weren't able to be in this room to defend their interests.  I decided to study how to make projects work better so I could show the partners and help them improve the firm's employee satisfaction and maybe even its bottom line too. So, with the help of a colleague with a great deal of experience setting up research projects and surveys, I complete the first round of an in-depth research project and presented it at a national conference, where it was received with great enthusiasm and almost delight. After I presented, I lost count of the number of times someone said something to the effect of "Your firm is so smart and brave for doing this sort of self-study." Yes, I thought, I'm really doing work that can help people!

And then I went home.

After getting bumped off the agenda for nearly three months, I finally got to present my research to the partners and associates (however many felt like showing up that day). I went through the data, explaining my methods, and then I got to the punchline: my research showed that the most successful project teams were the ones that had only one partner or no active partners on the project. This was not going to be good news for Howie, Molly, and Bosley, who for some incomprehensible reason insisted on having two of them or even all three on a project. At the end of my presentation, I was met with...puzzled silence. It was as if no one knew what to do with what I'd shown them. They began discussing amongst themselves in such a way that I sensed they didn't really get it: should we share this with our clients? If we get to the design solution faster, would a lot of these stresses go away? My inner Lewis Black rose up in my head: you're not listenin', asshole: the main problem on your projects is your fucked-up behavior. You want to be a partner, but you also want to be designers and planners and architects, and unfortunately those things are mututally exclusive of being a partner. You either get the work or do the work. It's my job to do the work, so go get the work and then get the hell out of my way and my colleagues' ways.

The emporer was naked, and no matter how many times or how loudly I shouted it, the emporer wouldn't even go put some fucking shorts on. 

I recounted some of this to my dear friend and advisor, Vinnie, while hiding out at 3pm one afternoon at the Cruise Room for a glass of wine or four. After a pause, Vinnie said quietly over his Long Island Iced Tea, "Honey, I think you've outgrown Design Associates." I must have looked puzzled, because he continued. "These people are doing to you what your dad's family did to your mom: they're making you crazy. Literally. They say they want to give everyone autonomy and opportunities for growth and all that, but their behavior says they want things to stay as they are but just want the staff to do more. And when you speak up about the delta between what they say and what they do, you get gaslighted, like maybe it's your fault that you can't do an unreasonable amount of work over and over and over."

At first I was skeptical of Vinnie's assessment, but the longer I stayed at DA, the more I realized he was right. Howie tried to give me room on my next project, but he keep fucking with my staff (on a project that was already .5 to 1 person short) by putting them on other things he needed help with "for just a hour or so" (read: all afternoon). Further I noticed Howie and Molly treating my utterly competent and professional colleagues like they barely knew how to be architects. They were giving me a wide berth, and Bosley literally hadn't spoken to me in six months--because of my meltdown and my survey-delivered hand-slap? So you'll continue to treat my colleagues like shit because they haven't had a massive meltdown (yet)?! Is that what it takes to get this firm's leaders to hear us?

It was during yet another micromanaging moment from the partners one day in May that I had the strangest feeling settle over me as one of my most senior colleagues told me not to make my staff surveys so "nit picky and getting so into the details." Data is details, fuckhead, I thought to myself. You don't really want me to give you true information--you want to keep living in an echo chamber. Well, you'll be living in it without me.

I left work early that day, went to a coffee shop, and started writing my resume and assembling my portfolio. I applied to MegaARCH, Guy's firm the next day, uploading my new resume and portfolio a few days later. Guy brought my resume by hand to his boss, and apparently his boss went into a semi-orgasmic convulsion to hear that a highly-experienced healthcare planner and architect with research and speaking experience as well as a pleasant personality and good (if indecent) sense of humor might be interested in changing firms. Every few weeks, I'd have lunch with a new person from MegaARCH's national design specialties group--Guy's boss, the head of architecture lady, the head of healthcare, and the healthcare marketing guy. And lunch after lunch, I felt so strangely light: conversations with people who are interested in what I can do and know how to do and are so excited about the stuff I want to research and do and so on.... I finally realized that maybe, just maybe, I had skills to offer the world that really were well-honed skills, that maybe my work was valued somewhere by somebody. 

The offer came in late July. I got approval to start on January 2nd of 2016. I got the (what I thought was insanely high) salary I asked for, and they didn't even blink. I even got a signing bonus, for which I didn't even ask. I nearly started crying when I got the offer and showed Guy. I waited a couple of days, for what reason I'm not sure. It was a big deal to leave Design Associates...but it was time. Each time I tried to frame leaving DA as a bad, scary, or negative thing, I couldn't scare myself away or talk myself out of leaving and going to MegaARCH. Even if it went poorly there, the fact that they would want me there enough to give me everything I wanted meant that I could still go somewhere else. 

I remembered my sister Kitty and I walking away from Dad's family after he died and they started acting like unrestrained dipshits. I had known them for 21 years, and I shared DNA with them. And I walked away, and I haven't spoken to them in almost 20 years. And I have no regrets.

I'd only been with Design Associate for 15 years. Do they think I couldn't leave?

