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The coach: My colleague really sucks up to the partners

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How do you stop the office ‘operator’ outpacing your career, despite their lesser skills? And what do you do if work seems to be turning into a treadmill? Matthew Turner advises

I work far harder than slacker colleague

I have a colleague who really sucks up to the partners. It annoys me, as I work far harder and am much more skilled. When the partners are out, she is a complete slacker; when they are there, she makes a song and dance in their earshot about what she is doing. I bet when it comes to annual reviews she will come out in a better light than me.

All offices have ‘operators’, people who work the system and make sure they are in the front line and visible. This is compounded in architecture, as bosses in the profession quite often choose to recruit in their own image – a pity when having a range of skills and approaches is a good way to foster a balanced and productive workplace.

Nevertheless, you should not be a victim in this situation. Your colleague has her relationship with her bosses; you need to attend to yours. There is no point in becoming bitter over this situation.

I sense you need to be more assertive. By that I don’t mean become a bully, or a pain, or a snitch. But what you might have to do is be a bit more upward facing, and available. It sounds as though your annual review is an excellent context, and a situation you can prepare for. Make it clear, in a non-complaining way, what you contribute, how you are available to help, and what achievements you have delivered for the benefit of the practice. When reminded of what you do, most bosses are likely to think more of you. If your aim is progression, visibility is key in an office environment.

I’m questioning my career choice

I am a successful architect in my mid-40s. I work for a major London firm and in a way I am top of my game. Recently, however, my new girlfriend has made me realise my work life is pretty messed up. She works in another sector completely, and can’t believe how low my salary is, that I routinely work past 8pm, and that I am not more senior given my knowledge and skills. Though it has taken some time, I now realise I have just been unconsciously following the architecture treadmill. I don’t know where to go next. I am not the type to set up on my own, but I have no idea what I could do other than architecture.

The first thing to say is, you are not alone. Many architects at your career stage come to me with your set of questions, though there is no silver bullet I can offer – what is the right course for you has a lot to do with discovering what your priorities really are.

Architects are a peculiar breed. Often we decide on the profession when we are very young, closing down any questioning of our career path, which others are exposed to routinely in their 20s and 30s. So when the notoriously demanding all-or-nothing culture of architecture becomes something other than fresh, it can be very challenging.

When architecture stops feeling fresh, it can be very challenging

Also, as people we tend to be bright and idealistic, often with wide-ranging interests. Yet the practice of architecture can suppress all of these traits, and what we thought was our dream occupation can quickly become stale or only partially fulfilling.

That is not to say that being a conventional architect can’t provide the most fulfilling career; many architects are lucky to never contemplate questioning their vocation. But there is no denying that some who work as architects end up feeling they are in the wrong place.

It appears you feel your girlfriend’s influence is positive, but also slightly panic-inducing. However, don’t stress; here is a plan to advance on two fronts:

Firstly, reflect on what you are really motivated by. Is it recognition, earnings, seeing a result, work/life balance? There are many motivations for work that architects have often never reflected on. What do you actually want? Keep a little notebook of your thoughts.

Then, at the other end of the notebook, start collecting a list of your skills, connections and knowledge areas. You may have excellent experience negotiating the planning system, or know a lot of people in the technical end of lighting specification. Keep a note of these as you think of them.

The reason why this second list is so important is that usually the best career moves are progressions from where you are now. Sure, you can jack in architecture to become an ambulance driver or acupuncturist. But usually the canniest choice is evolution, not revolution.

Between the two ends of your notebook you may well find an answer. I know little about your skills or interests, but you may be surprised by how many client-side and industry jobs are out there that are just as fulfilling, and can offer many of the things that architecture is not giving you.

AJ Coach Matthew Turner is an architect and careers consultant who runs the Building on Architecture consultancy. To contact him with your questions, email him in confidence at hello@buildingonarchitecture.com


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