Shape your career by sharpening your skills
Developing your non-design skills could be the most important step you take as a design professional
Being mindful of the steps you take in your career, and the skills you choose to improve upon, can have a drastic impact on your success in architecture. In this competitive industry, it is important to stay abreast of new technologies and strategies, to obtain your license, to complete your continuing education requirements, and to stay informed and current in your specialties. It is also equally important to finely tune your social skill set; communication skills are assets that can be improved at any stage in your career.
Whether you are pursuing new opportunities, working with current clients, interviewing for a project, or mentoring, it is imperative to keep these skills fresh. Many architects reap their benefits by keeping an open mind about where their careers will lead them. By harnessing and fine-tuning your individual strengths, you may find yourself crafting your career in a unique and profound way.
Listening and mentoring
Daniel Johnson, Assoc. AIA, is a designer at WRNS Studio in San Francisco and a part-time professor at Stanford University, where he’s had ample opportunities to mentor peers on self-reflection and how to best advance their career.
“An interesting thing about architecture, that we don’t really think about in school, is the nature of office politics,” he says. “I think a lot of people don’t know how to navigate that, and that is a big peer conversation.”
“A friend of mine was going through a time of self-reflection on how to best work with the management in her office,” he adds. “Step one is understanding the situation. Talk with a peer and compare: How do I approach these situations? And talk through the different approaches. Step two is to make this a series of conversations. I think it’s a constant process. We are always trying to better ourselves personally and professionally.”
“Humility is another quality to emit. We have to be humble. We have to be able to take criticism and work with it to better ourselves.” - R. Steven Lewis, FAIA
Self-reflection and analysis at the peer level is important, as listening to your peers and helping them down their path may affect yours just as much. Keep a look out for these moments to practice listening and mentoring skills; they are key to development.
Another individual with an intriguing career path is R. Steven Lewis, FAIA. He is a past president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, the 2016 recipient of AIA’s Whitney M. Young Jr. Award, a professor at the University of Michigan, and currently the urban design director for the Central District at City of Detroit Planning and Development Department. He is a strong voice, a model mentor, and an advocate for social justice and diversity within the field.
When asked how to harness good social skill sets and techniques, he says, “Emerging professionals and seasoned professionals: find a mentor who is rich in that experience. Find a mentor who is good at that skill. Find a mentor who believes in that skill as a strength and then allow them to be a harsh critic.”
“Humility is another quality to emit,” he adds. “We have to be humble. We have to be able to take criticism and work with it to better ourselves.”
Skills begin at the high school and college level. By mentoring others, you are sharing advice and you are building networks. Practicing your mentoring skills will make an impact on your life and on other’s. Make a path for yourself, but include those behind you to share the ride.
Speaking and challenging yourself
Linaea Floden, AIA, is in the middle of her career; she is currently an architect licensing advisor and the vice president of AIA Florida for 2018-2019. Before getting her Master of Architecture and Community Design degree from the University of South Florida, she worked in the healthcare field for eight years. As a result of this unique background she was able to fuse her past and present career paths together and now works at Gresham, Smith and Partners in Tampa, Florida, where her main focus is healthcare design.
“I would try to focus on the skills I was learning from each experience and consider how they might apply in other situations,” she says, “so when it came time for the next opportunity, I was able to talk up those skills. In this way, I could look at tangential opportunities as nodes that were connecting the dots to the qualities I wanted to have as a professional.”
“There is no end goal for me,” she adds. “It’s more of a periodic check in. What skills am I bringing to the table? Am I capable of bringing more or learning more? And when should I ask for more of an opportunity to demonstrate what I am capable of?”
“Have a personal challenge every week. If you are working on negotiation, negotiate something that week. If you are working on public speaking and communication, practice those skills that week.” - Mia Scharphie, founder of Build Yourself
Along the way, Floden learned that she is capable of being a voice for the profession, and she uses her public speaking abilities to serve her clients and others in the fields.
“Public speaking skills are huge, and strength in presentation can make a young professional really stand out,” she says, “not to mention create many more opportunities for advancement. I took advantage of any public speaking opportunity I could to get the practice. Even though it was uncomfortable for me to learn the skill initially, it was better to learn it earlier in my career.”
Whether you are preparing for a project interview, giving a presentation, or speaking at a town hall meeting, public speaking engagements are opportunities for growth and exposure. Practice at your office or with a friend and push yourself out of your comfort zone. By tracking how you communicate, to yourself and to others, you will enhance your skills and be more successful.
The value of negotiating
Back in 2015, the Boston Society of Architects’ Women in Design subcommittee planned a yearlong series of events and programming around negotiating, bringing together emerging professionals and established principals to practice negotiation skills in a safe and comfortable arena. The series was a three-part workshop featuring panel discussions and group activities; each segment delved deeper into the topic of negotiation, offering advice from industry experts with real-world examples. Attendees were challenged to consider the role of negotiation in their daily lives, both professionally and personally, and interactive exercises encouraged research and self-reflection on the frequency in which they utilized their negotiation skill set.
"Don't make the first time you speak the words of a negotiation, the actual negotiation itself," says Mia Scharphie, founder of Build Yourself, an empowerment training company for women in creative fields, and a panelist in the negotiation series. "You want to taste the words in your mouth so that you feel comfortable saying them with confidence during the actual negotiation.” A finely tuned negotiation technique can be instrumental in carving out a place for yourself.
Growing and moving
With each step in your career, it is imperative to incorporate the skills you learn along the way. Reflecting on your personal goals periodically will allow you to be creative with your career trajectory. Listen to others in the room and to those outside of the room. Mentees should look for leaders with good relationship building skills, and mentors should be cognizant of the interests that many emerging professionals and young architects may have.
The next time you are anticipating a promotion, negotiating time off, or meeting with a potential new client, remember these examples and remember to practice. These strong skill sets will make it easier to navigate your career and build better relationships.
"Have a personal challenge every week,” asserts Scharphie. “If you are working on negotiation, negotiate something that week. If you are working on public speaking and communication, practice those skills that week. The idea is that you get better at doing that specific thing, but you also get better at being brave. That’s a large-scale habit that you need, because you can't be confident unless you practice being confident."
Stephanie Herring is a designer at Cambridge Seven Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She currently serves as the New England Regional Associate Director on the AIA National Associates Committee.
Mark Ostow, Cambridge Seven Associates