Golden Handcuffs – A Lesson Learned

Bob Borson —  April 11, 2013 — 42 Comments

One of the most important pieces of advice I could dole out on this site is this:

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Don’t ever take a job just for the money

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Handcuffed by your salary

 

I was a little surprised to discover that despite having told almost every conceivable work related story I know on this blog, somehow my “Golden Handcuffs” story apparently hadn’t made the cut. That ends today.

It was approximately 1997, I was 29 years old, and I was working for a 40+ person firm doing decent work but nothing particularly inspiring. My salary at the time was around $28,000 a year – not great but not terrible either compared to my other architect buddies. I drove by an office building one day and thought it looked really nice so like any other respectable architect, I went back at night and crept around the outside looking in the windows. Turns out it was an architect’s office and I thought to myself, “looks pretty good, they must be good architects!”

They weren’t but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

This was at a time early in my career (I was working at my second architectural job) and I was bored at my current job so I thought I would quit my job and come work for this apparently awesome architectural firm (I will refer to them as “cool building firm”). The economy was going great in 1997 and finding a job was not particularly difficult. Despite my obvious talents, the only requirement needed to find a job was “breathing”. So I sent in my resume, had an interview, and 2 weeks later (after my night-time creeping around) I was now an employee at “cool building firm.” I did do a little research on what they did and it seemed slightly interesting … but when they offered me a raise of 36% over my old salary I said yes on the spot.

I spent 4 months at “cool building firm” and it’s 4 months of my life I will never get back. I rarely talk about it and it has never EVER graced my resume. As far as anyone knows, I was in lock-up for those 4 months … it certainly felt like that at the time. There were 3 partners in the Dallas office and from what I pieced together, they all received their salaries based on the profit that each job they sold earned. It was an “eat what you kill” sort of arrangement and the partner frequently competed against one another to get the same project. At the same time, if a partner didn’t need you to work on a project, you sat around doing nothing until they did. They didn’t want you to drain any of their profits with your needless hourly rate siphoning off profit margin simply because you didn’t have anything to do. I found this mentality frustrating and spent an unreasonable amount of time reading books that I had brought in from home to occupy my time.

The beginning of the end happened when one of the partners asked me to desgin a prototype and 3d model of a new project type … “and don’t spend more than 40 hours on it.” So that’s what I did … and 40 hours later, I didn’t have anything to do. So I went to the other partners asking for work and I was told that they didn’t have anything for me.

Bob: “Well, what should I do?”

Partner: “Read a book, I don’t care. I’ll let you know when I need something from you.”

Well, I was sick of reading books so I went back to my prototype and continued to develop it … until the partner who told me not to spend more than 40 hours on it saw me spending more than 40 hours on it. So she called me out – loudly – in front of the entire office to come into her office immediately! And by office, I mean 3-sided space on the other side of the wall … it was pretty much wide open for all to hear what was going on. She chewed me out for a few minutes – maybe more than a few minutes, I don’t know … I stopped listening. When she was done, it went a little like this:

Partner: “Well? What do you have to say for yourself??”

Bob: “I quit”

Partner: [shocked looked on face] “What?”

Bob: “I quit. I am not going to work here. You have my two weeks notice as of this moment.”

Partner: “You’ve only been here for a few months … you certainly haven’t given it much time.”

Bob: “I see how this place is run … what is here for me? Partner? I don’t want your job so why would I want to stay and keep my job?”

So I turned, walked out of the partners office, and went back to my desk … with every set of eyeballs in the place boring into me. The guy I sat next to whispered over the partition “they’ll be over here in less than 5 minutes telling you to pack your things and leave.”

Five minutes came and went. The end of the day came and went. They never did ask me to leave but they didn’t ask me to do any work either. So I sat there for two weeks reading my books, basically doing nothing. At one point, one of the other partners came over and asked if I would model an airplane he was currently building as a hobby. I politely told him “No, but if you have some work for me, I will gladly do it.” He didn’t, so I went back to reading my book.

When I left, the new job I had accepted paid me $32,500 – $5,500 less than what I was making at “cool building” firm … but $4,500 more than I was making just 4 months earlier. I learned a lesson at that time of my life that has stuck with me for the last 16 years … two lessons actually.

1. Never take a job just for the money. In the end, your paycheck will be your paycheck and you’ll be left doing a job that makes you miserable.

2. Reward loyalty. I had a hard time processing the fact that every time I changed jobs I always received a pretty nice pay raise … it didn’t take long to realize that changing jobs equaled more money. The people who stayed behind and did the work didn’t see the same increases in their salary as those that left and that’s simply not right. If I’m the boss and you are an employee worth keeping around, I am going to pay you what it would cost me to replace you. I just wish more bosses thought this way.

