Learning to Fly
Neil Dawson talks growth, gusto, and eyeing the bigger picture.
It’s a relatively chilly Friday morning and I can’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. It’s all so familiar: the route, the humidity, the cold brew pit stop, the grasping of the architect scale door handle, the lingering reminder that I should have gone home before that last glass of wine the night before and the sound of the far too appreciable heeled trek up to the third floor honoring the ‘please use the stairs’ sign posted to the elevator door.
‘Routine’ is an understatement when describing my day-to-day life. Inefficiency basically intoxicates me, so why fight saved time and added structure? In the words of my favorite barista that can predict my arrival time daily, “I’d be easy to murder.” It comes as no surprise then that I find myself standing here, nearly two years later, having completed my morning grind exactly as I had a thousand times before except for one tiny detail: this time I was a guest. A guest standing by in the impeccably industrial lobby of my old office anxiously awaiting a conversation with my former boss.
With the go-ahead from the receptionist, I make my way back to Neil’s office. Someone else had just popped in to speak with him, so I indulged in a chat with his assistant prompting yet another reminder of a previous protocol; a daily dally drill so familiar it was if no time had passed.
Here’s the thing with Neil: he’s pretty damn popular. Waiting is normal if you’d like to speak to him. When he walks in a room it’s a visible sea of feeder fish eager to capture his attention, so to get even a moment with him feels golden. If I was as in demand as he is, frankly I’d lose my mind.
That’s a clear difference between he and I. I’d be spinning in circles wishing for the entire human race to disappear. Yet, when it’s my turn to speak with him I’m elegantly greeted with a big smile, a cup of espresso and a ‘Hey stranger! How are you?’ as though the whole world isn’t sitting on his doorstep. Truly, the finesse with which he handles his role is second to none.
For that reason, among others, Neil was a clear fit for this conversation; one centered on mentorship stressing things like professional growth and business development. It was now my time to sit down and pick the brain of this tireless architectural force; a force of three decades of practice, countless awards, and unparalleled expertise in both business and design.
Here’s what he had to say:
My main role at this point is to develop leaders and bring out the best in people. Honestly, my technical skills are limited with respect to modern technology. It’s kind of funny that an intern should always be smarter than you in that regard if you hire the right person, so you can’t view those skills as the baseline of your professional development or you’d always be behind.
I’m not saying that technical aspects are unimportant. You need to possess them to be successful, but that is not at all what mentorship is about. You can train almost anybody to draft and comply with codes. The real meat of evolving someone as a professional is developing their intellect and ability to make critical decisions that are more about life than technicalities.
The term mentor is just hard. There is this sense like ‘I’ll sit down with this person every Wednesday’ which feels forced. It does not have to be a formal thing and I’m doubtful many relationships form out of things like ‘mentor socials.’ You should want to be guided by someone you’ve observed specific characteristics in that you want for yourself. How could you possibly know that in one sitting? I think it is more important to identify people that make you think ‘I want to be like them’ or ‘I want what they have’ and emulate those individuals in order to grow. Truthfully, I think the best way to mentor is to lead by example.
At 55, I’m still being mentored. You can always learn something from somebody, so I don’t think mentorship ever ceases to exist. Your goals change as you mature and continued growth will require new influences. I have four or five mentors I actively work with now. They all happen to be older than me, but that is not why I sought them. I sought them because they are people I like, respect, and want to intentionally continue growing in a direction that they have.
Development is not at all about age. Teams need to be built around the great energy of youth, the expertise of seniority, and everyone in between; you can’t discount anyone at the table. Assembling a staff of various ages and personality types is vital to firm success and managing growth. You don’t want twenty people who are going to work at the firm for forty years until they retire, just like you don’t want twenty people who are going to threaten to leave every year. If you hired all wild horses with optimum drive, you’d never get anything done.
You’re a great example. I couldn’t hire twenty Jodies or they’d all leave. You have a natural drive for leadership and a personality that will continually want better. You’re not going to sit still; you’ll always keep pushing. I like having people like that around because it challenges me to find ways that I can make their role meaningful, but you can’t have too much of it.
It’s not hard for me to invest my time in mentoring someone like that; someone I sense might leave. You always know they’re going to. You want people like that; someone whose resume is always polished. I mean, mine was. A lot of firm owners won’t bother, but that’s not what it’s about. That same person will likely go on to do something great. You want to help them get there and be a part of that. It shouldn’t all be as competitive as people make it out to be.
Thinking back over twenty-eight years of employees, I’ve probably had several hundred work for me; a lot of successful firm owners in town even. When I reflect on the ones that really turned out to be prosperous, you could sense who these people were instantly. It doesn’t all boil down to ‘oh, this guy has just got it.’ It’s more along the lines of: do they have an apparent desire to try? You have to be willing to put in a lot of effort to achieve success. If a person has that kind of drive, it’s obvious from the get-go.
It’s also evident early on if it is important for a person to excel at their job or simply be content with a paycheck and a very good life. A lot of people don’t want any added attention and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Those people tend to be really effective workers. They don’t feel the need to get out and talk to people and are very task oriented. The employees that characteristically are good leaders, however, tend to not focus as well.
You need a mix of both on a team; somebody who’s going to push and somebody who’s going to hoard. That way you have someone looking out for the bigger picture who can sit down with consultants and engage clients, while the other is simultaneously pushing project progress forward. That individual doesn’t necessarily require as much mentoring, but they do need to know that what they’re doing is absolutely just as important.
They say one leader can effectively manage five to seven people. If you’re the only leader, you’re going to have a five to seven-person firm. Once you have a partner, now you can grow to fifteen or so and be okay. So, what do you do if you’re LS3P? That’s part of why I wanted to merge. I had experienced one person, two partners, a principal and three great project managers; various multiples of five and seven. It’s not any harder or different when you’re LS3P and have 350 people. It just means you have more really effective leaders that can motivate and manage their own groups.
When you are lucky enough to have in house mentors like that, the synergy is totally liberating. Work is getting done. People are managing themselves. Employees not only want to succeed, but they want their friends that they work with to as well. It’s a pretty special thing.
I know a lot of firms are transitioning to a more virtual workplace, claiming they can operate ‘just as well over technology.’ Well, that’s not true. I think everybody over there would agree that there’s a natural learning environment that occurs in a studio setting.
The energy that comes from this mixing of people is more about organizational dynamics than mentorship. You learn about other people’s lives, problems, and backgrounds. This in-person interaction of different ages, experience levels, ethnicities, sexes, and whatever else you want to throw into the mix, is all part of the dynamic and is crucial to the main goal: facilitating growth. It enables the development of better-rounded people and, to me, it makes life more enjoyable.
Sincere mentorship isn’t career-specific. It goes beyond employment; the bottom line is we’re all people. I’ve learned many lessons from my mentors that are as important to me personally as they are professionally.
They’ve taught me to always keep an eye on the bigger picture. They’re not the kind of people trying to win every battle, and they understand that what you do with your life is more important than what you do with the moment.
That’s an essential mindset, so I try my best to mimic it.
We shake hands, part ways and I re-enter that infamous stairwell. As I clunk my way down the concrete treads, I can’t help but walk away inspired, thinking: does Neil realize how gracefully he exudes exactly that?
I’ve got some emulating of my own to do.