Thursday, June 2, 2016

Quitting to Win

Almost exactly one year ago, I quit my job at a well-respected architecture firm. This was the first full-time job I had in a new city, and I'd been with the firm for almost nine years, including through the recession in 2008. I got on well with my colleagues, and enjoyed the caliber of design that we were building. The partners were extremely prominent in the local AIA chapter, so I met through them a number of other prominent architects and AIA staff (some of whom actually recognize me on sight).

I got to take a business trip to Europe to see the factory where one of our specified finishes was being fabricated. I had recently been promoted to Senior Associate, and I was the project architect on two multi-million dollar residential projects with excellent clients and (much more rare) excellent general contractors.

What was I thinking?

As you might imagine, this was not a decision I took lightly. It was over the course of several months that I carefully weighed the benefits and detriments of staying and quitting. But I was helped along by  several red flags that convinced me to look elsewhere.

The partners were not seeking new work. 

I mentioned I was managing two multi-million dollar residential projects. These were both at the tail end of construction, and there was little on the horizon for new work. In the past, most of the work had simply walked in the door as a result of publications - the principals were not used to advertising themselves and indeed found the idea repugnant. (I personally find this attitude rather foolish for anyone who is doing it for a living and not a hobby.) But when the editor changed at one publication they had formerly relied upon, that relationship was severed and that flow of new clients dried up.

The partners were not grooming anyone to take their places. 

The partners had been in practice together for over 30 years. During that time there had been several Senior Associates in the office, but never any Principals. This might seem like a trifling distinction, but in essence it meant that the partners had no intention of the firm continuing after they retired (or more likely, died). Like the servants of the Pharaohs, the firm was to be buried with the partners. This doesn't leave much room for promotion, and as the partners aged, the end-date of the firm grew ever nearer. A major health scare had me seriously looking for other work - if one partner died, the firm would die, too.

The firm started hemorrhaging personnel.

The firm tended to be a revolving door with employees. There were a few people who had been there for years, but most were hired right out of school, worked for a year or two, and then left again. This system was fine while there were enough project architects and managers in the office to train the inexperienced and keep the office and projects running. But once the old-timers started leaving, it became clear to me that the system in place would no longer function. It also became clear to me that the principals did not recognize this problem.

When the Senior Associate who had been with the firm for 14 years (and with whom I worked for almost 9 of those years) resigned, I was left holding the bag. Instead of hiring another employee at the project architect level, the partners hired someone fresh out of school who had never worked in an architecture office before. It fell to me to train her, in addition to being project architect on the only two active projects in the office with no other design staff assigned to them. For an office with so little work, the projects suffered from lack of experienced staffing.

My promotions were grudging and overdue.

According to the employee handbook, employee evaluations were supposed to happen semi-annually. This was the case when I first started, but after the recession the attitude of the partners became "no news is good news" and worse, "you should be grateful you even have a job." I went almost six years without an employee review, and almost as long without a raise in salary, in spite of my significant progress as a designer and project manager in this time, not to mention cost of living.

When I passed my AREs (all seven and no fails!) and got my license, I was naturally proud and excited. My colleagues took me out for drinks to celebrate. I think I stamped some cocktail napkins - the evening is a little hazy. My bosses acknowledged my new status by telling me "congratulations" and making a snide comment about how long it took me to finish all seven exams. It was months later that they decided to promote me to Associate. This honor was concurrent with another employee being promoted to Associate who had been at the firm for less time and was not licensed (in fact, had no interest in getting licensed) in a power game between the two partners. (I decided to be flattered that I had coattails for him to ride.) Not only was this a poor human relations move, this was a poor business decision - my licensed status should have increased my billable rates right away.

It was only when the last Senior Associate left (my colleague who made Associate with me had left a week earlier) that the partners realized the firm was going to look bad without someone in that role. Being nearly the last one standing, they decided I was it. I held the position for two months before I resigned - an embarrassing situation for all involved.

Did I regret my decision? Only at first.