I hope that I haven’t bored you with this story, I happen to think it’s a good one with an extremely valuable lesson in it. If you are lucky enough to learn this lesson without actually having to personally experience it, good for you.

Cheers,

Bob signature

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  • Michael McCord

    Alas, Mr. Borson, I am all too familiar with what you have written.

  • ObsidianArchitecture

    Reading these comments is like listening to Hooper, Brody and Quint compare scars! I’m also reminded of Kevin Kline in an early scene from the film LIFE AS A HOUSE. I suppose after nearly 20 years I have a few scars of my own. One that stands out was the morning of 9/11. I was working at a two-principal, 10-person firm at the time. All but the most senior principal were there bright and early that morning to work on a project deadline when the 9/11 news broke. Not surprisingly we were transfixed by it and were checking in with the various news websites to try and understand what had happened. The minor principal had even turned up his radio for all to hear. After hearing of the second plane crash, someone found a small TV, hooked it up, and was able to find some live national news coverage. As we all watched the second tower fall, the head principal (it was his name on the door) waddled in and decreed that we were to turn off the TV, stop listening to radio(s), avoid the internet, and get back to work. We were stunned by his lack of interest and concern – both as an architect as well as a citizen and a human. But did as we were told. For one of my co-workers, it was his very first day at that firm and I had to wonder how he felt about choosing to work there. After that morning, I knew my time with that firm was limited. As fate (luck?) would have it, three months later I would return from a 10 day Christmas vacation only to be laid off. Hindsight being 20/20, I should have left much earlier – or better yet, never joined in the first place. ;)

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      what a story – I remember that day as well. I was driving up to work when the first plane hit the Twin Towers and I ended up going home and grabbing a TV and bringing it up to the office. There were only three of us then and we “worked” through the day with one eye on the TV and one on what we were supposed to be doing. It wasn’t a particularly productive day.

      Also – points for the Jaws reference, although we might have dated ourselves with the reference.

      • ObsidianArchitecture

        We may have, but some things are timeless. ;)

  • Paul Gerber

    Timely read. After almost 11 years at the firm I am with and I have started actively looking at my options. Decent pay, diminishing satisfaction with my job with treatment bordering on being back in kindergarten. It’s getting to the point where I don’t want to go to the office some mornings. Despite countless days that stretch into the early morning hours to meet deadlines (it’s the way I tick…detailed, methodical, take great pride in my work and achieving great results…unable to do a half-assed job) there is no recognition of my efforts. Lots of petty complaints tho. I’ve known it for a while, and I’ve been biding my time. The straw that broke the camels back however was being admonished for promoting a great educational opportunity to the staff that would greatly benefit the entire Emerging Professional population of the firm (and there are quite a few, and a couple who should have this knowledge at this point in their careers). Have you ever heard of a Specifier who has been told he isn’t allowed to make appointments with Product Reps? Ah, but I digress. I have been setting up an independent specifications consultancy. It’s just a matter of finding the courage to pull the trigger…and the right time to hang the shingle.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I am sorry to say that I know what you mean – I hope that things continue to evolve for you. It takes a lot of guts to leave a “less than ideal” situation for the unknown. Sometimes it easier to leave when the people really suck or you have no choice.

      Good luck!

  • Donovan Lord

    I have some sort of personality trait that prevents me from working for ANYONE else….which is why with an M.Arch I will never be a licensed architect, just a “practicing” one….and I’m fine with that. Your story reminds me of how I never compromised who I was for a job, and you are right, it is a great way to be.

  • architectrunnerguy

    Great stroy Bob.
    To move up the food chain, the same thing can happen between a partner and a client.
    We were working on a county govenment project. Our first actually so I was motivated to have “things go right”. It took me a while to figure it out but the “point guy” from the county, well, let’s just say his people skills where horrible. He was “The County” and I was “The Peon”. Basically had a California vacation ruined from this guy wanting to talk to me everyday, I’d go a few weeks without hearing from him and then, without warning, he’d be focused on our job and the next three days would be hourly calls from him.
    One incident in particuliar comes to mind. This job was on an extreme fast track (political reasons) and in one case we came upon an unanticipated structural problem. Went ahead and got the structural engineer to come up with a solution and two days later had a drawing out to the masons. Well, this guy reams me up one side and down the other for not getting a proposal, getting it ok’d, etc. But of course we’re IN A HURRY!!!
    Anyway, one day he calls me up about something (I remember what but I’ll skip the details), unhappy of course, and I HIT THE CEILING!! The guys way back in the drafting room could easily hear me SCREAMING INTO THE PHONE. After I slammed down the phone I wrote out a letter not to this guys boss, but to the head of the entire Public Works Department and had the office boy take it over with instructions to HAND DELIVER it directly to him. Don’t give it to the receptionist or secretary.
    Intersting thing happened. The next day I get a call form this head honcho guy wanting to come TO OUR OFFICE to meet (That never happens with the county, you always met at their office). Long discussion about this guy.
    Long story short: My only regret was I didn’t “blow up” four months earlier!! Never talked to the “point guy” again. The job went sweet then!!
    Yes, quality has to be weighed against money, no question.
    Doug

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks for sharing your story Doug – it seems as if everyone will eventually have “a story” like this

      Cheers

  • Arthur Alto

    Can’t thank you enough for sharing this! You are the man! Thank you for all the time you put into this great blog. There are many people who benefit from your great efforts.