I accepted MegaARCH's offer on a Tuesday. I told Design Associates on a Friday. That's the next post.

Monday, August 10, 2015

I just resigned from Design Associates.

It's been a long time coming, and I'm formulating a series of appropriate posts to describe the saga of the past few years. But yes, I handed in my resignation last week, and my last day is at the end of August.

More to come.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Don't call it a comeback -- I've been here for years.

Okay, okay, okay, it's been a long-ass while since I posted. I either haven't felt like it or have felt like I didn't have anything to say that wasn't just a bunch of bitching and whining. I've come to realize that a lot of what makes me drink about architecture is what makes anyone who does white-collar work drink copious quantities of cheap liquor and boxed wine. Architecture and the design/construction profession gives these everyday white-collar pains a special twist that makes one extra-familiar with the flavor of Mr. Boston vodka. The way we (architects) conduct our business seems almost antithetical sometimes to good business sense, and for the past couple of years, it's left me feeling like I need to get out of this profession.

And yet, that feels like giving up just as I'm getting to a place where I could really make a difference. What's an angry li'l radical to do?

When I'm frustrated, I do what I always do: make lists. What's got me so irritated? Let's see:

1. I've seen that the emperor has no clothes and a very small wang. By being promoted to Associate a two years ago, I've seen how decisions are made, how things get done, and who really feels what about each topic we bring up and deal with. It's amazing, appalling even to see the politics and personalities behind how anything happens at Design Associates, and there are many times that I'm embarrassed to be part of it. But I also am coming to realize that as a human being--not as an associate, or architect, or any other hat I wear as an identity--I have a responsibility to do what I can to change what I can.

2. I'm fucking tired. I am. I'm exhausted from striving and trying and performing and outperforming and jumping through hoops and being the good girl. I'm learning that in order to keep fighting the good fight, especially having just turned 39, that I need to protect and defend my energy better and set better boundaries. At some point, I get to turn down, defer, delegate, or throw aside any tasks or behaviors that are truly not helping me or are a good use of my time.

3. Weed is fucking awesome. Yes, it's legal here in Colorado. Yes, I finally tried it for the first time at the ripe old age of 38 1/2 years old, and I completely understand why people do it. Relaxing, fun, great sleep, and no hangover. We have some bugs to work out of the system, but overall I'm glad our voters made it legal.

I'm embarking on a big new project to talk about and walk everyone through. So far it's shaping up to be the opposite of St. Ermahgerd, but we'll see. There have been a lot of changes at Design Associates, but things are still interesting. I continue, though, to evaluate a balance between how much I gossip about my work and colleagues with you all and how much should I be professional and ethical, given my position at my firm and my own craptastic attempts to be quasi-Buddhist. A few of you have written me wonderful emails about this blog, and I owe you responses (and you'll get responses). But meanwhile, thanks for checking in--I hope to be a little more regular with my posts as I climb further out of this depression and massive sea change in my behavior and personality.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Hanging in there...

Wow, been a while since I posted, huh?  Guess I should say something, huh?

I am indeed still alive and feeling better. Six months of antidepressants, frequent chats with Vinnie (my erstwhile antiques-dealer-and-therapist pal), and some serious changes at work have started me on the road to recovery, or at least the road towards Giving A Fuck Again. I've been getting the support I need to do my job well and properly, and I've generally been given the space I need to do the stuff I like doing. (I think I scared the shit out of Howie, my long-time boss, during my meltdown. I think he might be a little more willing to back off from me so I don't just quit Design Associates in a desk-flipping-and-burning blaze of glory.)

I've had a hard time coming up with anything to say here on WAD, and when I do think of something, I don't feel like writing it down.  The biggest change in my life that I'm finding is a lack of my former energy and what I call sudden onset procrastination. Vinnie, however, has diagnosed it as "how everyone else feels all the goddamn time". I don't know if it's my late-thirties doing this to me, or if this is how I'm supposed to feel when I peel away the layers of depression and anxiety. Either way, I'm adjusting to a New Normal.

I'm still committed in some way to continuing to share with the world Why Architecture is Still Fucked Up and Needs to Fix Its Shit. Having been broken and chased into a black hole by my job and profession, I cannot stand by and watch it eat its young and itself. When I can, I'll muster up the energy to blog-n-bitch about what I see and what the profession's future can be.  Word.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

So, uh...yeah.

So, it's been awhile, and with good reason. Turns out my burnout was deeper than originally thought: it was depression.

It became clear after a wonderful vacation with Guy that I was constantly irritated and angry and felt like everything was stupid and pointless. It became clear during the Big Design Associates Partner & Associate Retreat when we were talking about the future of the firm for the next ten years, and all I could think was that this whole thing was a pointless fart-sniffing exercise in stupid futility. It became clear when I said I hated my job and I'd wasted my life at Design Associates, but when anyone asked what I'd rather do instead, my response was "nothing" or "it doesn't matter, it's gonna suck anyway". I called my dear pal, the antique dealer turned psychologist Vinnie, and after a long chat at the Oxford Hotel's Cruise Room, he observed that this looked like agitated depression and I needed to talk with my doctor about some medication stat.

