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Measure of Success

By Shaila Williams

Tony Waller, IIDA, did not arrive at his current position, Chief Administrative Officer for the Chief Architect of the Federal Government’s General Services Administration (GSA), by chance. Since age 23, when he was inspired to document his life’s ambitions on a piece of notebook paper, his career path has been guided by one extremely detailed laundry list.

Top on the list: Land an internship at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Check — Waller was the first student from the U.S. Northwest to win the coveted spot.

Next up: Earn a graduate degree. Check — He graduated from American University with a Master of Public Administration.

Also on the list: Buy a big house, work in an international capacity and donate scholarships to his undergraduate alma mater, Montana State. Check, check, double check — At age 48, Waller today is working toward a collaboration with the Japanese Ministry of Construction, lives in a “mammoth house” and not only has awarded scholarships to his Montana State, but even has one of the university’s galleries named after him. “I am one of the few people I know who has a game plan,” he says.

Indeed, Waller shares elite company. Lewis J. Goetz, FIIDA, FAIA, Principal of Washington, D.C.’s world-renowned Group Goetz Architects, knew from an early age that he wanted to be an architect. “I set a goal to have my own firm by the time I was 35,” Goetz says. “I had the firm before I turned 38.” Past Presidents of the IIDA Foundation and IIDA respectively, Waller and Goetz have most felt their uniqueness around students.  “Sometimes, students will come into my office and say, ‘How do I get your job?’” Waller says. “What they don’t realize is that it took 24 years of experience and careful planning to get to this point.”

That 24-year ladder began with a stint as a draftsperson, topped by a move to a junior designer position, then Designer, Senior Designer, Project Manager, National Spokesperson for Space Planning and Interior Design, a brief career in real estate, followed by a gig as National Program Manager for Accessibility, Deputy Director for the GSA Centers of Expertise and finally his current position. Each rung was climbed with purpose and foresight.

If purpose and foresight are the catalysts to success, it’s a wonder more people don’t put it into practice. “I think that many people don’t understand that you can’t just automatically get there,” Waller says. “You have to have to have an incremental plan, and sometimes that incremental plan takes a long time. Success is far more work than failure; it’s painful. I don’t think most people are willing to pay the price.”

What's Your Plan?

For those who are willing to pay the price, there are several road maps that guide from point ‘A’ to point ‘B.’ While Waller prefers lists, others take a more scientific approach. James Howell, an Associate Professor and Advisor at the University of Cincinnati’s highly esteemed Cooperative Education program, teaches a prep course called “Introduction to Cooperative Education,” which focuses squarely on career planning and development. Howell’s classroom model is structured like a circle. At the top of the circle is Self Assessment, an exercise in identifying a person’s needs, strengths and passions. After Self Assessment comes Career Exploration, which delves into the more tangible exercises of meeting with various companies, conducting research and narrowing down geographic destinations. Completing the circle is Placement, a stage that weaves interviewing with portfolio and resume development.

If there is one ‘eureka’ realization to Howell’s planning model, it is in its crystallization of what most careers lack: a truly defined target. Lifelong learners can’t reach and succeed at point ‘B’ if they don’t know precisely what point ‘B’ is. “Students tend to be naive when I first get them,” Howell says. “Many of them have misconceptions of what interior design is really like.”

Waller agrees: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re never going to know that you’ve arrived.”

Plan Ahead

Once designers know where to go, they can start plotting their way. Waller often relies on Stephen Covey’s best seller, Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, to guide him through the plotting part of the process. “Covey makes it very clear that you need target performance measures and benchmarks in your life.”

A less literal way to perceive Covey’s measurement approach is as a combination of big-picture vision with minute details. “I think I’ve done well at combining my dreams with my abilities to handle all the details,” Waller says. “If you can handle that, you can get yourself there.”

The element of time is inherent in buzz words such as measure, benchmark and detail. And integrating a time frame into a big-picture vision can be one of the most crucial — and challenging — parts of creating a career plan. Though Waller’s to-do list is full of age-centric goals, he is the first to concede that time is not a plan’s most central benchmark. “You have to be careful about deadlines,” he says. “Life is a long and ongoing process of unveiling itself to you.”

Of course, a game plan with no time frame is nearly as useless as no game plan at all. Without it, a person can end up stalled between major milestones, floundering amid the smaller pebbles that must be tossed to move on. “I did think about goals I wanted to achieve in a relative time frame,” Goetz says. “It was first important for me to become a registered architect as soon as I could and complete my formal education. Without that, I could not have had my own firm.”

The solution, it seems, lies somewhere in between. “The best plans combine timing, direction and flexibility,” Howell says.

Change of Plans

Waller suspects that some people do not assign goals to their careers for fear of not accomplishing them. “That list I made at 24 was a phenomenal list,” he says. “Had I understood how difficult it was going to be when I wrote it, I probably wouldn’t have pulled it off.” His suspicion raises an interesting question: What happens when a plan doesn’t pan out?

The plan gets another chance. Waller’s distinguished internship at the J.F.K. Center for Performing Arts actually took two tries to land. His graduate degree, too, was first on his list as an Ivy League degree. “It wasn’t exactly Ivy League, but it was a good school,” he says. What’s more, the degree didn’t materialize until 16 years after he set his sights on it. “I did not go back to school to get my graduate degree until I was 40, when I was working full time. By the time I checked that off my list in 1999, I was exhausted. That check was written in blood.”

If after several attempts, a goal still does not come to fruition, it may be time for a readjustment. The key to Howell’s model — and the point that many professionals overlook — is that it is circular. “It starts in school,” Howell says. “But it never ends. Career planning is a lifelong cycle.”

Waller and Goetz are perfect examples. “I’ve been busy working on my retirement plan,” Waller says. “What are my options? How will I work? What do I want to have happen on my 70th birthday?”

“I want to continue to influence the professions of interior design and architecture and bring the two into a better working relationship,” Goetz says. “Although I have accomplished many things in my career, I feel as though I have a lot yet to do.”