Focus on Leadership - October 2011
Interview by Kemp Harr
Mia Marshall bypassed her family’s tradition to become a designer rather than a doctor, but she carried into her chosen field the same values that had made her family successful in medicine for generations: hard work and the judgment to capitalize on any opportunity that comes along. Today, she is a principal at Seattle based EHS Design.
In this month’s Focus on Leadership, Marshall discusses what attributes, besides creativity, are integral to the practice of design and talks about her responsibilities as principal at a mid-sized design firm, sharing insight into how she’s learned to succeed at the business side of design.
Q: How did you choose interior design as your career passion?
A: I knew from the time I was a small child that I loved to be creative and artistic, and I liked applying those skills both two-dimensionally and three-dimensionally. Being an artist was intuitive and natural for me. As I grew older, I enjoyed studying people: how they lived and the sociology of humans and their interactions. Those two interests unite in the practice of design.
Though my Chinese mother (who eloped with my American father and moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong in 1969) strongly encouraged me to become either a doctor or a lawyer, I chose to take a creative path in life. My mother is an anesthesiologist, who practiced medicine until the age of 70. In fact, she is the third generation of doctor in my family, following in her mother and grandfather’s footsteps. Though I didn’t follow the path that my mother wanted for me career-wise, I did adopt her attitude about work: never give up, always strive to be your best, work hard. I know no other way.
I am more right-brained than my mother, but I do feel that I have strengths on both the creative and technical sides. That’s one thing that we pride ourselves on at EHS, balancing left-brained and right-brained strengths, managing both the business and creative components well.
Q: Tell me about the first jobs you had in the interior design business. Who gave you your first chance, and how did that help determine where you have ended up?
A: Not knowing exactly what type of company I wanted to work in after the completion of my interior design and graphic design degree, I thought it would be best to explore. After working for a year in my hometown of Rochester, New York, I realized that I would have to leave that region to pursue my career, so I moved to the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area. There, I worked in both large and small firms, including RTKL and Nelson.
For personal reasons, I then moved to the West Coast and landed a job with HOK in Redmond, Washington. I was hired onto their small but experienced team as the first interior designer in the region. I felt honored. HOK provided me with all of the opportunities I could want at that stage in my career. Mentors surrounded me. I took in everything I could to improve myself. This experience, and the people I worked with, helped me see that a well established commercial architectural firm was right for me—a place where I could spread my wings and make a positive difference with my role.
Q: Talk about your career growth that led to your current position as principal with EHS Design.
A: Upon starting with EHS Design, I was a designer like any other. My role quickly turned into one of a project manager, overseeing multi-million dollar jobs. Coincidentally, the day I started with EHS was exactly the same day I began my term as president of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) Northern Pacific Chapter. My experience in these concurrent roles helped me discover my desire to lead and my entrepreneurial interest in the design business. With the opportunities I was given, I soon became a director of the firm and then the first grown-from-within interior design principal at EHS.
Because EHS is a mid-sized firm, I wear many hats as a principal: senior interior designer; senior project manager; business development, marketing and sales; firm management; and employee relations, hiring and reviews. I am also in charge of establishing the culture of the firm.
Q: Other than the ability to be creative, what other attributes and skills does a successful designer need to have?
A: Designers need to think holistically about everything. I mean everything: from the inside to the outside, from below the ground to above the roof. They need to understand the inner workings of the client’s business, their goals.
Successful designers needs to keep their minds open to everything, educating themselves constantly. They need to have success working with every type of personality. They need to understand every stage in the life of the project and know a good deal about all aspects of the design business, including construction, real estate, marketing, business development and sales. Being successful as a designer is so much more than being creative.
Q: How do you keep your employees motivated in the midst of the day-to-day grind?
A: Employees stay motivated by knowing that what they do matters. They need to be told when they do work that helps the firm be successful and makes the client happy.
Effective communication with staff goes a long way. It is important that employees are challenged in areas that support their skills and talents, and are assigned projects that pique their interest. People need to be teamed together to balance experience levels and talents so they learn from each other and keep each other motivated.
Q: What type of projects do you most like to design? Which of your projects are you most proud of?
