Leveraging Failure and Fear for Professional Growth

posted December 13th, 2019 in Blog

by Rebekka Baker


E4H Architecture Attends AIA Women's Leadership Summit - Three women standing in front of a sign at a work conference
“Embrace your challenges, setbacks, and failures because they are part of your success story”

This quote most certainly rings true to my heart, especially after reflecting on the events that led me to writing this blog post today.

Let’s rewind to August 16th . It’s presentation day for E4H’s Internal Design Competition, and my group (W3) is about to present. We’ve been working so hard on our design and presentation for months; we were confident we would win. I’ve always struggled with public speaking, and my fear starts to set in. I’m pacing the office, scrambling to memorize my presentation notes at the last minute, and I’m panicking but still slightly optimistic that I could just wing it. Fake it ‘til you make it, right? Wrong! I bombed my portion of the presentation and felt horrible for letting my team down.

This was a defining moment in my career because it made me realize that if I want to accomplish all of my professional goals, the “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality is not an option. I quickly learned that presenting an idea isn’t just about having beautiful graphics, it’s also about telling the story behind it, and my storytelling skills were lacking to say the least. Fortunately, this experience led me to take action and enhance my professional journey by becoming a fearless and skilled storyteller.

Taking Action: Facing My Fear Head On

My first step toward action was to compete in the firm’s 4WRD contest and earn a spot at the 2019 AIA Women’s Leadership Summit. The contest required participants to deliver a two-minute speech on the topic of, “How I will benefit by attending the Women’s Leadership Summit”. With some encouragement from my project manager, I decided to participate in the contest and take advantage of the opportunity to face my fear of public speaking. The title of my speech was Fear of Public Speaking and I addressed how attending the summit would give me insight on how women in leadership roles have overcome their own fears of public speaking. A few days later, 4WRD announced that I had won!

2019 AIA Women’s Leadership Summit: Reframe, Rethink, Refresh

The summit was held in Minneapolis, Minnesota and with over 750 women in attendance, it was the largest gathering of women architects and designers in the country, ever. The overall theme was:  Reframe. Rethink. Refresh. Attendees were given a chance to reframe their intentions for pursuing architecture and what drew them to attend the summit, rethink how barriers in the profession could become opportunities, and offer strategies to refresh their career paths to align better with their interests and goals. The summit goals were to raise the profile of women in the profession, explore new paths to leadership and to create a safe and supportive environment for women to learn from one another at multiple stages in their careers.

To be honest, being surrounded by so many successful women in our profession was intimidating, but I quickly got over that once I realized that I was a source of knowledge for them as well. There was this overwhelming feeling of support and encouragement among us, like we all wanted to high five each other, and I absolutely loved that. Keynote speaker Priya Parker explained it well, “in an all-women setting, gender falls away as the typical first aspect of our identity that is noticed. We no longer have to worry about performing for the person you’re least comfortable around, and our personalities, skills, and expertise can take center stage.” Speakers and attendees could put away their masks and openly share their vulnerabilities, indignities, and paths forward.

Encouragement Through Storytelling

Through the 20-plus educational seminars and workshops, the storytelling segments were by far the most inspiring part of the summit for me. There were six storytellers, women from different backgrounds, with different stories, and experiences ranging from dealing with grief and loss,  to realizing that women can be awesome moms, architects, and leaders, or forging one’s own path forward in the design industry. Sharing their stories – from within and outside of the workplace – created an instant connection and common ground between all the women at the summit. In turn, we let our guards down and had the opportunity to share our stories in a safe place, without judgement.

I learned about Madame Architect, a web platform created by Julia Gamolina, which supports this safe place by celebrating women’s stories through different features and interviews. Madam Architect features women from all professional stages with the ultimate goal of providing encouragement and guidance for women’s pursuits, while fostering empathy and understanding for the pursuits of others. I believe this website to be an exceptional resource for any woman needing advice or navigating all the stages of life and career development within our profession.

Embracing Authenticity, Self-Advocacy, and Power Skills

Beyond storytelling, there were other key topics that had an impact on me.

First was the topic of embracing self-advocacy, which is a scary thought for many of us because, stereotypically, women are supposed to be modest. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just acting differently; perceptions of women self-advocating in the workplace are often seen as aggressive and unlikeable. So, what do we do? Well, we do it anyway, but we do it carefully.  It’s all about being confident and, like all things, practice and repetition lead to improved confidence and skill. How good you are can affect opportunity, advancement, and personal growth – so start speaking up, self-promoting, and taking risks.

Second, being authentic by bringing your whole self to work. Many of us struggle with feeling like we must pretend to be something we’re not in the workplace. Not only can this cause anxiety, depression, and resentment – it’s causing many women to leave their firms. Firm leaders must pay attention to authenticity because its linked to higher workplace engagement and satisfaction, better performance, and better overall wellbeing. We must find ways to be more authentic within the context of our culture, and I believe the E4H 4wrd group has been a great place to start.

Last but not least, honing your soft skills, often referred to as power-skills, is crucial for professional development. Soft skills are basically people skills, or your ability to relate to others but they are very hard to teach, and the responsibility lies on the individual to perfect them. During Julia Gamonlina’s seminar, The Future is Female: How Firms Can Empower Tomorrows Leaders, she identified active listening, presence, public speaking, negotiation, and building relationships as important soft skills to develop. If you want to succeed in your career or become a better leader, you should assess your soft skills, identify your shortcomings, and work towards improving your social abilities.

Fearless, Empowered, and Motivated

I’m so grateful that I was given the opportunity to attend this event so early in my career. I left feeling fearless and empowered to accomplish all my goals, and wanting to share everything I learned with all the women in our firm.

To sum it up, it all comes down to this – my fear of public speaking finally slapped me in the face, forcing me to identify my shortcomings which allowed me to make one small decision to put myself out there. The small 2-minute speech that I gave to my female peers at E4H created a chain reaction of opportunity, fostering knowledge, and encouraging professional growth that I wouldn’t have otherwise received. #stopbeingscared #putyourselfoutthere #opportunity

Three women E4H partners stand in front of blue and white AIA Women's Leadership Summit banner

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