New kid on the block

Mar 10, 2024

Reflections from a new principal on unexpected challenges, uncharted opportunities, and what it really takes to earn the title.

It’s been a long time since this much felt uncharted, but that’s what it’s like to be a new principal. A reality check has come with each step up the ladder. Each rung has come with the realization that there is so much more to this than I truly understood. There is no direction, there is no prescription, there are very real consequences and risks, and I better be rock solid in why I am here in the first place.

My role requires a healthy amount of driving. We are in Texas after all, and it is a big state. On one long drive, a young employee asked me if I always knew I wanted to be a principal. Without hesitation I said, “Oh no, absolutely not.” The answer came quickly, followed by the next obvious question I hadn’t really thought about: “So, why are you a principal?”

There had never been an interior designer in any position above associate at my firm, at least not during my 15-year tenure. If I had ever considered it before, I hadn’t given it much space to be a real possibility. When it started coming up in serious conversations, I let myself go there and start to want it. Business is ever evolving, and this was accelerated by the pandemic. As a result, the promotion kept getting pushed off. Without registering it, the title had become this thing to me. I began to unconsciously shift my focus with the goal of obtaining this achievement of being a principal.

In hindsight, I can see that wasn’t very helpful.

Sometimes I think back to my first annual review at my firm with the CEO, who is still my mentor today. He asked how I was liking the job and I rambled on for who knows how long, elated about the wonderful role interior design has in positively impacting the lives of people in very human spaces like healthcare and education. I lost myself in the answer. He just smiled and very sincerely said, “Don’t ever lose that passion.” I couldn’t conceive of losing that passion, but his moment of pure sincerity made me take note.

I thought back to my mentor’s wise words in the car with the young employee. I never wanted to be partner, but it was clear to me then that my position had come from nothing more than passion for my work. I had such a clear vision of how interior design makes an incredible impact on our projects and I wanted to inject that into more projects across our firm. I did whatever it took to make that happen. As a byproduct of that, I became valuable to the firm and seized opportunities to create and expand a group of like-minded designers who share the same passion. As a result, I now get to lead an entire firm that shares the passion of designing projects that make a difference.

Looking back, I realize I lost that focus on my passion. I took my eye off the ball. I wish I had kept asking myself why I wanted to be a principal. If I had, I think I would have been more focused on building that new role. Instead I unknowingly began to create this narrative that making partner would solve all the other hurdles and issues I was facing. I thought if I became a principal, interior design and, by extension, I would be treated with instant dignity and respect. Of course, making partner did not change the cultural landscape of our industry, and people are still complex beings who require consistent leadership to garner respect. If I had stayed focused on my passion and reason for going where I was headed, I believe I would have been far better off.

There was no role to mimic or follow in my discipline. I had, and still have, the privilege, trust, and daunting task of making it up as I go. I am discovering and shaping what my new role looks like every day. A bit of pre-planning could have brought some clarity, but it’s hard work to shift from a doer to a business development-focused leader. The goals are less concrete.

I struggle with where I go next some days. I am in the middle of the unknown. Daily wins look different now. The measured success of a great business development meeting just doesn’t feel the same as a successful project presentation. I miss the direct and real-time client feedback that assures me we did a good job or we’re at least going in the right direction. There are spots of light in the forest and I’m grateful it hasn’t been easy. Retirement is a long way away and I’m not good at being bored.

If you’re a new principal, don’t be afraid to reach out to your peer partners for help and advice. They’ve been where you are, and they want to see you and your firm succeed. For any principal reading this, new or tenured, I’d be open to hearing your experience or advice. This has been a learning process, and I’m still learning. 

Jayna Duke is a principal and director of interior design at O’Connell Robertson. Contact her at

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