Where have all the Cowboys Gone?

In the early days of my architectural career I was a firebrand.  I fought for what I believed in and stood up for myself to clients and city planners alike.  What I didn’t realize at the time was what an amazing boss I had.  He supported me, defended me and never made me feel that standing up for the firm or defending our actions was a bad thing.  In fact, he taught me the art of good record-keeping and documentation to facilitate just such circumstances. However, as I soon learned at my next firm, which was hierarchical, was that the Director of Design (who in my opinion was neither) made design decisions.  Period.  There was no place for any other ideas.  My attempts to collaborate or share thoughts resulted in being assigned tasks to make me feel included that once completed were cast aside, and my one attempt to pin up several concepts and have the team engage in discussion made the guy feel I had hostilely attacked him.  So he called me into a conference room to hostilely attack me.  I think he was trying to intimidate me, but back then, I knew he couldn’t fire me so I fought right back and gave no ground.  I also told our Managing Director that I never wanted to work with him again.  So did several other staff (and quite possibly some clients), and he left the firm a few months later.  However, in a firm structured that way, only those tracked as designers from day one were ever really in charge of design.  Shut your mouth and do your job was the implicit message. Stay in your track. SIGH.  My next job initially seemed to hold better prospects.  The firm was known for its design and the design came out of each project team with design direction and final approval by a Principal.  But wait- this firm believed that the client should be satisfied at any costs and routinely threw staff under the bus, even without knowing all the facts, any time a client was less than delighted.  Staff lived in fear of defending our actions to a cranky client lest said client call one of our principals to complain.  Even when I could prove to them that we were right and the client was wrong, and produce an extensive paper trail, these guys rolled over to placate the client.  They lost money on every job doing that.  The implicit message here was that there was no place for courage of conviction.  The customer was always right.  SIGH.

It shouldn’t have to be this way.  Frank Lloyd Wright was a cowboy.  LeCorbusier was a cowboy.  Hell, even Zaha Hadid is a cowboy. We need that lone figure standing unyielding on the hilltop.  Who is inspired by the current crisis of leadership at most architecture firms? There needs to be a place for those who are willing to speak up, to fight for an idea or an opportunity, to hold a client to their decisions.  It seems the cowboy has been replaced with a bunch of grovelling mealy mouth architects who are more afraid of losing their clients than losing their integrity.

I find it hard to believe that clients really respect kowtowing and employees certainly don’t.  However, we increasingly get this message: don’t rock the boat.  What implications does this have for leadership?  Clients have needs and expectations, but they also expect their architect to be in charge of the design process and to lead them through it.  In salute to the cowboy in all of us some unorthodox ideas about our practice of architecture:
Let loose with both barrels.  Before you even start, you gotta let ‘em know who they’re dealing with.  The beginning of a project is the time for establishing who you are, why you want to work on this project and what advantage you bring.  If you aren’t clear about this now, how will you assert yourself as things become challenging?  Besides, if there is a fundamental disconnect, better to realize that now and leave the project on good terms.  Yep, you read that right.  If they’re not buying what you’re selling, ride off into the sunset.  Nothing good will come of staying.

Brandish your firing iron. Clients are working through an iterative process with you.  You need to provide clear information about how the process will work, where and how interaction occurs, what players have a role at which stage of the project and how much of a time commitment each stakeholder is expected to have.  Without this kind of upfront organization of expectations, schedule, and process, the project can get away from you – fast.  Critical players can miss meetings, information meant to be shared within a department can go unseen.  You have to enforce the process, failing to have the right input at the right time or decisions made on schedule compromises the project.  No one will be happy with how things are going and they will blame you.  And if you didn’t stick to your guns and enforce the rules of engagement, it will absolutely be your fault.

Break that horse. Taming the design problem requires loving understanding but also steely determination.  You need to define the issues you will and will not address in the design instead of letting them define you.  Organize stakeholder input and benchmarking sessions to collect the data you need to prioritize with your clients about the issues.  This is the number one lesson from all those studio crits back in school: your success will be judged by how well you have solved the problem you have defined.

Herd the cattle. Design is about so much more that just architecture.  There are other players who will work on everything from engineering to cost estimating to equipment planning.  Don’t let your team roam off in separate directions.  Keep them focused and in communication with one another.  Don’t hesitate to lasso back in the wayward consultant.  Even if they don’t work directly for you, they are contributing to your process.  They need to stay with the herd.  If they aren’t interested, you need to be proactive and let your client know.  Regardless of who hired each individual, if they don’t contribute to the process, they aren’t contributing at all.  That has as much value to your owner as it does to you.  They’ll appreciate the heads up.

Being a cowboy means being willing to take a few risks and not mind if in doing that you offend some people.  Cowboys are never obnoxious, but they don’t compromise doing their job for anything or anyone.  Take control and speak you mind, establish clear rules of engagement and enforce them without compromise.  Believe in your ideas and your process and let that guide everything you do.  Above all, don’t let anything, especially fear of disapproval, hold you back.  Ye-haw!