  • Brian

    Great post Bob

    I’ve always gone for interesting over salary.

    One thing I found about loyalty is that bosses should review the salary regularly rather than wait until someone gets another offer. When that happens if the person stays they start to resent the fact that it took a better offer to get the raise. It never ends well

  • http://businessofarchitecture.com Enoch Sears

    Well my first reaction to the title was, of course it’s ok to take a job for the money! Comon’! But after the second paragraph I began wondering, is this Bob trying out a comedy routine? Super hilarious! Model airplane!!!! LOL!!! and you told him no…what I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall when you politely excused yourself from the partner’s ‘office’…..

  • Bill Reeves

    I think most of us have been in that situation. In the late 90′s I was working in an office making good money. I was one of two senior associates. I was told I could buy into the firm to become a principal. I have my salary but no hidden reserves of cash. An old office of mine was looking for help. I interviewed and was told the only way it could work was to become a principal. Within a year my name was on the door.

    The old office with two partners split down the middle. One principal left and took the business name with him. The other stayed and started again. I had many opportunities as it turned out.

    I am glad to be where I am. We are surviving the recession. The phone keeps ringing with small projects that people want for a heavy discount. What else is new.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      sounds like it worked out in the end … well, sorta. Heavy discounts are a bummer

      • Bill Reeves

        We had a Pennsylvania contractor ask us to do work local to us in Maryland. I gave him a fee. He doubled the work and asked if we could do it at half the fee. I had to let that one walk away.

  • Jeremiah Russell

    I learned this lesson as well. Unfortunately I spent the better part of what little career I’ve had searching for a firm, and by extension a boss, that will simply a) let me do the job they hired me for and b) give me enough rope (i.e. responsibility) to hang myself and grow as an architect. FINALLY I’m in that firm and I’m stayin put.
    Awesome post, Bob! And something we all need to hear! :-)

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      So glad to hear it – and you relocated from Florida to Arkansas to make it happen right?

  • http://twitter.com/MarciaKellogg Marcia Kellogg

    I think the same logic can be applied to clients as well. All too often firms pursue projects that are not fun or profitable and create a significant drain on its resources. Today more than ever, it is essential that firms pursue clients whose philosophies and culture are in alignment with their own. I wrote an article on this very topic titled: Choose Your Clients Wisely- Why it is Important and More Profitable to be Selective. Stay tuned….

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I am tuned and ready

  • Tara Imani

    Great story, Bob, thank you for sharing it. I think most of us in architecture can relate to it. The only “umbrage” I take with it is that you said you were reading books, ‘ essentially doing nothing.’ As an avid book reader (playing catch up from all the books I hadn’t had time to read before) I wouldn’t classify that activity as doing nothing. However, I understand your point of intent to mean that you were not doing any architecture per se during downtime at that firm.

    I, too, had faced periods of slowdown in various firms but luckily those firms were well-run and I was free to find stuff to do like organize project archives and drawings.

    Congrats on getting out of there and using it to positively shape your management style.

    Kind regards.
    Tara

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks – and yes, reading a book is actually doing something but not what I was interested in doing when I was hoping to be productive and advance my skill set.

  • http://twitter.com/tnrkitect L. Brian Woodroof

    Been in a similar circumstance. Was at a firm that asked non-partners to market and find new jobs, but then the partners would shoulder out the non-partner that brought the work in with a “We’ll take it from here”. The partners placed no value in the relationship built by the non-partner. Unfortunately, this was in the midst of the recession, and a new job was difficult to find (to say the least). So I stayed put, and started searching, luckily landing the job I am in now.

    The day before my verbal offer turned into a hard, formal offer, the partners took me into a conference room and said that they had “Decided to let me go.” I laughed, thanked them and proceeded to let them know they had saved me from turning in my notice, and oh by the way, got a significant raise to jump ship. I went back to my desk, gathered my personal belongings, left everything else that was project related where it was, said my goodbyes and skipped out the door feeling free.

    The best part was that the potential client I had developed didn’t want anything to do with them, and went to a competitor instead.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      seems like the stars were aligned for you. I wish I could share all the greedy partners emails I receive. You would think that as non-partners become partners, this cycle would end but apparently not.

