Finding Leadership in All the Right Places

AIA Leadership Institute for Emerging Professionals

By Emily Pierson-Brown, Assoc. AIA Posted on July 3, 2018

The AIA Leadership Institute 2017-2018 cohort at the conclusion of the final session enjoying the sculpture garden at the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation in Wilkinsburg.  Photo by Gwen Dakis, AIA.

Riding the elevator up to the AIA office on the seventh floor of one of Pittsburgh’s stately old office buildings, you could tell we were all a little bit nervous. It was mid-September 2017, and each of us had been accepted into the second year of the AIA Leadership Institute for Emerging Professionals. What this actually meant and what our experiences would be over the course of the next nine months, few of us had any idea about. But we would soon find a unique mix of professional camaraderie, personal inspiration, healthy discomfort, and perhaps slow to develop but deeply sincere friendship.

I have often found myself to be an ersatz leader, filling space when there is a leadership vacuum, but not usually from a position of authority. In my professional life, I consider myself on my third career having wound my way through residential renovation project design and administration, retail management, and now sliding my way into the architecture and urban planning profession. I am not (yet) a titled staff person in my firm, I don’t (yet) manage anything or anyone, and, yet, I am no longer young and “emerging.” What would the Leadership Institute mean for me? Would I perhaps find myself evolving into something else completely?

AIA LI participant Brenna Shaffer presenting a segment on mapping as part of the “Ache-itects” community group. Their presentation occurred at Nova Place on the Northside.  Photo Credit Jessica Parsons.

As the elevator doors opened into the newly renovated AIA space, we all breathed a little easier. We had made it here, past the first hurdle of application-essay-recommendation. And there were snacks. As a collection of young (and less young) designers who were early (and less early) in our careers and really excited about speaking in front of everyone (or not at all), we made for a diverse and wide-ranging group. Our group of facilitators led by Seth Hufford of The People Group, and rounded out by Dan Rothschild, AIA, Jen Bee, AIA, and Sean Sheffler, AIA, didn’t leave any extra time for nerves. At once we were discussing, listening, reacting, sharing, diagramming, writing, presenting (what?! On the first day?!). There was kind of no place to hide, and after the first few hours, little desire to. We found ourselves in good company, ever respectful, often challenging, always rewarding.

Following Brenna’s presentation, members of the AIA LI participate in a mapping activity.  Photo Credit Jessica Parsons.

Without revealing too much of the magic that went on behind closed doors, I need to give a shout out to my “community group.” This cohort-within-the-cohort became my core. For several months we talked weekly (but never weakly) about our chosen topic, and never tired of the conversation. If the Leadership Institute hadn’t ended when it did, these six colleagues (now friends) and I would still be enjoying yogurt, fruit, and coffee on Thursday mornings to dig into the meaty issues that brought us to this profession and this place and time.

After a breakout session, participant Brian DiPietro, AIA shares reflections from his table with the larger group.

I miss those conversations. And, I miss the structured but organic environment of continual learning and growth created by our facilitators. More often than I would have expected, I catch myself thinking about one of our sessions and some nugget of knowledge discovered there. The entire Leadership Institute cohort regularly reminded me that leadership takes many forms. And that no matter how experienced, confident, or knowledgeable, we each can continue to learn and grow to become those better versions of ourselves.

By May we were different. Maybe not wholly new in some transformational way, though I certainly cannot speak for everyone. But what I noticed was an elevated level of comfort and assuredness, an ease with conversing and asking questions, a willingness to share more openly knowing that we had created a safe, vibrant, and encouraging space for collaboration. I like to think that we each carry that with us as we return to our regular lives. This was why the Leadership Institute was created, and in that it has already fulfilled its mission. But some of the best moments were the ones that I think even the facilitators hadn’t planned for; it is that space between the agenda and the spontaneous where serendipity occurs. Somewhere along the way we developed the courage and desire to advocate for one another. We began practicing a sort of “humble leadership,” to ensure that everyone’s voice was heard and that as we achieved greater heights we did so together. “I know she might be a little more reluctant to share,” said one of my colleagues during a debrief session, “so I want to invite my teammate to share her opinion because I know she has some valuable perspective on this.” I couldn’t help but smile at the exchange. These are exactly the leaders I want to emerge alongside.

The Leadership Institute is currently accepting applications!  More info here.

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