Get in the driver's seat!

Trailblazing - one step at a time! Guest: Deborah Gottesman

February 07, 2023 Sandra Bekhor, Practice Management Coach Season 1 Episode 2
Get in the driver's seat!
Trailblazing - one step at a time! Guest: Deborah Gottesman
Show Notes Transcript

Have you ever looked at an accomplished trailblazer and wondered how they got there? On this podcast, Deborah shares her story. Why she opened her boutique lighting design firm. How she spoke up and influenced changes in the profession, early in her career. How to become a reliable and trusted partner to clients and more.

Deborah has a unique contextual understanding of lighting from all perspectives; her career spans over 30 years in all facets of the lighting industry, including design, engineering, management, education, and manufacturing. Since establishing Gottesman Associates in 1999, Deborah’s creative, rigorous, passionate and client-driven approach have brought award-winning lighting designs to a wide range of satisfied and repeat clients.

An electrical engineer with an MBA in Real Property, Deborah has successfully worked on projects in many sectors, and has taught lighting at all levels to a wide audience from students at colleges and universities to senior architects.

Deborah currently sits on the international Technical Committee 3-59: The Integration of Daylight and Electric Light of the Commission Internationale de L’Eclairage (CIE).

To learn more about lighting design from Deborah, our guest:

You're listening to Get in the Driver’s Seat! We’re telling stories about leadership moments in small to mid-sized professional practices. I’m your host, Sandra Bekhor, Practice Management Coach for lawyers, architects, consultants and other professionals at Bekhor Management.

Sandra 0:00
Hello and welcome to the podcast. This is 'Get in the driver's seat'! We're telling stories about leadership moments in small to mid-sized professional practices. I'm your host Sandra Bekhor, Practice Management Coach at Bekhor Management. Today I'm excited to introduce our guest, Deborah Gottesman, a pioneer in lighting design with a star-studded resume... my words not hers! Deb's firm Gottesman Associates has their share of award-winning projects. I noticed one project had five awards! I wonder how that feels to be collecting that fifth award? Is it like Spielberg at the Oscars LOL!? So, Deborah has a unique entry point into lighting design as an electrical engineer with an MBA in Real Property. Welcome Deb!

Deb 0:59
Great to be here Sandra thank you for having me.

Sandra 1:04
So from a background working for engineering firms and lighting manufacturers, you went off and started your own thing. And I remember that we sat down for a sushi lunch 17 years ago. Both of us were starting our own thing at the same time. But I don't remember exactly why? Tell us why you started your own firm. What was that feeling at the time that helped you to be convinced this was the right thing for you?

Deb 1:41
I'll tell you there was no one aha moment. I was a senior electrical engineer at one of the big firms here in Toronto and I had gone on my second mat leave. I had my second child and I was getting ready to come back to work after 12 months, which had just been initiated by our government here (that I had a full year off), except that the company I was going back to had shrunk from 120 people down to like 30. It had no work. So I ended up being downsized, instead of returning to work. So it was a little bit unexpected. But that's the way things roll. W negotiated the exit package to give me some time to regroup and catch up because when you're gone for a year, your contacts move around and you sort of have to get your head around this. When I started reaching out, I was finding that I could get myself some contracts, some project work and some lighting design work which I really loved. What was interesting though, when I was going for employment opportunities, when I went into the engineering firms they would say to me "but aren't you a lighting designer" and when I went into the lighting practices they would say "but you're an engineer"? So I found after a couple of my own contracts in lighting design that this is really what I want to do.

I'm loving this and I love the flexibility that it was offering me. So I thought maybe I'll give it a go on my own. But I can tell you that it took me almost a full year before I publicly said that I'm starting a practice and here's the company name.

You know I don't come from a line of entrepreneurs. My mother is a retired teacher. My father, who passed away a number of years ago, he was a partner in an engineering firm as well. But it wasn't his firm. He had worked his way up through the ranks. Running your own business is a whole different scenario for someone like me.
That's how it all began. I remember that lunch with you very well!

Sandra 4:12
Yes, we were talking about all the possibilities! So now looking back at that, what were you able to do as a lighting consultant, independent with your own boutique firm, that you couldn't have done if you had gone back to work for one of those big engineering firms?