      • Ceci Pipe

        Same reason we stay Capitalist. Pity the poor but we’d rather be millionaires.

        If we take special privileges away from partners, then what’s the point in the promotion? Apart from the pay of course, but people want their names on everything almost more than the pay.

  • Cassie

    Bob, this story was right up my alley today. I have been struggling a lot with wanting to leaving my job. But it’s sort of an opposite problem. The architect I work for (it’s just me and him) has beautiful work (which is why I took the job) but they pay is not competitive and he has a really hard time relinquishing enough control to let me do much other than drafting (plus there’s a whole host of general management issues). So, about two weeks ago, I became a licensed architect and just when I was feeling all bold and indignant…he gave me a raise. Still not a lot, but enough to make me feel like I should stay (side note: I have been there just over a year…been wanting to leave since about 3 months in).

    Long story longer, your story about quitting is my daily fantasy! I feel isolated and under-utilized at my job and just want to be back in a firm that has a more active office culture where I can contribute more. I have [almost] convinced myself I would be happier waiting tables, ha :)

    • Kat

      Have you tried talking to him? If it’s just the two of you, this approach might work if you’re diplomatic about it. Make talking points before hand so you don’t get nervous in the moment. And if he does fire you, well he saved you the trouble of courage to quit. Could be he’d prefer to try to work on things rather than loose you as an employee.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I doubt you would run into any issues with leaving. Part of the culture of this profession is that people leave to discover new project types and learn different methodologies. Working in such a small office, your exposure to such things is extremely limited. Nothing wrong with needing to spread your wings, I’m sure your employer would understand.

  • Sunny

    I so needed to see this today! I just accepted a new (non-architecture) job just for the money because I can’t find anything better. The work environment is toxic and I’ve been trying to decide whether to walk after just 2 weeks. At this point, I’d rather be stacking cans. Thanks for the perspective!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      good luck!

  • Mark Wilson

    Thanks, Bob. Had a similar experience at a job when the boss called another guy in to his office, left the door open, began berating the poor guy so everyone could hear. The guy took it a while, then threw it right back, including a few f-bombs, told the boss “I quit” and left. Stuck that in my memory bank for the future, because it happened to me about a month later. I took it in silence, went back to my office, and over the next two weeks finished the project I was assigned. Laid all the drawings on the conference room table where the boss was waiting. He looked an me and said, “we need to talk”. I said, “yea, we do. I quit”. Figured I had already worked out my two weeks notice, and wasn’t going to give him the opportunity to fire me.

    Unlike your 4 months, I stuck it out for 10. I tell everyone “I worked there 10 months, but it should have been 3″. Instant comprehension. The only reason I stayed that long was the golden handcuffs, and like your experience, was not close to being worth it. Life is too short for bad jobs. “In the end, your paycheck will be your paycheck and you’ll be left doing a job that makes you miserable.”

  • Derek

    every student’s dream job.. wish i can find something like this during grad school

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Hah – you wish. There is something about being productive that is it’s own reward. Would you ever want to take a beautiful flower and stick it in the closet? It’s a waste.

      Collecting a paycheck as a student at a job that allows you to essentially do nothing would have some benefits …

  • http://twitter.com/GinnyPowell GinnyPowell

    Thanks for sharing Bob. It is debilitating when one is employed by a company where knowledge, growth & passion isn’t valued. In my opinion employees are any company’s best assets.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Ginny. Most people would agree that the people are the most important but why does it always seem to difficult for that knowledge to translate into action? A generation prior to me saw employees working in one place for their entire careers … can you even imagine that happening now?

  • Kiwi

    Excellent article as always! Going through something VERY similar to that right now…Last day is tomorrow though!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      congrats – I bet you are going to enjoy your Friday night!

  • Humble P

    Great article. Agreed, I tripled my salary, and 11 months later was ready to be a supermarket shelf-stacker to get out of the place. Like you, it’s time I can’t get back – but at least I took away the lesson that a bigger salary doesn’t really compensate for a job you just loathe each and every day.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Glad you enjoyed the piece. One item that I didn’t bring up is entering into a bad situation can have a domino effect on your career for a while. Just to get out of one bad situation, you hurriedly enter into another bad situation. Once you’ve decided that it’s time to leave, be methodical about it.

  • whitey501

    Could not have been better timing with this one. Thanks.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Great!

  • http://twitter.com/Alexandrafunfit Alexandra Williams

    I think having a bad job at least once is good, as it makes you (one hopes) a better manager once you become one. You know what NOT to do. The shark mentality has never produced long-term good work anyway.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      there is no question that this experience shaped how I deal with people. There are actually about 10 “don’t do this” management 101 type issues with this post. (and I got them all in one blast…)