On Taking Charge of Your Career Path
With special thanks to Christopher Whitcomb
The co-director of CannonDesign’s global health practice, Abbie Clary always has her eyes on the future of healthcare. She’s overseen more than $2.5 billion in healthcare projects of the last 23 years, including projects that have amassed the full spectrum of design recognition. She’s also remarkably passionate about women’s issues and equity in the design profession, having founded Women’s Networking Dinners for working professional women within the healthcare industry, attended the 2017 Forbes Women’s summit, and presented at the 2018 Women in Design + Construction conference. Read here to learn more about Abbie’s path.
How did you get to where you are in your career?
There’s two parts to that story, finding architecture and then finding my strategy and business development and leadership role within that world. My interest in architecture began during grade school, which may be irregular for many, but I took technical drawing classes then that I didn’t expect to enjoy, but really loved. As I progressed at school, I was fortunate to have architecture as an elective in high school and as I attended those classes my interest just grew and grew, and before I knew it, I was drawing door details at my first job.
The strategy, leadership and business development component of my job was not a planned path. My first job was with a smaller firm in Chicago as a technical Architect and then a Project Manager. The firm set up our compensation so that we were paid lower salaries than industry standards, but we received a solid percentage of profit at the end of the year.
I was comfortable with this model until the person in charge of business development resigned. At this moment, I had just had my first child, my salary had a high degree of variability, and nobody was trying to build our firm’s pipeline for future work. It scared me to death, especially since both my husband and I were “starving artists”.
My fear spurred action. I went to see our CFO and offered to take on business development for the health practice of the company. There was no opposition, so I added that to my role over the next few years. It was a challenge - especially as I took this on during the recession - but I found my way, and I learned a ton. The job further fueled my competitive spirit. I loved fighting to differentiate our team and win new work - it gave me grit.
Eventually, years later, HDR called at a moment when I was looking to take on a bigger challenge with a global firm. I worked there eight years and oversaw the company’s health practice for the west half of the country. Then, CannonDesign offered me the opportunity to co-lead their global health practice. It’s been an exciting journey and I’m thrilled with where I am today.
What are some of the main challenges you’ve faced?
The biggest challenge for me is I lack an educational background in organizational strategy and business development. As I said, I jumped into that world overnight, and it has been trial and error ever since. It always will be for me, but that makes it exciting.
I’ve dealt with the challenges a few ways. First, I’ve always put a premium on working with great people and teams. I’ve learned that design and business development… they’re team sports. And, if you have the right people working with you, then you can collectively achieve anything. I love that part of my job, finding people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives who will do anything for one another. Teamwork is how you learn, overcome setbacks, and push yourselves out of comfort zones and toward new goals.
Secondly, I’ve become generally unafraid to fail. Realistically, 80% of my efforts fail. That was hard for me earlier in my career, but I have thicker skin now. You never like to fail, but you learn how to move forward. You learn how to build relationships with your firm’s leaders so they know you’re trying new things, taking strategic risks, and always operating in the best interest of the firm. Failure is hard, but it’s never an end game, you just can’t let it make decisions for you.
Are there any advantages or disadvantages of being a female architect?
Advantages? There are incredible women who have worked and currently work in this profession to inspire you. That’s one. Second, sometimes you’re one of the only women in a decision-making room, and you can seize those moments. But, to be honest, there haven’t been a ton of advantages.
The disadvantage I want to talk about is unconscious bias. It’s a real thing that affects women and minorities in the industry. Numerous times during my career, I’ve witnessed and experienced a well-intended individual make suggestions based on bias that impact others. One scenario to help explain could go like this:
A client is having an out-of-town meeting on the weekend. In preparation for the meeting, someone suggests that a male individual attend instead of a woman because she has small children and will not likely be able to attend due to the weekend timing and travel. In this situation, the decision is made for the woman without ever consulting her. It takes away her ability to make the decision. There is no ill-intent in this scenario, but there is potentially a missed opportunity for a colleague. These types of biased-decisions can happen when it comes to promotions, project opportunities, workload and more.
