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Leading vs. Supporting

Through the magic of Facebook I reconnected with a fencing buddy from college, who I haven’t connected with for twenty-*cough* years. He does heart-centered business coaching (Heart of Business), which was very appealing to me. So I signed up for his newsletter, and read some of his blog posts, which had some ideas that resonated strongly with me. Then he announced that he would be leading a day-long workshop in Maryland, and I jumped at the opportunity to get deeper into some of the things he does. And also to see him and how he has changed since we last saw each other.

It was a fabulous day, and it gave me much to chew on. One thing that came out, that I didn’t have time to explore there, was about domain. The exercise was that Mark stepped out of the leadership place, and you would stand at the front of the class, and make it your domain. I was struggling with this idea, and was trying to figure out why. What came to me was that I am most comfortable supporting, or leading from the side or back. Standing in front of a group, and asking them to follow me, made me nervous. I haven’t worked through that issue yet, but it obviously something that I need to work on, and develop skills around.

I was able to put this understanding into place last weekend talking with some long-term clients. We’ve been slowly working on their many issues around their house and their stuff and their life. When it came time to talk about next steps, I was able to say that there are two ways to do the work: either I take the lead and present ideas to them for their reaction and discussion; or they can lead and ponder and discuss the ideas themselves and then bring me in to refine and develop them. It felt good to be able to articulate the different paths, especially the different processes that are involved in each.

I still strongly resonate to working alongside people, guiding them as we explore together. But I am becoming more comfortable with the idea that I can also lead them to the same place.

The Architect As Counselor or, They Didn’t Teach Us This In School

Again and again at my booth, I help people who have problems. And a big part of helping them is just listening to them. I often feel like a therapist, with my “uh huhs” and “I knows”. You start to see that the value in therapy – that just talking about the problem helps you see the solution.

In my residential practice though, it is more about counseling rather than therapy going on. Working through the problems and asking questions often exposes assumptions and previous disagreements. It gets more interesting as you try to determine who has the power in the situation. Often it’s not the one doing the talking.

So my job becomes even more interesting as I try to craft a solution that solves both sets of problems. The new clients I met yesterday knew that they needed an architect, but also knew the solutions they didn’t want. The one I came up with seemed to please them both – and that surprised them.

I recall in school one of my professor cautioning against residential design, but mostly because the clients are often scared by the amount of money they are spending, and get tense about the process. She felt that retail clients were much nicer because they weren’t spending their money and they understood about the need to spend money to attract money.

But I do wish that there were a course in school that covered programming, pre-design, and client management. Including role-playing games or real couples for us to work with. Because I didn’t do this kind of meeting in any of my previous offices. If it weren’t for my Quaker upbringing and skills developed raising four children, I would be fumbling about and making a hash of it. Instead, I feel that it’s one of my strengths-that I listen.

Listening is a difficult skill to develop, especially in our profession where the emphasis is on conveying our knowledge. And again I am really grateful for the booth and the skills it is developing in me. I often tell people that one reason I continue to do the booth is so that I can practice for my practice.

Sometimes I Wish People Didn’t Need Me

I was with a client today, doing the pre-drywall inspection on their house that’s under construction. I was doing a casual punchlist, they were double-checking that the house had their selected options, the construction supervisor was making sure that everything was right so that he can move on to County inspections.

I found that I was doing more explanation than observation during the process to reassure my client that what he’s seeing is normal and acceptable. But as I was leaving I was thinking that this house, which is being built pretty well and conscientiously, is still pretty crappy compared to what people are doing with Passive House or other advanced systems. It’s still just a code minimum house. And that’s a difficult thing to convey–that this house, for all it’s expense–is not state of the art.

Now I wasn’t hired to design the house – it’s a stock plan from the developer. I was hired to hold their hands through this, admittedly, scary experience. And it is scary, because they are putting a lot of money into this, and really trusting that everyone involved won’t screw them. So I’m more like that big guy in gangster movies who spends most of the time just looking big and scary.

But here’s the thing: I don’t like that this is a scary process that they need help with. It would be so easy for the builder and the salesperson and the inspector and everyone to be focusing on making the experience a good one for the buyers. Everyone but them does this all day long, and so they use jargon, and they rush through things, and in general set up an expectation that they (the customer) is in the way of them doing their job. And that feels wrong to me, and I wish that there were something that I could do.

Maybe I’ll write a blog post …

I Learned So Much at the AIA Convention – Now I Need to Change Things

I just got back from the 2012 AIA (American Institute of Architects) Convention in Washington DC. The weather was perfect, and the sessions were extremely valuable. The two that stand out were on disruptive innovations in architectural practices and blogging.

The blogging session was very funny because it had Bob Borson (Life as an Architect) and Jody Brown (Coffee with an Architect) but also very informative because they recounted the process that led them to blogging and the lessons they’ve learned. The two big ideas, and they are both things I need to be sure that I’m focusing on, were 1) make sure your blog has your personality, and 2) don’t expect the blog to generate work. I will certainly be keeping those ideas in mind as I blog.

The session on disruptive innovation was affirming and invigorating. Affirming because the presenters thesis is that the next phase of architectural practice will be to design solutions to problems, with designing buildings as a sub-specialty. When I first started working for myself, I had determined that what architects did was solve problems, so this was great to hear. The invigorating part was learning about how disruptive innovation works by entering a market at the lower end, where the larger players don’t want to go, and then growing from there. His example was MP3s, which is a crappy format for music, so big players like Sony didn’t want to touch it. And they ended up late to the party. My innovation is the Personal Architect model, where I work with clients on very small problems, so small that most architects wouldn’t bother to go after them. My hope is that these small problems, and the relationships that develop, will grow into a solid body of work.

Looking forward to the next convention and what I might learn there.