Now, a couple of months later, I'm feeling better.  I'm not out of this and I'm not done, but I'm better. I think I could stand to go up on my meds a bit (I'm still pretty cranky and easily set off by the slightest thing), but I'm starting to be able to dissect when my irritation is work-related versus depression-related. I've also had a couple of successes at work, including a few professional speaking gigs involving a research project that I started working on in the late summer. 

I don't know if it's the depression or just where I am in life, but I find that I'm less and less willing to pull my punches when confronted with nonsense and bullshittery. Multiple times in the past few months, I've said aloud in meetings with the partners that the emperor in fact is nekkid as a jaybird and may in fact also be shitting himself. I have fumed to my colleagues and bosses that our refusal to engage our clients like adults will be our undoing, whether through fees or through burning out good staff because we charge too little and work good people way too hard to meet unreasonable requests time and time again. I have exhorted my colleagues to engage each other like adults and to look in the mirror at themselves, because the way we work isn't working anymore, and the way we conduct ourselves is counterproductive. If we're going to have a respectful, forthright firm culture, we're going to have to be respectful and forthright ourselves.  

We'll see if any of these comments get through. I know personal and organizational change is hard and takes time, so God/Allah/Budda/Shiva grant a bitch some patience while I wait for the emperor to get a bathrobe and flip-flops and maybe even a diaper or something.

Here's hoping 2014 is an improvement over 2013.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The worst architect in the world

Nope, it's not Frank Lloyd Wright, nor is it Peter Eisenmann. (zing!) It's this brilliant Old Spice commercial. See if you can figure out all the horrible, tragic mistakes he's made in his house in the last scene.

Monday, September 23, 2013

So what would I like for my birthday?

This week, Guy and I turn 45 and 38 respectively (for those new to WAD, my husband and I have the same birthday). I have a few professional engagements to attend to the first half of the week, and then we'll be in Paris, Bruges, and London for about a week and a half. As is our custom, we prefer to take a trip together rather than buy each other something for our birthdays.

We're all familiar with the trouble of buying gifts for other adults. What do you get someone that would be useful, and they'd like it, and it's not too expensive for you to buy? And what do you get someone like Guy and me, who try really hard not to have a lot of stuff around? (Living in a condo will make you edit your possessions, though not as much as we probably should edit them.) Guy and I get out of this conundrum with each other by taking a trip for our birthday, but Christmas becomes more problematic. Usually, we either get the other person a gift card, or we send each other a web link to the exact thing we like. Yes, it's anticlimactic and totally expected, but what it lacks in surprise, it makes up for in appreciation for the effort and follow-through.

But in my personal and professional malaise this summer (for which I am indeed receiving professional help, thanks for asking, but for which I'm also trying desperately not to have to take medication), I've been wondering what I want, what I really really want (thanks, Spice Girls). A gift should be unexpected, delightful, and useful, and it should be appreciated all the time, not just on the day of its receipt. So what gift would I most like to receive?

I'd like to see my profession rise back to a level of real respect and respectability. 

I'd like to see us get paid what we're worth and not constantly be worn down by the pressures of clients that can't figure out why it costs so much to have a skilled professional design a building such that you won't have leaks, get sued, or have huge utility bills, and so you'll be able to use it for decades to come (or sell it easily if you need to do so). I'd like to see clients stop asking us to shave off our services like doing a full assessment of your existing building is optional. I'd like to see clients stop thinking they can do my job because they watched a three-day marathon of Trading Spaces. The doctors I work with hate it when you come to them with your pre-diagnosed disease that you got off of WebMD, but they can't see the irony when they come to me having done the same thing with a crude sketch they made from a free download of Google SketchUp; nothing you just drew meets any building code known to the state of Wyoming, so knock it off. I'm drawing what I'm drawing because it's the right thing to do to give you a space that meets codes as well as human comfort and ease of use. I'm not trying to draw "fancy" stuff and indicate "fancy" finishes because I want to turn your building's lobby into the Waldorf Astoria--it's because these are the right finishes for the space that will wear well and that align with your original vision of having a hospitality-like "classy" building.  And speaking of building costs, I'd like to see the contractors I work with not turn every goddamn project into design-build. Every time I insist that the finishes and designs really are going to be the best in the long run, I get accused of jacking up the price to the owner.  And I know who's gonna win that little pointing contest. So much for being "team players."

But the biggest thing I'd like to see is architects themselves taking the reins back. I'd like to see us stop writing, speaking, and designing for other architects and start writing, speaking, and designing for the world. I'd like to see us really reach out to people who have never heard the work "architectonics" and don't give a fuck who Kenneth Frampton is. I'd like to see us use words that an 11th grader would use, not because I think the average non-architect is dumb, but because we need to use real, clear language with the world if we're going to explain to them (and convince them) why what we do is important and more relevant than ever, and why we need to be paid accordingly and respected and given the space to do that work.

Seeing architecture truly own the 21st century: that's the gift that keeps on giving.