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The Journey of a Leader: Don't Stop Believing

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My leadership journey has taken many unexpected turns over the years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I didn’t start my career intending to become the Vice President at a large architectural firm, and certainly couldn’t have predicted the steps that led me here, but I am very grateful for all of it. Becoming the leader I am today has been a little about the opportunities presented to me and a lot about being stretched and working hard to grow my skills and take on the challenges placed in front of me. Here are five things I’ve learned along the way:

1. Be Open, Everyone Has Something to Offer
One of our core values at EUA is humility. I’m well-aware that I do not have all the answers, so I prefer to lead with curiosity and see what I can learn. I tend to say yes to challenges and then figure things out, having the confidence in my own skills and the humility to rely on those around me for their expertise and help. I believe that everyone – from the cleaning crew to our executive clients—has something to teach me. I’m not one to scrutinize where a lesson comes from but rather gratefully accept it for what it’s worth. If I wasn’t open to the wisdom and teachings of others, I wouldn’t be a well-rounded leader and person. I’ve noticed the more I’m aware of others in the room, the better I’m able to understand the issues and facilitate the path to a solution; this has also resulted in me understanding myself better along the way.

2. Operate Outside of Your Comfort Zone
The more terrified I feel, the more I learn; the higher the stakes, the more I’m focused on rising to the occasion. It hasn’t always been fun, and I have definitely had my share of struggles, but all of this has changed me in ways I didn’t expect. When I got a fateful call from EUA’s now President, Rich Tennessen, while working at another firm 18 years ago to begin the conversation about joining EUA, I had no idea the impact it would have on my career and life. But once I stepped into this company, I knew I had found my career home.

A few years later as Healthcare Studio Director, I was faced with a leadership-testing decision – to give into fear or harness it. We had a large, long-term client announce a change in their business. The initial news of this prompted concern for me, as well as the two dozen team members who have worked with this client for many years, as this could potentially mean the end of our working relationship. I remember thinking that we could choose to look at this situation as practically lethal to our studio, OR we could galvanize around the fact that we’ve done really great work for the client and this was an major opportunity to prove how we could continue to be an asset to them under their new circumstances. As I pulled our team together the very day this news became known, I told them that they could choose to look at the situation either way, but I was choosing to embrace the latter and invited them to join me. Being a leader doesn’t always mean telling people what they want to hear, but rather being honest with them about possibilities and sharing confidence in venturing into the unknown. Seek out opportunities to allow yourself to be terrified. You will likely find that your aptitude to rise to the challenge is so much greater than your fear.

3. Embrace Chaos
It’s perfectly ok for things not to go according to plan. This sounds simple but as a meticulous planner and organizer, this was a very hard lesson for me to learn. Now, I’ve learned that a little bit of chaos will generally sort itself out. My biggest handicap as an emerging professional was wanting to define a long-range plan and stick to it instead of just letting the present circumstances be my guide and learn as I go. Sometimes all you can do is make the best decision you can with the information that you have at that moment and let go of the rest. I know, easier said than done, but happiness often comes when you release yourself from your own expectations.

I don’t think one can ever “arrive” as a leader; good leaders are always evolving. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I was asked to temporarily fill the role of Madison Studio Director in addition to Healthcare Studio Director, I was presented with a huge opportunity to embrace chaos. This relatively short-term role became two of the most intensely challenging, yet amazing years of my career. I developed an appreciation for all the markets EUA serves, the incredible talent we have and the appreciation for another dynamic city. Little did I know this really became a comprehensive real-world ‘business school’ lesson on understanding my own capabilities and building my confidence as a leader.

4. Working Makes Me a Better Parent
It’s incredibly important to me to be a good leader and role model, but to no one more so than my daughters. When I first became a mom and returned to work, the adjustment to this new reality was not easy for me. Thankfully, Jerry Bruscato, an EUA leader and key mentor in my career, reassured me that we would figure out the right work balance; I was good at my job and had a lot to offer in this profession, so I shouldn’t stop working altogether. I could, in fact, be a great Architect and a great mom; the two were not as mutually exclusive as I had thought. As my tolerance level for my own chaos grew, my husband, Eric, and I found ways to figure out the balance that worked best for me, which is to have a completely blended work and personal life. My two daughters know that they mean the world to me, but they also know they are not the ONLY important aspect of my world. They know that I love my career and I work tirelessly to do a great job both at work and at home. I like to believe this is helping encourage their own independence and set an example of how to have a very full and meaningful life on whatever path they choose.

5. Never Take Yourself Too Seriously, It’s Ok to Have Fun
It’s very important to know when and how to be professional, but it’s also important to know when to have fun and let loose a little. A few lucky (or not-so-lucky) people have seen me do the worm at the office, and anyone who’s ever been in the car with me when Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” comes on knows there’s a 100% chance I will crank it up and sing along. I do whatever is needed to get things done well, but since so much of our life is spent working, why not have a little fun too along the way? 

When I reflect on the attributes of the amazing leaders I have encountered in my career, they are all wildly different. Perhaps the best leadership lesson is that it’s ok to be your own unique kind of leader. I’ve found it’s best to not try to replicate the efforts and mannerisms of any particular person, but to honestly embrace the skills that are genuine to you. You can blast Journey, do the worm and be really skilled at understanding the business side of an architecture firm. Or, you don’t have to. Be your authentic self and that will be exactly who you were meant to be. We all have our own unique JOURNEY to take, and I’d love to learn about yours.

Kristin Dufek, AIA, LEED AP

Kristin, AIA, LEED AP, is the President with EUA working mainly out of the Milwaukee office. Growing up, Kristin wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, which reflects her passion for healthcare design.