As we prepare to close out another year, a letter like this one ought to be full of enthusiasm and inspiration for the year ahead with holiday merriment sprinkled in for good measure. Many—myself included—were eager to wrap 2020 up, throw it in the trash, light it on fire, and move on to brighter things ahead in 2021. Good riddance. However, as I write this from my home office, planning a holiday season without family and friends, it’s somewhat tough to be of good cheer. It feels the end isn’t as aligned to closing promptly on December 31st as I had somehow naively anticipated.
For those who are also feeling the weight of the ongoing doldrums, my very best advice is to find a new way to connect to your profession that brings you renewal, energy, and a feeling of working together to solve a problem. That may be becoming active in a committee or taskforce through SEA, ACEC, or another professional organization, mentoring through a program like ACE, serving as an alumni capacity to support your college or another educational institution, or perhaps finding a call to action in an industry association that speaks to a passion of yours.
I can say that for me, the ElevateHER cohort program provided deeper meaning than I could have had any way of knowing how much I would personally need. After launching ElevateHER in September 2019 to tackle recruiting and retention issues that hold the AEC industry back from attracting and retaining every bright mind, members of the inaugural 2020 cohort from across the country gathered in-person during the first week of March to define the topics they would team up to tackle in depth over the next six months, working remotely with their team members to research and define implementation-ready responses that would be rolled out at our annual Elevate AEC conference in the fall. Just one short week after our cohort met, cities and states began to shut down and quarantines were ordered.
Suddenly, the wave of optimism about yet another record year for the AEC industry’s growth and outlook changed completely, and some firms quietly cut budgets and furloughed or laid off staff. The layoffs impacted several cohort members directly and caused others to worry that spending time and resources on something like ElevateHER when many were suffering professionally and personally was a luxury, a feeling that only intensified following the senseless killing of George Floyd and the subsequent urgency to address systemic racism in our country. We certainly questioned the appropriateness of continuing the ElevateHER cohort program, especially as it became clear that our in-person conference would not be possible.
But at the same time, it was also true that the Zoom update meetings with the cohort teams to discuss their projects and work through challenges and ideas were among the highlights of my week. Working together with a team united behind a vision and committed to the betterment of an industry provided a massive infusion of inspiration, easing the isolation that I found maddeningly frustrating as a leader. More than a Zoom happy hour or virtual networking event, I found real meaning and a sense of purpose in supporting the cohort teams tackle real issues with actionable outcomes. I left our ElevateHER team meetings feeling both intellectually engaged and excited at the possibilities, sentiments that surely carried over to my next meeting or task, and indeed found myself mulling over conversations and ideas well after the end of the workday.
As the year progressed and the anxieties continued to mount, many of my professional connections expressed feeling isolated, burned out, and uninspired heading into the fall. I, on the other hand, felt the exact opposite. Buoyed by confidence in the ability of small groups of people who were total strangers just months before to ignite revolutionary conversations that turned into solutions and bolstered by the effectiveness of curiosity coupled with action, reimagining something as foundational and institutional to Zweig Group as our signature annual conference was easier—and dare I say it—a bit fun, too. As other industry conferences reported lackluster registration as they shifted to a virtual format and various peer networking groups fizzled out and lost engagement with each passing week, we actually gained conference registrations every single week during our eight-week virtual experience, doubling the attendees between the first and last day of our conference. I am firmly convinced that we were able to deliver a wildly successful virtual conference at least in small part because our leadership saw the shift from in-person to virtual as just another puzzle to sort out, another cohort team project that we were lucky enough to be assembled to solve together. Today, as we prepare to finalize our conference and events schedule for 2021, we are able to break free from the mindset of the way we have always done things, keeping the best of what worked in 2020 and rethinking this entire segment of our business in light of what we have learned this year. There are only passing moments where I feel a sense of mourning that we do not know when we will next be able to gather in person with our professional community.
This letter is a very long-winded way of sharing a simple insight and suggestion for all of our readers: find your ElevateHER. Respond to your own call to action, whatever it may be, and work on building your own legacy that will leave your profession better than you found it. The ancillary benefits to maintaining your own spark and the energy overflow from renewing your connection to your profession are innumerable and the return is well-worth the investment of your time.
Jamie Claire Kiser
Jamie Claire Kiser is managing principal and director of advisory services at Zweig Group. Contact her at email@example.com.