Like any major life change, even a good one, it was stressful and anxiety-inducing. I  discovered that the architecture community is extremely small - many firms weren't returning my calls because they didn't want to offend the partners I was going to quit on. I started applying for jobs in other cities, in case everyone in town was afraid of the repercussions of offending my bosses. I was anxious about any new job I might find. Would the new position be worse than what I left? What if I didn't fit the office culture? Would my lack of Sketchup and Revit skills lose my position in six weeks? When I did secure a new job and formally resigned the partners took my resignation badly, so soon after the Senior Associate left and my promotion.

But as it turns out, this decision to quit could not have been better for me. Having survived the recession and become licensed, I was now a hot commodity. Many people in my graduation year (and a few years before and after me) were forced out of the field during the recession and did not return. And now that I've been working for my new firm for about a year, the comparison between the two experiences could not be more stark.

The firm is young and growing.

Partners and principals are all under 50, and we've hired 6 more employees since my hire last year. There are dozens of active projects in the office, and as our project list grows we hire new employees.
The size of the firm is much larger than my former office, meaning not only can they take on a lot of work, they can afford to pay me what I'm worth. As I suspected, I was being severely underpaid - my new salary represented a $20,000 raise.

The hierarchy of employees is a diamond, not a pyramid.

The firm's employees are heavy on architects, and nearly all unlicensed designers are in the process of completing hours and taking AREs.

Communication with colleagues and superiors is casual and frequent.

The partners, principals, and project architects have weekly meetings to review employee schedules so project deadlines can take more manpower, or slower jobs can reduce team obligations. We have monthly project reviews, with each project team contributing slides for a short presentation to show progress on jobs that not everyone can visit or work on personally. Even something as simple as the LAN messenger application and inter-office email is used frequently for things like telling the office when the paper size is changed in the plotter or announcing the next lunch and learn.
The office culture with such young partners and principals is distinctly different from my last firm. My superiors aren't much older than I am, and that helps foster our casual and easy communication. The significant age and experience difference typical at a lot of firms is not insurmountable, but the partners and principals have to make an extra effort to be approachable to account for that difference. As it happens, the partners and principals at my new firm are very approachable in any event - their relative youth only makes them more so.

The employee handbook is thorough, updated regularly, and actually followed. One way or another.

Our firm recently purchased a building for a permanent office and began renovations last summer, intending to have everything completed by the end of the annual autumn retreat. The office was serviceable at this time, but there were still a few lagging construction items, one of which was glass in the doors to the conference room. This meant there wasn't any place private in the office to have winter employee reviews.

Rather than postponing reviews or finding a space somewhere nearby for two days, the partners decided to rent a limo and park it outside the building. They announced this during the monthly project meeting. I was convinced they were joking. They were not joking. And I've never had such a fun employee review. I'm looking forward to the summer reviews, especially with the promise of a raise commensurate with my work and skill.

We don't just work hard; we play hard. 

It's not just lunch and learns that bring the office together. We have summer outings, group visits to job sites, an annual retreat, a costume contest for Halloween, a Christmas party with Secret Santas, quarterly studio dinners, not to mention regular beer Fridays. And the camaraderie in the office is such that none of these events feels at all forced. I fully credit the care the partners and principals take in the interviewing process to ensure that each employee is not only qualified but also suits the office culture.

It's "our" firm, not "their" firm.

The partners and principals are eager to improve the firm overall, and want their employees to feel invested in the direction the firm takes. There are dozens of committees for various office agendas, from office improvements to social events to the Revit committee.

The principals are involved (to varying degrees) in every project in the office, and the partners trust their project teams. Instead of being forced to ask the partner-in-charge about something as trivial as what color the doorbell should be (an actual question I had to ask in my last office), project architects are trusted with design decisions and are instrumental in shaping the final design.

Knowing that I have room to grow as a designer and manager, that my ideas and skills are welcomed and carefully considered, and that my superiors are going to back me with clients and contractors is such an invigorating feeling.

What's your firm done for you lately? 

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