How do I move forward in this small town architecture job?
December 20, 2010 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Where am I going in this career? What do I do or say to move forward? Why can't I just be happy that I have decent job in my field (when so many others are without work)?

I work in architecture. I have worked for my employer since a few months after graduation (over 7 years now—largely unprecedented in this field). I received my masters in architecture and am licensed and registered; I also have additional registrations. (My employer only has his Bachelors and does not have these additional registrations).

This firm is a very small firm in small town. I moved here because I wanted to be near my family (instead of in the big cities that I got my degrees). I knew I was making major trade-offs when I made those decisions but thought that if I worked hard and tried my best, my performance would be rewarded. When I began work here, it was just 3 staff architects and the owner/principal. As the economy improved the owner hired an assistant, then another architect, then an intern. As the economy worsened, everyone but me and the assistant were laid off.

In the heyday of the firm, we were getting 'nice' performance bonuses. The owner bought a plane. He has no mortgages and several residences. He started talking about giving me and other architects ownership in the company (started in 2006). When things got worse, he started laying people off, raises stopped, bonuses stopped. When everyone but me was laid off, I was scared. There was talk that if things got worse, i would have to work without salary just to keep the business going. That never happened, and eventually one of the other employees was hired back.

This summer the owner again talked about ownership; he told me he was going to make me a principal in the firm and give me ownership. The plan is that it would happen in February of 2011. Why don't I believe him? What should I do to make this happen? Should I just leave? Should I talk to him? I am an extremely valuable employee. My computer-programming husband donates time to work on our website. I do graphic work for all of my employer's extra-work activites (Boyscouts & other non-profits). I work extra hours when its needed without a peep. I make him look good, but to the rest of the world I am just an assistant or don't exist at all.

Extra bonus: I also think my employer is paranoid. He keeps our contact with clients at a minimum to none level. We don't know what we're billed out at. We're not allowed to socialize with clients (according to our handbook). I think all of these efforts are to make it extremely hard to compete with him if we left the company. Why am i still here? My family, my husband, our house, the economy makes architecture jobs impossible, and I get deep satisfaction from doing my work well. BUT I can't stay in this same position for the rest of my life. I just feel defeated and invisible, only contributing to the wealth of others. But I am also terrified to leave because jobs in this industry are so precious right now, and I doubt my ability to run my own business because I have been shielded from the sales side of things for so long.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Feb. 2011 is what, two months? Just keep plugging at it and reminding him. Telling an employee that they're being promoted to principal and doing so just as a means of coercion is definitely in get-another-job territory. If he's not comfortable handing over the keys, work out a profit sharing agreement. He simply might not be comfortable with calling someone else the owner, and yes profit sharing isn't the same as actually owning the equity, but in your industry it is all about cash flow.

I work in the AEC industry and your experience is exactly what I've heard from everyone else: no bonuses, no raises, then layoffs, then "if this gets any worse we're done for." Big companies, small companies, no one in this industry was left untouched. For what it is worth, there appears to be a big pipeline coming out in 2011, so if you can get on board with some sort of profit sharing agreement, your patience should be rewarded.

The industry is rife with "help out with website for free" bullshit, that seems more endemic than in other industries. If you can't push back on things like that, you don't want to be dealing with clients who want the impossible, yesterday. I would gently ease out and become busy when they ask you to do things like that, it is a hard spot to say no or you're too busy, but you just gotta do it.
posted by geoff. at 9:52 AM on December 20, 2010

I doubt my ability to run my own business because I have been shielded from the sales side of things for so long.

It's not your employer's responsibility, it's yours. Can you take some business/marketing/management classes on your own time, either online or at night?

What's your specific want--more money, more visibility, more presence, more freedom? Do you belong to any professional organizations, do you keep up with colleagues, network, etc.? If you want more money and a stake in the business, then you need to write down a plan and a time-line and talk to your boss. Do you have any plans on how you can expand the business and bring in more clients and/or revenue?

But "contributing to the wealth of others" is pretty much how working for someone goes. It's not a commune. Owning and running a small business isn't a day at the beach. I'm sure you are valuable, partially because you appear to be pretty docile. If you quit this job, are you planning on being more assertive at another job?
posted by Ideefixe at 10:17 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is tough, because you have very little leverage unless you're willing to leave the firm. It's tough to push your boss to treat you better if he's sure that you'll stay on regardless.

