Have you ever worked with someone whose personality turned you into a yesman? Whether they meant to or not, they came on so strong that you felt bowled over, your boundaries evaporating?
I once found myself with a client with one of those personalities. A visionary, high on confidence but low on time he would swoop in to hand over a vision and then peace out. His employees struggled– I’d watch them do backwards flip flops to stay true to his vision–one that needed to adjust to the realities of implementation.
A few weeks into my contract with this client I was feeling a sense of unease deep in my gut. The 50,000 foot view I’d been handed didn’t suit the reality on the ground, and even more troubling, I’d leave every meeting with him feeling like I’d been run over.
Taking A Calm, Confident Stand
At our next call I took a deep breath and told myself, “You may have more years of experience than me, and be an expert in your field. I may not know as much as you but I am your intellectual equal.”
I knew if we didn’t adjust the project’s big aim we wouldn’t achieve our goals. So I steeled myself and confidently proposed how I thought we should do it differently and laid out my argument for why. There was no trepidation, no persuasion, just a calm explanation of why I thought his organization should use his resources differently to achieve his stated goal.
And you know what? It was a game-changing moment in our working relationship. To my surprise the client considered and then agreed with my suggestions. Even more importantly, from that day forward our relationship changed. Gone was the nervous, people-pleaser energy I’d brought into our interactions, and in its place was new mutual respect.
As I’ve written about previously, we’re often in situations in which we may not have the status, experience or prestige of those we interact with, but it’s essential that we go into these interactions with confidence and grace.
The Middle Path of Confidence
A lot of women struggle both with answering to authority–and with owning their own authority. We flip flop between submissiveness and defensiveness, as if waiting for someone to unmask us and prove that we shouldn’t have been invited to the table.
The thing is–whether we’re in a powerful position or not in any given situation, whether we’re insiders or outsiders, we can remind ourselves that what we do have is our sense of intelligence and inquiry, and we are entering into the conversation as full intellectual ‘citizens.’
In that way, we come to every conversation and subtle negotiation in emotional “neutral.” We come, not to defend our position or to people-please, but curious and ready to solve problems.
We may not know everything, we may not have the years of experience or specialized insight, but we come ready to participate and to grow by showing up fully.
Last week, right I got a surprise in my inbox. I had just finished my recent post on how to set playful but rigorous personal goals when I got an email from Brittney Prest, one of the participants in my most recent workshop in Boston. I have women set personal challenge goals for themselves when they leave the workshop. Sometimes these goals are to take an action (speak up at the next board meeting,) and sometimes they’re outcomes that we’re working towards but don’t have direct control over.
Brittney reached her six month outcome goal–in a little over two months.
Brittney hit the ground running in the workshop. She didn’t come in with a specific agenda per se, but she was in that transition space in her career, between racking up early experience and the beginnings of leadership and management. Early in the workshop, the concept of “saying no to say yes” to the things we really want resonated with her. Instead of saying yes to all the projects that came her way, she realized that although no one has perfect control of their workload and responsibilities, she had more agency than she thought in deciding what to accept on her plate.
She laughs that her colleagues at first commented on hearing “no” from her more often as she proactively took on responsibilities that aligned with her professional goals, and declined others that drew away from that focus when she was able to. When Brittney left the workshop, she left with a dual agenda: She set her sights on becoming a project manager, and decided to keep the workshop experience going by starting a women’s group with the other BY+W grads in her office. The group kept the challenge-based model going, but they kept it fun and playful. “We enjoy having the chance to catch up with each other when it’s outside of a work setting or social gathering. The tone is still professional but not formal,” she says
A few weeks ago, Brittney was informed by the firm’s leadership that she was going to be recognized for a promotion. “They noticed my professional growth from the way in which I handled myself with clients and colleagues, and even the manner in which I was communicating in my emails,” she says. After working at Dyer Brown Architects for almost three years, and months ahead of the firm’s traditional year-end promotion season, Brittney was promoted to Assistant Project Manager–the professional track she had set as her goal. “Our firm is committed to supporting the professional growth of its staff,” says Brittney, “so they recognized that my confidence was building to take on new challenges and more responsibilities. And by doing so, I was provided more opportunities to grow professionally at the firm.” Of course, her at-work Build Yourself+ crew “were the first people I told I was promoted,” she says, “and when this happens for them, I’ll be just as supportive.”
