Q & A with Scott McHale, RFL Academy 2015 Alum

By the time Scott McHale joined the RFL Academy 2015 cohort, he had weathered a lot of ups and downs in his career as an architect — Sept. 11, the Great Recession, a lay-off — challenges he endured in part from the “tough guy” ethos instilled in him as a child. In between, Scott designed a ski resort in Korea and base village developments from Tahoe to Aspen Highlands, as well as building his own house in Carbondale. But he credits RFL with helping develop the emotional awareness that has allowed him to take on his latest challenge: joining Z Architects as a principal and director of design.

Recently, Scott reflected on his RFL experience and how the skills he learned helped him grow in other ways as well — as a husband, collaborator, and community member.

Roaring Fork Leadership: To start, how did you end up in the Roaring Fork Valley?

Scott McHale: I’ve been here since 1995. I wanted to get away from the East Coast hustle and bustle, live near mountains and generally just have a better quality of life. I moved out to Colorado and applied for a job in Aspen at CCY Architects. My interview was on a powder day and I walked into the office in penny loafers and khaki pants. People were coming in and out wearing their ski boots and I asked what was going on and they were like, “yeah it’s a powder day. We’ll take the morning off to ski and then finish work in the evening.” I thought, “Sign me up!”

RFL: What impact has RFL had on your life?

SM: It was a game changer for me. RFL was intense – a good ass kicker. I came from a background of tough love, where you get thrown in the fire and you either survive or you fail. I was always in the, “I’m never going to fail mode,” which comes at a cost. It makes you have a tough skin, but you might not necessarily have the best communication or understanding of people.

At the retreat, Greg Cortopassi got us all crying. I had the “men don’t cry” attitude and all of a sudden, there I was crying. It was so cool to get exposed to that level of sensitivity in a good way.

The year I did RFL was also the year I had just gotten engaged. It was kind of funny going through that while planning the wedding. My wife and I had just started living together, so I was starting this new phase of life – it kind of went hand in hand with RFL so that I became a better person to my wife. I learned to be more respectful and open and communicate better.

RFL: You started out working for a number of architecture firms, but recently transitioned into a leadership role at Z Group Architecture. How did you make that transition?

SM: I thought maybe at some point I should do my own thing – when you’re working for other people, there’s always compromises and challenges. My best friend approached me and asked me to work with him. His partner at their architecture firm was retiring, so there was this opportunity to go into this together and to see what we could do to build the company and evolve it.

That was two years ago – it’s been a hell of a ride! We’ve been going through all the hard steps of how do we make this company better; how do we make it better for our employees; how do we create a culture that is sustainable? Sometimes you have to have uncomfortable conversations. It’s not easy. Looking back on all the leadership training I went through at RFL — those lessons are definitely integral to decisions I make on a daily basis.

When we present a project to the public, it can be a very confrontational process — we’re working with building officials and contractors — but if we’re better leaders and we know there’s a better way to act and treat each other, then that makes for a better experience.

RFL: How has RFL helped you become a better leader?

SM: My big thing is community. Living in a community, but also bringing people together and being part of it. I started doing designing affordable housing for habitat for humanity. We do a lot of custom homes for wealthy people — this is a way to give back. I’m now on the board [for Habitat for Humanity] and chairman for the development committee, so I get to use my connections and experience as an architect to make the projects as good as they can be. It’s exciting – almost like having two jobs — with my business and now my growing involvement with habitat for humanity. We used to do one house per year and now we’re doing multi-family projects.

I keep using those same skills I learned from RFL: learning to be more conscious, aware, and humble. In other words, I don’t have to do things the way I was raised. There are different ways of acting, teaching, and mentoring, so how can I do that? RFL made me want to step up and be a participant. We can all just sit there and watch things happen or we can be part of making change and making the world a better place.