Deb 4:32
One nice thing which is probably the most obvious is the flexibility. I had two young children at home. If I had to take one to a doctor or pick them up early because they were sick or you know the things that happen with kids, that's okay because after they went to bed I could continue my work. I didn't have to ask permission. I was just able to manage my life.

Sandra 4:55
The world is becoming so much more attuned to those very important needs - work-life balance and raising a young family. I'm glad you raised that here.

Deb 5:09
I really believe in work-life balance... I don't believe that it happens on a daily basis. So even though I was able to juggle things, it wasn't always you know fun and games. There were lots of times, especially when you're starting out, that you have a lot of pressure and you're the chief cook and bottle washer (as my father used to say). You have to do everything. Sometimes that could be challenging. But you know that ultimately it's going to be of benefit to you in the long run, so it was a little bit easier to tolerate. I also have to say I have a very supportive husband and partner. So that also really made it possible.

Sandra 5:55
Well, it's a very interesting take on work-life balance, the way you put it, because there is no perfect work-life balance. I think it's lovely the way you put it because it makes this idea of entrepreneurship for anybody raising a young family or who has other priorities in their life, that may not have to do with children, to understand that they can still have this. They can still run their own firm, if that's what they want. Just understand that you can carve out the space for those things that matter to you if you're willing to give in another way. So work the late nights when you've got the big project. Or take that weekend for work when your spouse is able to support you and take the kids to the country or whatever it is. Just bring that flexibility mindset to it.

Deb 6:54
Starting your own business... it doesn't happen overnight. It's really about putting one step in front of the other and before you know it you've walked a mile. You go "gee look at that I I actually did that and I've survived my first year and let's see what I can do in the second year". You have to set realistic expectations so that you're not disappointed. So in my first year of practice, I thought if I could recoup a third of my salary I would consider that a success. I actually earned half my salary. But because I was self-employed there are all kinds of other write-offs. In the end it really had very little negative impact on our financial situation. I was actually really pleasantly surprised.

So I think that would be some advice I would give anybody listening that was thinking about starting their own practice. Take it one step at a time "for this week or this month this is what my goal is" and before you know it you'll have achieved a number of them.

Sandra 7:58
Right. Be prepared. I mean I went through it myself. You do need to be prepared for that slow build-up because you're not going to be replacing your salary in that first year.

Deb 8:12
That's right. My husband says I'm an overnight success... 35 years in the making!

Sandra 8:18
So looking at your portfolio, there are interesting achievements related to the green movement. What's the category of the OAA headquarters project? Can you explain the challenge for our listeners?

Deb 8:44
There are different movements. For example, the 2030 challenges is that buildings should be Net Zero, meaning not using any gas giving off gas and reducing CO2 emissions. So while lighting is an electrical load and doesn't use gas, you still have to be able to have power on your site to use lighting. So you still want to minimize your lighting loads to be as efficient as possible, to generate as little electricity as possible.

Sandra 9:21
Sounds like quite the achievement! In your work, you need to partner with clients, architects, builders, engineers and consultants. Just from this project alone we can see how complicated it must be. I see it in your LinkedIn posts. I see it in the way you describe your projects in your portfolio on your website. You are always recognizing your partners. So your leadership style it seems to be about being a reliable partner. I just wanted to ask if you could shed some light on what makes those professional relationships work... because there's no way that you're always seeing eye to eye! You're gonna run into conflict!

Deb 10:13
For example, lighting controls. We want them to be simple. We want them to be easy to use and that's all possible. But the systems in the back of the house are not simple. It's our job to educate them. So when you take that approach you're not really going to be faced with a lot of conflict. What's there to conflict about? There's option A, there's option B, there's option C. Here are the ramifications. We tend to keep the client's needs front and center.

As an example when we do certain projects, our first meeting can be a two-hour meeting with the client and we start with why are you building? Not what are you building. Why are you building! We really get down to peel that onion as they say... to get down to the real nitty-gritty, so we can understand what their needs are, what their wants are, what their hopes are, what are their goals. Then we work towards that. Presenting the different options and letting them guide the way. You can often lead the client to the right solution based on what they've told you, as long as you pay attention and you listen carefully.

Sandra 11:37
You started this by saying that you see your role as educator. So if you do that well then the client is well informed and they can make good choices.

Deb 11:45
Right. Rather than rolling your eyes at a client, to me if they're not understanding I'm not doing my job well enough. I have to find a better way. That's the way I look at it.