A: I have enjoyed working on a diverse range of projects including law firms, restaurants, financial institutions, retail roll-out projects, minor league baseball stadiums, government projects, high-rise office buildings, convention centers, pre-schools and universities, and medical office clinics.
I love to design spaces that impact many people—significant public renovations, for instance. To make a dramatic change in a public space can be incredibly impactful to people’s daily lives and the ways in which they work and live in their community.
Six years ago, I was fortunate to act as project manager on the renovation of two high-rise commercial office buildings where the client gave me a lot of freedom. The client wanted me to consider every possibility in conceptualizing the design, including the landscaping, the approach and even how the buildings would look at night. Thanks to the holistic approach that the client gave me, this project turned into a great career experience.
Currently, I am working on the renovation of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center. It’s a high profile project that encompasses about 350,000 square feet of interior space. The interiors haven’t been touched in 20 years. I am very proud of both of these projects.
Q: What do you consider your greatest career success?
A: I haven’t had one single career success but rather a series of milestones throughout the journey of my career. Some of the milestones I am most proud of include finding a firm (EHS) that allows me to accomplish my career goals; becoming president of the local IIDA chapter; becoming a principal of EHS; and helping to manage the firm and the many facets of the business.
Originally, my career goal was to become a design director at a large firm. I have exceeded that goal and now am establishing new goals for the next decade of my career and beyond.
Though my parents were very concerned about my career choice for a long time, I am happy to say that they are now very proud.
Q: What is the secret to your success?
A: I strive to never to become stagnant but rather to get involved and actively work to make a difference. I believe it is important to continue learning and to meet people from all walks of life. Others’ lives have taught me so much. The relationships that I have created are priceless.
In addition, my approach has always been to make the most of any opportunity that comes along. My involvement in non-profit professional organizations has helped to hone my skills. During college, I took on any project that I could get my hands on within my sorority, and I did the same during my early days with IIDA.
In my current position, one of my roles is to bring work into the firm. To achieve this, I had to educate myself in marketing, business development and sales, so I got involved with another non-profit, NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association. I served as a chair for the local chapter, heading up the membership committee for four years, and I was recently invited to sit on the board of directors, the first interior designer in this position.
Q: Who played a key role in making you who you are?
A: My parents have helped to shape me from day one, encouraging me to work hard and never give up. They taught me that life’s challenges help you become a stronger individual. They encouraged me never to stop educating myself and instilled in me a solid work ethic. They encouraged me to connect with everyone I meet and to learn from those around me. They encouraged me to strive to be the best I could be.
My mother is a jack-of-all-trades. She seems to know everything about everything. She is extremely intellectual, a college graduate at 16; she knows countless languages and plays several musical instruments. She is a world traveler and enjoys staying physically active.
While my mom is very book smart, she lacks street smarts. That’s where my father, a business owner and engineer, comes in. They balance each other very well. I inherited traits from each of them.
After I got married, my role model became my husband. His strength, dedication and work ethic are inspiring. I admire him both in his career—he works in commercial real estate development—and as a father. He is the best role model his three sons could ever have. He knows how to enjoy life and always finds humor in everything.
Q: What is your ideal work environment?
A: I thrive on interaction with people. People motivate me. At the same time, I am a head down, focused individual with a drive to get the job done. I strive to be a visionary and a creative thinker. I wear a lot of hats on the job and being as productive as possible is all I know. To be at top form, I need a creative, open environment that will stimulate my interest.
Q: What do you do to relax?
A: I enjoy spending quality time with my family: my wonderful husband, my two-year-old son and my two stepsons (ages 13 and 14). I enjoy physical exercise. I do cross training several times a week and completed my first half marathon last year. Since I’ve never considered myself a runner, I am very proud of that accomplishment. I have my sights set on a triathlon next. I appreciate getting away from daily life through travel, both near and far. We explore the Pacific Northwest, the incredibly beautiful area in which we live, in our boat. I like having times of peaceful meditation in solitude and simply being creative in my own home.
Q: What does the flooring industry need to do to be more relevant to the design community?
A: Materials selection often begins with the flooring, so it is a very important element in the design. The flooring industry needs to continue to inspire designers; sharing great design and new technology is critical. Something different is needed for every project. The flooring industry needs to establish good communication with designers to meet these needs. Floor Focus does a fabulous job at this.
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