There are basically two issues here that you must deal with. One is the issue with your job - it isn't as fulfilling as you would like. It would help if you would clarify what would bring you more fulfillment: more money? More responsibility? Being in charge of others? More recognition of the good work you do? It may be easier to ask for more responsibility or more recognition than to ask for more money, so being clear on what you want is important. If you want more responsibility or recognition, you can work with your boss on those areas. If you want more money or to be in charge, you may have to look at leaving and starting your own business (which is tough for the reasons you've mentioned and tough in a small, possibly saturated market).

The second issue is the deeper one - what's going on in your head (and everyone in the world's head) that makes you feel satisfied or dissatisfied. You've already made the decision once to choose proximity to family over career, and I think that's good - it means you have a handle on the tradeoff between career and personal life. You need to think about what works for you. If you decide that you cannot leave where you live and give up that nice proximity to family, then you don't have many options for improving your situation. In that case, you may have to think of your work as "just a job to pay the bills" and find your fulfillment in family. There are worse things that keeping a stable job because it allows you to do other things you love, like living right where you want to. If you can't leave the area, but are willing to start your own firm or find a local rival firm, then you can improve your situation, but it will cost you more risk and stress - suddenly it's your money on the line, or you might burn a bridge with your current employer. Finally, you may decide that your career is really important to your happiness, important enough to move away. Then you have real leverage - you can job hunt based on your excellent experience (7 years of dedication to a firm? That sounds great) and can ask your current employer to match any offers you get. Of course, that only works if you're willing to leave if your boss refuses the raise.

It took me almost a year to figure out what was wrong with my old job and decide on the right course for me. So calm down, appreciate what you have (a stable job close to family! Many people would kill for that.), and while you keep working you can give yourself room to think about the right long-term path for you and your family. If you share some thoughts on what would help you be satisfied and whether you're willing to make some of the above trade-offs, we might be able to help you with some next steps.
posted by Tehhund at 12:41 PM on December 20, 2010

I can imagine you having the following conversation with yourself in the future:

"I don't know what happened. I tried. I did everything that was expected of me. I became indispensable to my boss. His easy promises not withstanding, I excelled because it's who I am. That I made him look good in the process was not a concern. I was doing my job the way it should be done, and in doing it well, I was doing it as much for myself as for him. I was growing. I was confidently taking each deliberate step, one at a time, to my future. To a future that was, back then, so obvious. So predictable. And I was happy.

I knew the ground was shifting beneath my feet. I lost my balance when I heard the housing reports on the news. And again at the goodbye lunch for the intern. So of course I tried harder. This time for my husband and the kids. Our mortgage, our bills. The kids were in school. Time flies so fast. So fast.

But I was good, and my boss, well, he needed me. He knew how hard it would have been to do without me. He took advantage of me, but at least I got a paycheck out of him. A day, a week, a month. But then it wasn't the same anymore. All that time watching my feet on the path, keeping my balance. I mean at that point, back then, I didn't even feel like I could make a change.

And then the nights, sitting there with the kids, wondering what I should do. And in bed later, trying to fall asleep, that was when I really should have stopped. I should have really paid attention. I should have seen myself getting somehow "smaller" in my own head...feeling like I just didn't have much agency over my life.

Doing all the right stuff, making each correct decision day after day after day. It was what I was supposed to do. Nobody could disagree with my efforts.

And then, there was no more check. 'I'm sorry. I just have to let you go. I wish I could keep you on, but I just can't afford it. Maybe when the market picks up again...'

It seems so obvious now. My boss. Of course it was his company, and he did what was best for him. At every single milepost, he did what was best for him. Maybe that makes him a jerk, or maybe, ultimately, that just makes him human. He made promises he probably would have liked to have kept, if only the "market" would have let him. I get that. I just shouldn't have let him.... Whatever, it doesn't matter now.

At least now I'm happy. At least I am finally living my life for me. At least now I wake up and know I am on the way to reaching my potential, putting my experience to work in service of myself. At least now my family gets the best me, not the boss. Times may be tough, and I may not have a plane to sell to make them easier, but I feel like my old self again, back when I was starting. Back when it was all so fresh and new. And clean.