What's interesting about lighting is everybody's turned on lights or changed a light bulb or bought a light fixture. Everybody has some experience with lighting. What they don't understand though is that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many lighting effects. We always say lighting affects how we feel, how we perform and how we adapt. It's not about picking a pretty light fixture. It's about understanding the human brain, about visibility and perception and the non-visual effects of light.  For example, the same way that your ear is responsible for hearing and balance, the eye is responsible for vision, but also for training our circadian rhythms, which means how does your body know that there's a 24-hour clock and when you should be sleeping and when you should be awake. So for example, people in long-term care, if they're not getting outside or sitting by windows enough they can have what's called a free-running circadian rhythm where it might be a 25-hour system. In a few days they're actually sleeping in the day and they're awake at night, which is a problem for them for their health... but also a problem for the people trying to manage the situation. That's how important lighting is. There's an awful lot to educate the clients on and that's where we really add value.

Sandra 13:31
That's a nice little example of how you educate. I mean I just got educated! Thank you! It sounds like one of your strategies, probably intuitively, to avoid conflict is to just get on the same page right from the start.

Deb 13:51
Well exactly. I can honestly say we haven't had a situation where the project is finished and the clients are you know unhappy with a, b or c... because they've been part of that decision-making process. I once heard a really interesting interview with Frank Gehry. He was asked, "how do you get your client to buy into a Bilbao"? That kind of really unique design. His answer was... well you don't start with Bilbao. You start with why are you building? What are you doing? What are your goals? They become part of the process. I learned a lot from that interview. That was a real education for me.

Sandra 14:36
So then it's basically their idea too.

Deb 14:39
Exactly. You talked about recognizing others on a project. Our big joke is we'll design the lighting, you can design the building around us! Right? It doesn't work that way. We're not in a vacuum. We all have to work together. If you keep saying what is best for the client, what is best for the client... and if that means I have to do extra work because that's what's going to be best for the client... to make X happen, then that's what we'll do. Who can argue with that right? We all have the same client.

Sandra 15:21
What if they have a different view of what's best for the client ie the associates that you work with, not at your firm? Let's say the engineer, the builder, the architect or other consultants have a different view of what's best for the client. How do you handle that?

Deb 15:37
I guess the same approach would be to say let's present this to the client. That A gives you this and B gives you that. Again it's up to them to decide.

Sandra 15:54
Does this happen? Do you remember a situation?

Deb 15:59
I'm sure it has but nothing is really standing out in my mind because I just don't see
conflict (I guess conflict has its negative connotations). I don't see disagreement or difference of opinion as a bad thing, even with my associates that I work with. I'll look at a design and say okay convince me why we should do this. I don't say I just don't like this or that's bad. I mean there's a hundred ways you can design a space. So it's really about you know convince me, tell me what you're thinking.

Sandra 16:38
You're bringing curiosity to those partnerships.

Deb 16:45
I try to approach it in that way.

Sandra 16:47
Then that eventually builds trust.

Deb 16:53
That builds a lot of things. It builds trust. It builds a stronger relationship. It teaches people how to defend their ideas, which is really important in the world of architectural design and all the subconsultants. We're dealing with some very strong people and you have to be able to manage that.

Sandra 17:17
Yeah, so my undergrad is in architecture... I'm familiar! Every Monday was crit day and every Sunday night was an all-nighter getting ready for that pitch! You never forget!

It is meaningful work, lighting design. That little story you told about how being near the window affects your circadian rhythm is part of that. Can you give us an example of how your work is meaningful to you?

Deb 17:52
I love what I do. I'm very passionate about it too and I would say it's meaningful in a number of ways. The first piece is the energy-efficient piece. People that aren't aware of what lighting design is will typically pepper the ceiling with pot lights to give lots of light. That's when I say you illuminate everything and notice nothing in particular. But nobody complains because everyone can see. So the problem with that is that you're typically overlighting and wasting energy. I love that our designs are typically very efficient. We only provide exactly what's needed. We don't overdo it. We're independent consultants, so we don't sell product. It makes no difference to me if I'm specifying good, better or best. I just want it to be at least good. That's up to the client to decide their price point. But I'm not compelled to put too much in for that reason. So the energy efficiency piece is certainly a very meaningful piece.

