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.


Andrea said...

So happy that your back posting. And so happy it is such good news.

wendywc said...

Congrats on your move! People are usually scared of change even when it's good for them; wish you the best with your new venture.

STL Fan said...

Well it's about damn time for a new post. I, by chance, clicked on your link and lo and behold there was this wonderful story waiting for me to read. Thanks for sharing. Sorry we couldn't catch up more over the holidays under all of the unfortunate circumstances. I can't wait to read the next part to your saga.

Leeann Ward said...

Congratulations!! I can't wait for Part 2 of this story!

Anonymous said...

Part 2 please :)

St. Blogwen said...

Dropped around to see how you were doing (I'm following your sister Kitty on PB, so I know what she's up to). So now, don't leave us hanging? How is it going at MegaARCH? Really and truly? I and all teh kittehs want to know.

Martin Sumichrast said...

I am reading this blog first time, but I must say you have done a great work. Your stories are really very interesting.