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Working with Friends

An article came across my screen which I printed, highlighted, dog-eared, pinned up, and have lived with these last few days. “Ten Things I Have Learned: Milton Glaser” was part of a talk he gave in London at AIGA, the professional association for design. I wish I could say I was there.

1. You Can Only Work For People You Like

This is a curious rule and it took me a long time to learn because at the beginning of my practice I felt the opposite. Professionalism required that you didn’t particularly like the people that you worked for or at least maintained an arms length relationship to them, which meant that I never had lunch with a client or saw them socially. Then some years ago I realized that the opposite was true. I discovered that all the work I had done that was meaningful and significant came out of an affectionate relationship with a client. And I am not talking about professionalism; I am talking about affection. I am talking about a client and you sharing some common ground. That in fact your view of life is in someway congruent with the client, otherwise it is a bitter and hopeless struggle. 

We’re not all name architects like Milton Glaser, or name anything, but this gave me pause and made me want to throw out everything I had ever heard about working with friends, namely that it would hurt the friendship. With that in mind, I asked around, “What experiences have you had working with friends?” And the response was nothing but positive.

One of my sisters in Boston has hired friends on a number of occasions for assistance in organization, interior design, and dance, as well as piano instruction. “It’s a chance to further develop our relationship, appreciate their work self, and I don’t feel taken advantage of financially. Overall I love and respect their work and it’s much more fun,” she notes.

A friend in Laguna Beach called on a close friend, a landscape architect, to redesign her grounds, and “the contractor we hired to remodel our house was a friend, as was one of the other contractors we asked to bid. I was pretty nervous about asking someone we knew socially to bid, but both of them were so highly recommended by so many people, we had to…. One of the hardest  parts was telling the contractor we didn’t hire that we chose a different contractor. Harder because he was a friend. I got him a gift certificate, apologized, etc. But also ended up recommending them both for a huge job which he ended up getting.” So it all worked.

My sister-in-law in The Bay Area sees her friendships and working relations as one giant crossword puzzle. Former employees have become close friends. At one time she worked for her closest friend for several years, as did other friends. “I would hire and work with them again,” she says. “I think they would agree to work with me,” or in one case, “I would work for her.”

Back in Boston, my sister adds that she “loves supporting (in all ways) and learning about my friends at work.” If anything, “there have certainly been times I’ve had to remind myself not to discuss other things. I deal with my urges by asking if they have time when we’re done or if they’re free to get together later.” Her advice: be selective and look for the most “competent, focused and professional so it’s easy.”

Where I live on Queen Anne in Seattle there exists a culture of “walking the loop,” a four mile route around the top of the hill. Passing under canopies of majestic oaks, walnut, and chestnut trees, overlooking Lake Union and Cascade Mountain Range to the east, Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains on the west side of the hill, many of us aim to do it every day for our souls as well as our bodies. But there’s walking and there’s strolling, so one of our oh-so-fit friends works as a personal trainer for a couple of her friends. She knows to leave her little dog at home, look fabulous in workout clothes, get all wired up with ear buds and music, turn her cap backward and go like a train. Anyone who sees her out walking knows better than to stop and talk; a quick wave will have to do. And now some of us are going with her, including me.

Among those asked, the experiences shared of working with friends were both relationship building and community building. In fact, that was all I heard. To Milton Glaser’s suggestion that you only work for people you like, I would add: and only hire those you like.

And imagine what a different world it would be.

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