The future is mine again. Fuck, I just wish I wouldn't have waited so long. I mean the market was so obviously fucked. Nothing gets better overnight. Not jobs, not people, not markets. Given where I am now, dammit, what I could have done with the last 5 years! It seems so obvious. Nothing was going to change unless I changed it.

There is so much I want to do.

Time flies so fast."

Good luck.
(For what it's worth, I'm an architect in Seattle. Struggling. Trying to figure out what to do. Just like you.)
posted by nickjadlowe at 1:34 PM on December 20, 2010

Why do you think your boss is lying to you? The recession hit real estate development in general harder than any development since the 1986 tax law changes (and some segments, even harder than that) -- layoffs were the rule, not the exception. That indicates no particular bad faith, or desire to break specific promises. Denying you the right to socialize with clients is a bit eccentric, but probably flows from his having had a bad experience with a prior associate.

You should hold your boss to his promise, and he violates it (which isn't impossible -- no one is irreplaceable), let him know you'll walk out and take as many of his clients with you as you can. And then do it. If they don't know you now, when you walk them through your contribution to the firm's work, they'll know it then. And if he furiously bad-mouths you, he'll only prove your point; no one bothers to bad-mouth someone who isn't a threat to their business.

(If you have a non-compete, though, some of this might not apply.)
posted by MattD at 1:49 PM on December 20, 2010

another designer here. The part that concerns me is that you aren't allowed contact with clients. I'm only 4 years out of school myself and not yet licensed, but as a project manager I'm expected to be a primary point of contact for clients. It's invaluable experience that your employer should be only too happy to give you.

Every firm is different and architects tend to be control freaks, sure, but it sounds like your employer is trying to keep you under his thumb rather than help you grow. That doesn't jibe with the idea that he'll make you a partner.
posted by Chris4d at 4:02 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't see any reason in what you've written that the owner will not move you to a principal/profit share position in Feb - the layoffs, lack of payment, hard work, etc are all par for the course right now, not some red flag about your owner's commitment to you. It does sound like he's paranoid about his clients, but could he maybe think that it's less confusing for them to just go through him? One voice instead of many? I personally think that's a BS way to handle things, but you've worked without transparency for 7 years, so I'm not sure why this a new problem. All the donation of time and not complaining about long hours are also...normal. Unfortunately. I also think that's BS, but there you are.

The one thing you've left out is the owner's participation in you know, the production of the architecture. It sounds like you're the one pulling off the projects. Maybe he has the clients, but you have all the power because you get the projects done. Use that power to push for principal status.

I would NOT leave the company if you can help it, but I would start following job boards and pushing your network a bit about other opportunities. You may be able to find your way into a freelance project or two which might lead you into your own practice over time, which you may find more rewarding.
posted by annie o at 4:07 PM on December 20, 2010

It sounds like you're trying to talk yourself into leaving. But February isn't very far off, and it doesn't sound like you have any sort of backup plan for leaving. I would stick around at least that long—and probably longer, since it sounds like the owner may not meet that soft "deadline"—to see what happens. It sounds like you're someone the owner puts a lot of trust in, even if his level of trust is relatively low across the board. Per the title of your post, the way to move forward in this job, it seems like, is to stick around and then check in on the owner's promises occasionally.

You may just have to find the right time to have the conversation. I can sort of imagine the form it might take: "So hey—back in the summer, we were talking about my potentially taking on more responsibility at the firm. But we got so busy after that, I haven't had a chance to ask you anything further. So I just wanted to check in—definitely let me know if there's anything I can do to lighten your load." Far easier said than done, of course—but if you're fairly frustrated with the not-talking-about-it, it still might not be a bad conversation to try to initiate, as long as you don't frame it as any sort of ultimatum the way this guy did.

You might also do some reading on your own about what being a principal entails—I don't know what subject exactly you'd look under, but you should start doing some speculative Google searches, seeing if there are any relevant blogs by principals of architecture firms, poking around on Amazon, etc. And since you have multiple certifications, maybe there's some networking you can do within the certifying organizations to find out more?

And of course, there's a lot you can learn about typical job responsibilities for senior architects by perusing job listings nationally on a regular basis, just as a matter of course. One, it's good intel about the industry in general, as you'll get a better sense of what's "normal" for those job titles, and two, hey, they're job listings. You never know what you'll find!
posted by limeonaire at 4:49 PM on December 20, 2010

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