Witnessing this bias in its many forms has opened my eyes to the real fear and unfortunate reality that this has probably happened to me as well, without me ever knowing it. How many times has a decision been made for me because I’m a woman, a mom, a wife, or all three? The important lesson here is that we need to talk about unconscious bias. In most all cases, the bias is unintended and the person making the decision may think they’re operating in the other’s best interest. But, good intentions can sometimes have negative consequences. The more we talk about unconscious bias, the more we can all avoid it.
How has the culture of design changed?
There are so many changes, let’s focus on two.
When I started working in healthcare design, we approached it meekly. The client would tell us what they needed, then we’d go off and design it for them. The client established programming and we followed orders. We didn’t validate, analyze or challenge. We were the architects and we took what was given.
That’s not how it works today. Our design teams are now integrated with clinical expertise, LEAN Six Sigma, operational planners, data analysts, high-performance building engineers, and much more. Not only are we equipped to analyze our clients’ business models in a holistic way and then design accordingly, the clients now expect it. That’s a 180-degree evolution and a great change.
A not so great change is the commoditization of Architecture and Design. You may have recently seen that you can now buy prefabricated patient rooms on Amazon. It worries me that this can only further push our clients to see design as a commodity, which it isn’t at all. We are experts in ways you can’t buy off shelves or with free two-day shipping. We need to aggressively remind our clients and the public that design is a dynamic skill and expertise. Otherwise, we’re going to have even bigger problems with commoditization. I know we can fix it, but we need to take ownership and do everything we can to fix it ourselves.
What work-related policies would you like to change?
I’m a huge proponent of flexibility. I understand there are aspects of Architecture where everyone needs to be together as it’s a team sport. But, I advocate for even more flexibility in how we do our work. Virtual meetings, multi-user virtual reality, screensharing, we should be using all of it to empower people to work how, when, and where they can be most effective.
I’m never in the office for conventional 9-5 work days. I work very flexibly, I travel all over the world, but I’m still able to get my work done and most importantly be an involved mom (and hockey mom). I want to see that flexibility made more equitable in the profession.
What would you change about design education?
I wish design education did more to inform students about all the different ways they can work in our profession. I didn’t even know the job I have today existed when I was in school. Nobody talked about business leadership to me. If they had, I might have pursued it sooner, or even taken on another major so I could have that knowledge base. There are thousands of ways to work in Architecture and Design beyond being a lead designer, and they’re all equally important. Education needs to make sure future next generations understand this fully.
What positive or negative aspects in young designers do you see today?
The emerging generation inspires me. They have energy, creativity and a desire to push the status quo that is reverberating across the design world right now. I love how they’re more purpose-driven than previous generations. They want to work for companies that align with their values, that tackle social issues that matter to them, that give a damn about making the world a better place. It’s pushing organizations to be more socially responsible in important ways.
I do think there are two challenges younger designers may face. First, I worry that their inclination to job-hop may result in them missing opportunities. Sometimes, it takes a few years and there are things you need to learn before you can find a role you truly love. Drive is amazing, but sometimes it does need to be balanced with patience. And then I think as an industry, we’re all learning how to deal with work/life balance. I love this generation’s commitment to that balance and their families and personal health, but I also recognize that sometimes it takes a bit more than 40 hours to complete the work. I support the why behind 40-hour work weeks, but know that the numbers have to equate to profit, too. This is a challenge we’ll have to find new ways to tackle moving forward.
What are your tips to young designers?
The one key piece of advice I always like to share is, “You have to take charge of your own career.” When I left my previous firm to work at CannonDesign, I felt incredible guilt until someone said those same words to me. You have to do what’s important for you and your career. You can’t just wait for someone to realize you’re ready for a promotion. Everyone is a busy, everyone is in the weeds. Make sure you look up from your work. When you feel you’re ready, ask for opportunity, take on new responsibilities, be bold. No one cares more about your career than you.
I’d also share that it’s deeply important to focus on your personal brand. Earlier in my career, I found myself in a position where I was seen as being able to do a certain set of things. I wanted to change that, and when I left to work at HDR, I consciously redefined that perception. You need to talk about the great work you do. You need to advocate for yourself, even brag a little. Even if you’re an introvert, take time and focus to build your personal brand.
And finally, any tips to leaders?
Care about the people that work with you. They really are like your family. Be honest and transparent with them, try to put them in spots where they can shine. The more you help your team, the more it helps you.