We’re often taught, through both school and socialization, that pleasing people is the only way to succeed.
We often unconsciously pour our energy into making other people happy, intuiting what they want and need and working to deliver it. This is not bad–empathy is an incredible force for both good in the world, and for successfully understanding the needs of clients, employers and coworkers, but it needs to have limits. Leadership means increased responsibility, and one of those responsibilities is sifting through the demands on your time and taking greater ownership of directing that resource intelligently. Brittney’s promotion was earned because she found an effective way to demonstrate that she can achieve her personal goals through measureable results in a way that’s both beneficial to the firm and her career.
The real world is not school, and if you’re not in the driver’s seat, defining your priorities and directing your own valuable resources to create value, someone else will be driving them you.
“I finally found my voice and am growing in more ways than I ever thought possible,” says Brittney, “I want to have an incredible career. I want to continue working in the architecture field and getting these tips early on is the best investment I can do to make that happen.”
I recently went out for a reunion meetup with my spring 2015 class of the Build Yourself+ workshop. I didn’t initiate the night. When I got an email from a former participant suggesting a reunion I felt a thrill. She was meeting my personal challenge goal.
How will you know you’ve been successful?
It’s a question I ask all the time to my workshop participants and my social change clients. When we talk about the change we want to see in our lives or the impact we want to make, we often unconsciously default into vagueness. “I want to be more empowered in six months,” my workshop participants tell me, or “I want to be a better speaker.” Well, how will you know you’ve been successful?
It’s not that complicated of a question, but it takes thinking, and what I call the ‘personal challenge’ mindset. Sometimes it’s as simple as “I will make eye contact and smile at least ten times in my next presentation” or even “I’m going to grab three coworkers to critique my presentations over the next 3 months, to give me feedback and track my performance.” We are all works in progress. We don’t arrive at empowerment and being strong self-advocates by willing it or thinking it. We do it by approaching our own growth with a hint of rigor and a lot of playfulness and kindness.
I sat down a few months before the spring session of Build Yourself+ and checked in on my goals for the workshop. I wanted to do more than teach six weeks of content. I wanted to introduce participants to a new way of thinking about themselves and their goals, and kick off a process that is so powerful and meaningful that they leave Build Yourself+ building their own communities and taking that process into their own hands. “How will I know if I am successful in achieving this?” I asked, “If some of my participants choose to keep meeting each other or create their own groups.”
That goal changed me.
I made systematic tweaks to my facilitation style and our activities to empower women to take ownership. I increased opportunities for cross pollination and spoke about the workshop community as a the start of a lifelong ‘old girls’ club.’ My goal changed how I thought and acted because I knew what success looked like and went for it in every way I knew how.
I showed up at the reunion and learned about women taking the principles of the workshop forward in their own lives, whether switching jobs to better align with professional goals (and negotiating for an ambitious yet realistic salary goal, yes!) coming into their own power by stepping up into new leadership roles at work, or starting their own weekly discussion and personal challenge group at work (yes! yes! yes!)
We can’t control all the outcomes, but we can control our actions.
Thanks to my spring 2015 workshop class to helping me meet my goals.
So many great issues to get into and so little time. The NEA is going to continue with this topic and broaden it out to look at women in the arts in the fall.
Interested in more on these issues? I work both on issues of social impact design through my research–more on that coming to the blog thanks to a research grant from the NEA—and Build Yourself+, my challenge-based empowerment workshop for women. Sign up for the workshop’s newsletter for more inspiration, strategies and tactics.
