I was lucky after graduating from architecture school to land a great position with a small architecture firm in Atlanta, Taylor + Williams, Architects. My primary responsibility was to act as project architect for a very large custom estate in north Georgia, with a big emphasis on the word, “act.” As a recent proud graduate of the Howard Rourke School of Beauxarchitecture, I see only now that I was too confidant in my own abilities and under appreciative of others.
Soon after starting this dream job, our young clients came to visit the office to see our progress and discuss some outstanding design issues. We gathered near my desk to look at drawings and a model I had built. I cannot recall exactly the issues, but I do recall contradicting and correcting my boss, Richard Taylor’s, words over and over as he valiantly diverted my headstrong remarks into friendlier waters and our clients (who have remained good friends) looked on both incredulously and sympathetically, for him.
Redfaced, he valiantly patronized, parsed and persisted. At some point, the meeting ended (like my young career!), the clients exited the office, and Richard returned without a word to his office. All was quiet. I returned to my desk; my colleagues were silent before a dead man. Soon, I received a summons from his office, “MARLATT! GET IN HERE!”
The office in which Richard held court was a large parlor of an old Victorian townhome. I entered at one end to find him behind his desk, perhaps 16 feet away, in shadow with his back to the large bay window and the Atlanta skyline in the distant background. An Atlanta legend among architects, Richard is 6’-4” with large hands and a larger personality. He has won design awards, sought buried planes in Greenland, and owned bars. He is an avid pilot and even owns his own small plane that we would use to visit job sites, even when it probably made more sense to drive.
“MARLATT! DO YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT PILOTS?”
“Uh, no, Richard…” (where was this going with this?)
“THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF PILOTS IN THE WORLD! DO YOU KNOW WHAT THEY ARE?” (even I could understand this question was rhetorical)
“THOSE WHO HAVE LANDED WITH THEIR WHEELS UP, AND THOSE WHO HAVE NOTYET LANDED WITH THEIR WHEELS UP!”
His eyes alit, he suddenly laughed, emerged from behind his desk, extended his hand, and bellowed,
“WELCOME TO THE CLUB!”
While I stood stunned, but with my appendages and employment intact, Richard took his usual place on the sofa and, with Sharpie and paper on the marble coffee table, began a debriefing of our disastrous meeting. At some point, I sat down. Point by point, he reviewed where I was right but acted badly, where I was wrong (and acted badly), which ideas I should continue to develop and which ones to drop and why. He would speak soon to our clients to explain my impertinence and the next time we would better prepare ourselves to act as a team. We talked about who is boss, who is not, and why.
I don’t think that lessons are drawn simply and fully from single anecdotes, but this experience clearly set me on a path – upon which I would make many morewheels-up landings - towards understanding that the business of architecture is a team sport. A team player respects his or her colleagues and supports the entire team – including consultants - until there is no alternative. You learn to play your position on the team, or you get off the team. Richard and I were both unprepared; we should have practiced what we planned to show and say. Surprising your adversary can be good; surprising your teammate is almost always bad.
I also began to learn that clients can be both friends and friendly, but if you intend to stay in business, they exist to pay for services and results. Time spent watching internal disputes unfold is not billable time. Clients do not need, want, or value posturing and squabbling.
Finally, interwoven with these lessons, Richard’s discipline to keep the client meeting on track when he probably should have just slapped me, and then to quickly turn this entire episode into a “teachable moment” for the benefit of the client and project, is an example to which I still aspire in my own business.