There's also the client satisfaction. Knowing that our work, long after we walk away, we're leaving our clients with these wonderful spaces. Lighting is the final finish. You'll put lots of money into your tile and your stones and your carpets and your textures and your colours. But if you don't light it properly, you're never going to see it properly. I love that when we're finally done (and we're the last piece that gets installed too... budgets are crumbling... it's the end of the project... that's when the lights are going in) and when they finally turn it on and see how fabulous the space is and they get to live with that forever more. That's very meaningful. I've had clients say to me you know you've ruined my hotel experience for life because they're so badly lit and now I know the difference!

Sandra 20:16
You graduated from electrical engineering at Western in 1986. It's on your LinkedIn, so I don't feel guilty saying that! The industry looked a lot different then. Nowadays,
there's a lot more diversity. There's a lot more empowerment of women, but not so much at the top, however. I still have clients struggling with bringing women into leadership roles. But you broke through many glass ceilings in your career. Is there anything that you can share with us about some pivotal moments that you feel proud of?

Deb 21:01
it was quite an isolating experience for me in that way. Then even when I started my engineering career, there weren't very many women. I remember sitting around at a meeting and the project manager at the construction site said we'll let Deborah give her report first because she's the prettiest! It was normal. But talk about an uncomfortable situation. It's kind of taking it in the other direction that I got to go first because I was a woman. I didn't really appreciate that at the time. I remember talking to him afterward, saying I know you meant well. But you don't have to call me out for that. I'm trying to be sensitive about it and remember exactly what I said but it
was a really tough situation. There was one job site... I even wrote a small article about it many years ago, about what it was like to be a woman in engineering where I talked about this. I was on the P3 level of the Parkade walking to the electricians, way in the bowels of the building. The electrical project manager was terrific and taught me a lot. We had a really great mutual respect for one another. But we get to the electrician's workshop and it's plastered floor-to-ceiling with, at the time, the Sunshine Girls. I don't know that they still do that anymore. I don't read that paper. But talk about an uncomfortable situation. You're a 20-something woman, you're surrounded by men, you're in the bowels of a building - deep deep down - and you're faced with naked women. That was a huge battle, which I actually undertook. I was tough and I wasn't going to put up with that. It got to the point of the president of my company writing to the president of the electrician's company and saying that those pictures have to come down. It's 1989... it's time for those pictures to come down! There were situations like that. But you know I guess I'm tough.

I was lucky enough that also along the way there were many people that taught me things, that were mentors that took me under their wing. You sort of focus on that rather than the negative experiences to get you through.

I would say today in lighting there are many women in the lighting field, either as lighting designers or in lighting sales. There are many women architects I've had the privilege of working with. In fact I'm thinking of a couple of projects where the women now sometimes outnumber the men. So things have certainly changed, I think for the better. We're not 100% there yet. But we're certainly seeing some positive movement.

Sandra 24:19
It's interesting. The story you're telling is an example of using your voice even when other people may not want to hear what you have to say. You may ruffle some feathers along the way. But doing it in a way that is authentic

Deb 24:42
It's usually about telling someone this is the way it makes me feel and it's hard to argue with that. You were talking about how to deal with conflict and now that we're talking about this, those were much more intense conflicts than somebody wanting to pick the solution that I least was was in favour of. That to me is not a conflict. That's nothing. So maybe that's kind of toughened me up for running my own practice.

Sandra 25:13
Wow. You were so young at the time to deal with those issues. You may not have realized it at the time. But as an outsider looking at it I can say that it seems that you affected the way things moved. You were one voice and there were many voices that pushed this industry in that direction. But look at where we are now. You had influence. You weren't alone. But you played a role and you had influence.

Deb 25:42
As I said there were enough enlightened people and kind people. I remember two sales reps in particular when I was a junior designer at my first engineering job that treated me with the same respect as if I was a partner. One has since passed away. But the other one I'm still to this day in touch with. I will take his call no matter where I am in the world because you remember people like that. What do they say? People may not remember your name, but they'll always remember how you made them feel.

Sandra 26:20
Yes and that does go back to partnership being at the core of a really good leadership style. You've made it through many milestones. Do you remember any challenges that felt like it was difficult to get through it? You weren't sure you'd be able to get through it? I mean since you started your business.

