Challenging the Status Quo

Amy Korte, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is the youngest President at Arrowstreet. She climbed the ladder quickly, jumping from Associate straight to Principal in just 6 years. Amy is an active member of the BSA, ULI, NAIOP, CREW Boston, and gives regular talks about resilience, technology and design. We chatted with Amy about the challenges and opportunities of being a leader to change the status quo and rethink ways to both practice architecture and reshape the work culture. Take a sneak peek at Amy’s observations and tips.

How did you get to where you are, PRESIDENT at Arrowstreet?

Amy Korte. Photo Credit: Arrowstreet

Amy Korte. Photo Credit: Arrowstreet

I joined Arrowstreet eleven years ago and becoming a Principal was a surprise. Instead of taking the traditional path: Associate, Senior Associate, Associate Principal, Principal, I jumped from Senior Associate to Principal in one day. Five years ago I was brought into a room and told, “The Partners have voted you into being a Principal, are you interested?” It caught me out of left field. It put me in a position of being the youngest Principal at Arrowstreet and the second female Principal. It was scary, it was exciting, and I was joining a partnership of people whom I did not really know because I was not at their peer level and I had only been with the firm for six years. In hindsight, I think I got to where I am today by understanding how to question the status quo: proposing ideas for how to approach architecture and the built environment differently and then working hard to implement those ideas through the design of our projects.

What are some challenges you have faced and how did you overcome them?

Becoming a Principal was a challenge at first. Four of us were elevated at the same time, and we were brought in as 25% shareholders. Two years ago, we bought in fully at 100%. Now, the six of us are all equal Partners but it was during that 25% to 100% time that I found the most challenging. We were trying to evolve how we practiced architecture, managed the firm, and approached projects. Change always feels like it should be faster in the moment, but I look back now and realize how far we have come while also appreciating the support that the more senior Partners gave to us during that time.

Another challenge has been convincing clients and colleagues to address topics of uncertainty within projects. For example, when Hurricane Sandy hit NYC, we had just finished the schematic design for a project in the Seaport. It is hard to imagine, but seven years ago there were very few built examples in Boston that addressed sea-level rise and storm surge. I did everything I could to read what was coming out of New York including lessons learned and enrolling myself in a course at Harvard on climate change and designing for resiliency. It was hard to make your voice heard as a woman in those meetings and propose alternative design solutions to make projects more resilient. The response would be, “Well, it hasn’t happened here before, so it is not going to happen again.” I continued to advocate for change on that project while also co-chairing a ULI charrette on Living with Water around that same time, and finally, the person I was trying to convince became a pretty big supporter for bringing resiliency into the project. Today, I have the freedom to start these broader environmental discussions during the interview and proposal stage, so it is much easier to get alignment on our future projects.

And lastly, for our commercial development projects, I am typically the youngest, and quite often the only female in the room - it takes me longer to build up relationships with clients, sub-consultants and OPM’s to convince them that I do know how to put a building together and can execute a project. The stereotypes that both genders face in meetings and on job-sites are frustrating and the amount of effort to overcome these gender biases is often under-appreciated.

How are the challenges different now versus when you were younger?

The challenges facing the next generation of emerging professionals and graduates seem to be much harder and there seems to be a lot more self-imposed pressure to make your mark on the profession immediately after graduation. When I graduated, I worked at a venture capital funded real estate and design/build firm with other GSD and Harvard Business graduates, which was great until the dot com bubble burst and they closed the Boston office. Then I jumped to a more traditional, much larger firm, and was mentored quite a bit from the Director leading the office. I received a  great deal of responsibility early on in my career: handling construction administration on my own, developing the construction drawings, and overseeing consultants. It was stressful in terms of the amount of work and responsibility, but the office culture was incredibly supportive. It was more difficult on the job site, which was in North Carolina. The construction supervisor continuously called me “sweetie” and offered me a pink hard hat during the first site visit, but since I am originally from Virginia, I recognized that it was also part of the southern culture. I basically developed an “I am not threatening” attitude, so the contractor would call me when there was an issue. By the end of the job, he was actually fixing things without change orders because I would go down there, walk through the construction site, and have a conversation about potential solutions. A decade ago you ignored the bulk of the comments, stares, and slights in order to be successful on the job.                      

How do you prepare young women for those experiences?