I heard Sheryl Sandberg’s words echo in my head as I glided into the chilly conference room. I had been invited as an afterthought. I was the first (and only) research fellow of a university architecture department, in a position the dean had created for me to pursue my research. Few people knew who I was or that the position even existed. I was invited to the department’s board meeting in which I’d present my research if we had extra time. (We didn’t.)
The conference room was your standard–long sleek table ringed with chairs, with a second ring hugging the wall. I did the quick alpha-dog status check: One of my project’s advisers was already parked on the outside ring. I wasn’t board member, I wasn’t a professor, I wasn’t half the age of half of the people there–of course I should sit on the outside, but then I heard those words–a chapter title even, from Sandberg’s Lean In, which I had recently read: “Sit at the Table.”
Sandberg talks about sitting at the table when she relays a story of Tim Geithner’s female staff sitting along the outside ring even though there were seats at the table, politely demurring even when invited specifically to the table by Sandberg herself. Sitting at the table means putting ourselves in positions of power from the get-go and not disqualifying our own power before we even open our mouths.
But in that conference room, I thought, surely Sandberg meant sitting at the table metaphorically, not as a literal command for that very room and situation, where, at the bottom of the totem pole, my place was surely along the sidelines.
The thing is, it almost always feels presumptuous to sit at the table. Or let me restate, it feels presumptuous to sit at the table, unless you are already in a context in which the pecking order is clear and someone else has told you you’re in charge.
But in the real world? Not many people get signed and stamped letters asserting that they are in charge. The real world is ambiguous and messy, and the person who puts forth useful insight is the person people look to for useful insight.
I work hard to walk my talk, so at the last minute I veered right and headed to the table. And you know what? No one told me to leave (that would have been extra awkward for everyone, right?) And I contributed useful insight. I walked out of that room with key relationships started, relationships that have helped me get to where I’m trying to go.
So yes, sit at the table. Metaphorically and physically. And don’t wait for someone to give you permission, because by the time they finally give it to you, it was yours already.
It’s going to be a great conversation–the panelists include Dawn Hancock of Firebelly Design, Liz Ogbu, urbanist and social innovator, Lakshmi Ramarajan of Harvard Business School and myself. We’re going to look at the larger issue of mission as a key component in the lives and practices of female design practitioners, but also how the social impact design field can do a better job at demonstrating and pushing for equity–especially gender equity–in practice.
“What women want and what the profession and society needs should not be in conflict.”
Katie wrote a great blog post previewing the conversation here and I wrote a piece on the view from architecture’s two equity-based movements here.
When I began blogging in November I didn’t know what the process would have in store for me. I didn’t set out to start a website and build my ‘tribe’ and I didn’t even know how long I would be doing it for.
I only wanted a place to think ‘out loud’ and sort through everything I was learning.
But consistency has paid off and it’s played a strong but background role in helping me shape my interests and ideas into action.
Blogging has helped me give shape to ideas that were ambiguous and tighten nascent connections among my endeavors.
I wanted to take a moment of celebration for ‘hitting fifty’ by calling out five of the things that have shifted for me since I began blogging that I am really excited about.
#5: I Founded the Creative Somerville Series.
This speaker series, which I run with Elyse Andrews of the Somerville Beat features local creatives and entrepreneurs in an intimate Q&A format, that eschews the ‘fabulous life of…’ approach that a lot of lectures end up at. Although the series is young, we’ve been sold out for every event we’ve hosted, and it’s clear the series is resonating with people.
I’ve loved being inspired by our speakers, the founders of Aeronaut Brewing, Kate Balug of Department of Play, Erin Heath and Rose Mattos of Forêt Design Studio and Trevor Holmes of Wistia. I’m also meeting wonderful people (see item #1) and love working with Elyse and our slowly growing crew of volunteers. Want to join in? Check out our schedule here.
#4 The Build Yourself+ Workshop is Taking Off.
I taught the Build Yourself+ Workshop, an empowerment workshop for women at the Boston Society of Architects for the first time this spring and it was absolutely fantastic. Evals that came back from the workshop are showing that the experience was life changing for many women.
