From running around a farm to running a firm: Lessons learned about taking initiative and working with others

The transition from spring to summer is marked with many activities, including graduation ceremonies and celebrations for the students in our lives. Last month, Deb Kunce gave the commencement speech at Ball State University’s College of Architecture and Planning graduation celebration. For this month’s blog, Deb shares some takeaways from her commencement speech—guidance that applies to all stages of life.

Long before I graduated from the Ball State College of Architecture and Planning, became a registered architect, or started CORE Planning Strategies, I learned many life lessons while growing up on a dairy farm as the oldest of eight children—seven girls and one boy.

When your parents are dairy farmers, you quickly find out that it’s not uncommon for a cow—or several cows—to somehow escape from the barn. And on every April Fool’s Day, my dad thought it was funny to run into the house and tell us that the cows were out, when they really weren’t. One day it finally happened, and we all had to spring into action.

Fast forward to many years later, when my siblings and I were grown and back home for the holidays. We were all gathered around the living room enjoying the Christmas tree and playing games, when suddenly, we saw a cow looking in at us through the window. We all knew what to do and sprang into action to get the cows back in the barn. And while seven grown women were chasing cows around, their husbands and boyfriends—who didn’t know what to do—stood by their cars to protect them.

At that moment, my family did what we were trained to do. Even though I’m no longer working on a farm, that theme of taking initiative and working with others has emerged time and time again throughout my career.

1. Take the initiative to ask, “what’s my why?”

I wanted to be an architect since I was in the 8th grade. Yet seven years after college, I didn’t think I wanted to be an architect anymore. This was troubling, because I had spent so much time and effort pursuing that path.

I talked to a friend about my struggles, and she encouraged me to talk to a career counselor. What I found is that I didn’t always have to be designing an actual building to enjoy the profession. What I love about the profession are the many facets of planning, collaboration and complexities, we well as working with people for a successful outcome.

One of my favorite quotes is by Simon Sinek, author of the book Start with Why. Simon says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” In other words, they connect with you by understanding your purpose and what you’re passionate about. So, through that experience with the career counselor, I learned my why—to use my training to help organizations make their design and construction projects go smoothly and successfully, and that’s what CORE Planning Strategies is based on. And by helping our clients navigate the complex process of their projects, we keep them focused on their whys.

Seek out why you do what you do, and realize it might take someone else’s perspective to help you understand and articulate it.

2. Take the initiative to make connections.

For 18 years of my career, I worked at Schmidt Associates, an architecture and engineering firm in Indianapolis. During that time, I met a young intern who impressed me because he took the initiative to invite every one of the firm’s leaders to lunch. This was a brilliant idea—not just because he got 12 free lunches—but because he made relationships that lasted well beyond his internship, and he impressed the firm’s leaders with his initiative. Had he simply sat at his desk, he would have never made those connections.

When I started CORE more than five years ago, mentorship was a foundational principle of the company. My parents taught me early on that being part of a community always includes contributing our gifts. So at CORE, we look for opportunities to mentor others and help the next generation.

Throughout your career, look for opportunities to be mentored. Seek out people and experiences that help you learn and grow, and it will make you a more well-rounded professional while contributing to your advancement. Never underestimate the power of making connections.

3. Take the initiative to stay in touch.

Once you’ve made those connections, it’s important to nurture them.

As a Ball State CAP student, I spent a lot of time in studio along with a core group of fellow students. When you spend that many hours together with people, you learn what makes them tick. There were some competitive folks in that group—they would compete over anything, from how fast they could go up and down the stairs to who could eat more jalapenos. Yet, they remained colleagues.

Those experiences demonstrate how you can be competitive one moment, and the next, you’re pursuing a common goal. Someone who is your competitor one day might later be a project teammate or a client. Maintain those positive relationships, because you never know where they’ll go.

4. Take the initiative to keep family first.

As a working mom, I encounter many people who ask me how I balance work and life. The reality is, balance is only temporary, so I focus instead on integration. That doesn’t mean you have to marry an architect, which is what I did! But it does mean that you can look for ways to connect the professional with the personal.

After I started CORE, our daughter—who was 9 at the time—said, “Mom, I want to start my own business, too!” I asked her what kind of business she wanted to open, and imagine my surprise when she said, “A tattoo shop!” I quickly realized—with a sigh of relief—that the tattoos she would offer would be temporary. While I don’t know what inspired her to specialize in tattoos, it was fulfilling to know that my work/life integration inspired her to think about starting a business, too.

There are times when work is going to have to be taken care of after hours, and there are also times when personal or family concerns have to be taken care of between 8 and 5. Whether you integrate work into life or keep those lines drawn, know that family always comes first. Be proactive to manage your work so you can be there for your relationships.

On the farm, as in our careers, sometimes things go as planned, and sometimes, there are surprises. But, by taking initiative and by surrounding yourself with the right people, chances are, it’ll turn out even better.

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