We need to provide a level of support for our young women who are going into Construction Administration and help them in building a trusting relationship with the contractor. It has become even harder in today’s world because of how quickly construction occurs and the turnover of some of the GC teams that are on site. For you to build that relationship with the Super or the Foreman on site is very different than it was ten years ago. For the last two to three years, we have given the advice of saying if you are asked a question that you do not know the answer to, do not say “I have to come back and ask my Principal,” because in doing that you undermine your credibility on the site. Instead say, “Let me think about it. Let me look at the drawings and get back to you with a solution.” What is more difficult to teach is how women can be more assertive on job-sites while also resolving or diffusing issues in the moment when GCs or OPM’s are losing their temper.

What are some advantages / disadvantages of being a woman in the profession?

There are always disadvantages but I think you can also use those disadvantages to turn them into an advantage. For example, there are a lot of professional development opportunities now for women and minorities in the profession and as a firm we identify potential programs for our mid-career designers/architects and encourage them to apply. ULI Pathways to Inclusion and CREW’s Leadership Academy are both fantastic examples of this, offering a more intimate environment for learning and networking. As a woman, once you have reached 15-20 years of experience, it can be difficult to watch your peers leave to start their own firms to gain more flexibility in their work/home life, or because they feel like they have hit a glass ceiling, or because they want to be part of a women owned firm. Managing a firm can be isolating, but we have an opportunity, and I think an obligation, to make changes that can improve the quality of the profession for the next generation of women and men. The conversations around diversity and equity are playing out across every industry right now: law, real estate, finance, as well as women’s representation in the movies. And, the low percentage of women in the c-suite for architecture is basically mirrored in these other professions. We need to figure out best practices to achieve diversity within established firms.

What policies would you like to change?

One is accommodating flexibility and remote work while still maintaining an office culture that fosters a mentoring and creative environment. For example, as a parent, it is incredibly hard to balance all the school holidays, extra events during the school day for your child, and the after-school activities. There is also the worry, as a working parent, that your child will fall behind because you do not have a parent at the school advocating for them by being more involved in the school activities. From the policy side, we need more affordable childcare and a different structure for our schools. From the architectural typology/amenity side, I would love if the next version of office buildings had built-in childcare or spaces for kids during school holidays. Related to flex work is accommodating employees who also want to take a class, explore a personal interest or take a sabbatical. Instead of just work and life, we must figure out a better way to work, spend time with our families, and further our own learning throughout our careers.

What positives do you see for emerging professionals?

Recently, I went to a firm roundtable that Arrowstreet attends twice a year with architecture firms around the country. As a side note, I have been going for four years and there are still only four or five women in a room of thirty, which is depressing. Anyway, in the last year, the room has been almost equally split between two generations: those who are buying into firms and those who are close to retirement or transitioning out of ownership roles, which has led to interesting conversations. There was a comment made during our last meeting: “Young designers, emerging professionals...they are not building their networks in the right way. They are not going to networking events, they are not…” and the examples continued but they were all examples of how this person did business development. And, I said “No, there is a different way that emerging professionals build a network and it does not necessarily look the same as how I build professional relationships and the people in the generation above me build relationships.” Take the side hustle for example - to be able to explore other work independently or with friends and bring it back into a firm is something that can be celebrated more in how we organize our firms, approach projects, and flatten traditional hierarchical structures. In addition, there is a tremendous opportunity to leverage a wider network of friends and followers cultivated on social media into potential project collaborations and new ways of structuring an office. Emerging professionals should embrace how they approach things differently and use that to influence projects and the firm. Where we got to in the roundtable discussion were questions like: What does the firm of the future look like? and How could future ownership models be structured to accommodate different ways of working?

Do you have any tips to emerging professionals?

What I see a lot more lately is worrying. Am I in the right job? Is my career going fast enough? Am I getting mentored enough? Am I spending too much time on one typology versus another? I do not remember having that worry, so it is hard for me to relate. But it is across the board. How we adjust our notion of what mentoring is and what the internal firm culture looks like to support these concerns of emerging professionals is critical. The challenge from a firm’s perspective is that you have someone who has done one project typology really well, built a good relationship with the client, but then is sick of it after CA because it has taken three years to complete the project and they want a different experience. And yet, they have built up this valuable relationship with the client. From the firm’s perspective, it is a hard decision. Do we shift the person to a different typology because they have asked for a change and it will help us with talent retention? Typically we try to accommodate these requests, but then you have to restart and rebuild that client relationship with a new team. I think if that fear of being pigeonholed into a single project type wasn’t there, you would be more likely to leverage that client relationship and experience into a faster career growth. My other piece of advice is don’t be afraid to ask questions, speak up, and continue to suggest new ways of approaching architecture and the practice.