I’ve always had plans for taking the workshop to the next level but a wonderful piece in Fast Company from a few weeks ago has expanded the workshop’s visibility and the workshop’s focus and challenge-based model is clearly striking a nerve. I’m looking at expanding the workshop to other cities and to other fields.
I’ve always intended to use my design skills in service of social impact, but blogging has helped me define a more sophisticated approach, language and set of strategies that I specifically use. Months ago, when I first started blogging I wrote this epic post (it was a manifesto of sorts) on how I thought landscape architecture could drive health outcomes.
That impact focus, driven in part by learning about lean startup concepts, has become a core part of everything I do, whether it’s the challenge-based model of the Build Yourself+ Workshop, or the strategy behind work I’ve been doing for clients. I’m currently taking an Acumen fund class on “Lean Impact Assessment” with my research partner Gilad Meron, and Katie Crepeau of the Impact Design Hub and am excited about how the class and our conversations. I’m excited to continue expanding my take on impact-focused work, and to investigate some instincts I have about how impact assessment can be more creatively driven.
#2 My Research on Social Impact Design Business Models was Funded by the NEA.
Ok so it’s not really fair to include this one as a blogging-related outcome, since we laid the groundwork way back in the fall when our research group, Proactive Practices applied for the funding.
But this was my first self-initiated project in the realm I work in: The intersection of design, entrepreneurship and social impact. I can say that I have used this blog as a platform to explore that intersection and draw out key connections and insight and direction. The blog has also demystified writing for me, and made ma a more confident, easy and fast writer, which I know will come in handy as we move forward with this project.
#1 I Have a Crew I Love Here in the Boston Area.
Most importantly, blogging has been a behind-the-scenes organizing force for me to learn, meet new people and get deeper into the city I’ve lived in for almost five years. Blogging gave me a place for reflection, a way of pacing out life, a week at a time, and a way to ‘file away’ thoughts as I met people. I’ve met fantastic folks in the area, and through events like the Design for Equity conference this fall, the Creative Somerville Series and the Boston Society of Architects.
Do you ever get that feeling that you’re surrounded by great people who you respect and admire, and they’re really digging each other? I am starting to feel that way in the place that I live and that’s a huge blessing.
I’m not going to conclude this post with a “and here’s to another fifty!” I’m going to conclude with a feeling of gratitude that slow steady progress can spiral into so much more. Here’s to so much more.
photo credits: featured image adapted from flickr user Elaine. Creative Somerville Series photo by Ben Holmes of Aeronaut. Build Yourself+ Workshop photo adapted from Nina Chase.
I’ve had the very strange and wonderful opportunity to get to be part of two of architecture’s current advocacy efforts focused on social equity–two which run in parallel, in a way that often seems like ‘never the twain shall meet’.
Because they are both design-based movements, they of course have hip, typographic abbreviations–EQxD and D4E which stand for Equity by Design and Design for Equity, respectively. See that funny mirroring even in the title.
Equity by Design is a national effort, launched out of the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco to address gender inequality in architecture practice. In 2014 they conducted a rigorous survey on issues like salary, leadership level, work flexibility, that give advocacy for women in architecture a firm data-based grounding.
Design for Equity, started out with a strikingly similar set of intentions. A group of female leaders in the social impact design field began meeting to talk about issues of gender equity. These leaders such as Katie Swenson, Design VP of Enterprise Community Partners, Barbara Brown Wilson of UT Austin’s School of Architecture and Liz Ogbu, a designer and social innovator (and former boss of mine,) run social impact-focused design projects, run social impact design institutes, and run fellowships for architects to lend their skills to community development corporations. Their conversations quickly evolved into a larger conversation about the role of design in catalyzing social equity. The group has seeded a number of programs and efforts out of their respective organizations including a Design for Equity conference hosted by a few Boston organizations that I went to this fall.
I founded and teach a Build Yourself+, a workshop on empowerment skills for women in design, and have been involved with both Equity by Design nationally and local efforts in the Boston design community. I’ve also been in the social impact design field since 2008, and I founded a research collaborative that researches business models of social impact design, (we just got funding from the NEA to publish our research next year.)
What do all these things have in common? All my work uses design and an entrepreneurial mindset to drive social change. I fell in love with design as a holistic problem solving tool capable of making physical change. I went to design school to get those tools, and have always intended to use those tools to work on issues of social impact. If I needed to ‘hack’ the design profession to do the work I wanted to do, so be it.
So I find myself on the inside looking out from both of these movements. Here’s what I’m seeing are the points they could meet, but ultimately diverge right now.
The “Missing” / We are Not Missing
Equity by Design has defined itself by the concept of “The Missing 32%,” the women who ‘go missing’ between graduating from architecture school (50% of grads) to architectural leadership (18% of firm principals.) The basic notion is clear: Why don’t we have equal representation at the leadership level and why are women either leaving architecture or not making it to leadership?
In a recent EQxD blog post, Emily Grandstaff-Rice, former president of the Boston Society of Architects writes, ” We are the survivors. We’re the ones who despite all the research and data that you will hear today still practice architecture and no one needs to convince us why architecture matters.”
Women like Katie Swenson of Design for Equity, find the idea that she is ‘missing’ from architecture deeply ironic. Swenson has an architecture degree, and while she provides the resources for her organization’s fellowship to get licensed, she chose not to pursue a license, recognizing that licensure was not the key for her to become a leading voice in promoting design excellence in affordable housing at Enterprise, which fuels a billion dollars a year into affordable housing.
To be sure, licensure is a key milestone in traditional practice, linked to power and a prerequisite for most leadership in firms. During Build Yourself+, when I have women set 3 month, 6 month, and 18 month goals for themselves, ‘Get licensed’ or ‘Finish my license exams’ is one of the most common.
Yet as I make very clear in the first workshop, it’s not my job, or the job of my workshop to get you to the corner office in your firm. My job is to keep you leaning in and not shying away from the challenges involved in directing your career towards the opportunities and scale of impact you’d like to make. My job is to help women “align their work with their values” as Emily Grandstaff-Rice says.
I’ve long thought that the architecture and design fields hold a little too tightly to our professional identities and our jargon, learning to defend our work to juries of only designers, and publishing our work in publications that only our fellow professionals read. Yet we know that the workplace is changing, and ‘slasher’ careers (read: hybrid careers, I’m this/that) are on the rise. Even Rosa Sheng of Equity by Design says architects should engage more intensively in (and get paid more for) the ecosystem of services around traditional architecture, including branding, data and other offerings that she calls “Architecture &…” instead of just providing these services pro bono in service of an eventually building contract. I wonder if the intense focus on licensure and traditional practice is a focus on the wrong issues.
(Gender) Equity / Equity
Design for Equity quickly evolved from a women’s group to to focusing on design’s role in reducing social inequity, especially issues of race and class.
Equity by Design is currently solely focused on issues of gender equity, despite the wider scope implied by their name. I am a believer in tightly scoped and disciplined advocacy efforts. I think when you loose precision and specificity in your goals for change, your chances of achieving them decrease. I give Equity by Design major cred for running a sustained campaign that I believe will result in real lasting change. Design for Equity could learn from their insights on how to organize parallel efforts that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Yet he architecture profession has real issues when it comes to issues of structural privilege. We historically (and currently) have a pretty strong relationship with the ‘haves’, and don’t have the same infrastructure for using our skills to serve the ‘have nots’ that the legal and medical professions have.
We also have a horrendous record when it comes to representing the racial diversity of our country in the ranks of our profession, and a history of low-wage labor practices that make it hard to make a living in this profession without a trust fund, unfairly disadvantaging poorer students. And it’s not accident that a lot of these issues are what drive the gender inequity, in our field by the way. Just see the now mostly defunct group Design for Equality (gosh why do all these orgs have the same name?) for a great articulation of the linkage between poor compensation and issues of equity in our field.
I believe it is the job of the people who are in positions of privilege to to change the structural realities that keep others from entering that space. Just look at the infamous ‘e-textiles’ comment in the hacking community, or this recent comment on an Architect article, to see why it’s ridiculous and unethical to put the onus on left out groups to shove their way into spaces of power.
In Build Yourself+ we spend the last week looking at strategies that we can use to ‘pay it forward’ and use our agency to create the cultures and workplaces that we want to live and work in. We talk about everything from asking your firm leadership to run a wage gap salary audit, to encouraging your public clients to provide childcare at community meetings in order to get higher quality, more diverse feedback and buy-in. In that session I also talk about how we might move beyond the issue of gender to think about how we might use our roles to advocate on issues or race, class or sexuality.
Questions of Impact
I’ve been struck by how the concept of impact comes up in both movements.
In recent blog posts for Equity by Design, Emily Grandstaff-Rice wrote, “Why is what you are working on changing people’s lives? We change people’s lives ..I have come to terms with the fact that my work has significance beyond the day-to-day.”
In my research for a Harvard Business School study on architecture, professional identity and pro bono service, I came across a lot of architects who cared about changing the world, but defined that change in very different ways. For some, it was about getting to impact the urban fabric and streetscapes that people walk past every day, and making ‘the public’ a better place to be, for some it was about serving their clients well by bringing spaces to life that would help their clients work better or achieve their missions.
In the social impact design world, we talk about impact also in a variety of ways but the focus and frame is different. The starting point is a community issue or opportunity, not the designed object that comes at the end of the process.
I know many practitioners who left ‘traditional’ practice and moved into social impact work precisely because they felt they weren’t actually achieving the impact on people’s lives that they hoped to make through their jobs. The structure of traditional practice, which often consists of firms hired to design and execute building projects, in situations where the important contextual matters that have the power to shape reality have already been made makes it hard for designers to move the lever on larger social issues through their work.
Another element that differentiates social impact design from ‘traditional’ design is that the process and the intangibles are almost as important ‘end products’ as the finished work. So, for example, the community meetings in which volunteers met each other and folded paper cranes for a neighborhood public art installation might be more important, or just as important as the installation itself as an art piece.
This means that the focus is less on architecture as a craft and more on it as a convener, a clarifier and an idea generator. This fact, in addition to the scarcity of resources that often plague social impact design practice, mean that sometimes the execution and level of craft of these projects is sub-par, and give it a bad rap in ‘traditional’ practice as not ‘real’ architecture.
Yet both of these worlds have so much to learn from each other. A work is only as good as its implementation–I think community-based projects need to have a level of craft or they have the danger of quickly falling apart, or looking so ‘homemade’ that they don’t command the care that art pieces and buildings that look more ‘real’ can achieve. The craft-based knowledge that comes with years of building projects with decent budgets is needed on community projects.
And social impact designers often answer to a higher set of goals in their projects–goals that are not defined by design-oriented priorities. Designers in ‘traditional’ practice would do well to learn from the social impact designers how to truly listen to clients, and how to take an entrepreneurial approach to linking a built intervention to a larger set of community goals.
Emily Grandstaff-Rice says in her blog post, “The concept that there is one perfect pathway to practicing architecture (i.e. the traditional firm setting—all that fun stuff) denies the experience of those of us who have charted our own path or the flexibility, significance, and team comradery that frankly keep us in architecture.”
I’d like to see the ideas of flexibility, significance and comradery that both movements share applied a little wider. I’d like to see these two passionate, disciplined, impactful worlds enlist each other as allies in creating the larger change we’re seeking.
Want more on this topic? I’m helping Katie Swenson organize an NEA Webinar on Women in Social Impact Design for the NEA on Wednesday May 13th, you can sign up here.
Unfortunately, it conflicts with the Equity by Design Hackathon (due to scheduling reasons out of our control) which should also be really fantastic.