Deb 26:43
More recently we've just gone through some growing pains. At some point in any business that's growing you sort of realize that you can't do it all and you can't do it by yourself. I've been lucky through the years to have some really terrific associates and that number is growing. I've been lucky to find some good people, so that I can now focus on some design direction, more the oversight, the quality assurance, bringing in the business. But that was a real shift for me. That was a really tough shift because you know at my core I'm a designer and very passionate about the way I design. Having to open your mind like I said to say to people okay I know there's more than one way to do this convince me you're right. It sounds like that's a great idea. But I'm not saying that's easy for someone like me, you know I tend to like to control the situation. So that's been been a challenge for me. But it's starting to pay off as you know and I'm really excited for what the future brings.

Sandra 28:05
You're getting through your growing pains. The way you put it really is the heart of why delegation is so difficult for professionals and for managers generally, because you do have to give up control. There's a lot of trust involved in that process. You also mentioned quality control and that really is one of the ways to make it work.

Deb 28:32
Yes, it's the oversight.

Sandra 28:35
The lighting industry seems to have gone through many changes. I remember when a light bulb was a light bulb. You know, go to the store and get a light bulb and now you need the specs and you actually really should save the actual light bulb so that you can get the exact right one! So I imagine as a professional it has changed a lot. What are your hopes about the future for the industry?

Deb 29:07
I have so many hopes, some of them pretty technical. I don't think we need to get into the details. But for example lighting controls. Everyone's seen the LEDs flicker and they don't dim properly or they get to half and they pop off. That's all about the lighting controls and the coordination thereof. So I'm hoping that we continue to be making strides in that area that'll make my life easier. But in terms of changes that I'd like to see, the research on circadian lighting and how lighting impacts our health. There's no magic bullet study that says you should do this. There's a study that says in long-term care this was the impact when we did certain things and in schools we have seen these kinds of results so we just need more research that will hopefully get us to the point where we can actually say you know and be able to sell some of these new ideas to our clients. They do take some investment.

Sandra 30:19
It's interesting that you're mentioning the research related to circadian rhythms. The culture these days of our western world is very much focused on wellness and mental health. I'm wondering do you think that if we get smarter about how lighting affects our circadian rhythms if we can help reduce things like SAD? Isn't that what it's called?

Deb 30:45
Yes, Seasonal Affective Disorder. Yes, absolutely, lighting can help with that. I mean listen the best thing for seasonal affective disorder is to get outside in the morning and get 490 nanometer wavelength light into your eyes. That's the best thing you can do. But practically speaking, most of us are not in a position where we can do that for any length of time. So certainly lighting can help with that.

Lighting has been shown to impact our health in terms of contracting diseases. It's also been shown to help in the healing of certain diseases by getting the right kind of llight at different times of the day, it can help the absorption of certain medications or certain treatments.

Sandra 31:38
I know it's early days and your passion is very strong. But do you have any ideas from now on what you would like to leave behind as your legacy in this in this field?

Deb 31:50
I guess there's two things. One is all these great spaces that we've created that people get to live with. There's some Legacy in that. Showing what can be done makes me very proud of many of our projects.

The second thing, you know my late father used to say the only thing you really have in this world is your name. So protect it and build it. I'd like to be known as someone with a good reputation for working hard, for being kind to people and still being able to get the job done and doing it well. So that's the kind of legacy I would like to leave.

Sandra 32:36
That's lovely and it also speaks to the entrepreneurship piece of it. You have a lot more say in what your legacy is going to be as a professional when you're running your own show.

Deb 32:49
That's right. It's my nameon the letterhead. It's  on the door.

Sandra 32:55
if you are interested in learning more about lighting design from Deborah, our guest and a leader in the field, go to Before we sign off, Deb can you give listeners, who may be getting ready for renovations or building projects, a tip?
How can an architect or home owner decide if their project is suitable for bringing on a lighting design expert such as yourself?

Deb 33:39
 Most projects can't afford not to have a lighting designer. I can tell you that on a number of projects there is some decision or some direction that we take with the lighting that ends up saving the client so much money by not overlighting. I mean what's the capital cost of those fixtures that weren't installed and the installation costs, the continued operating costs. I would just say that it should be considered because in the end, the results are so much better and it actually costs less. I like to talk about the value that we bring and it still comes down to money. It's not you know just pay a whole lot of fees and you don't get much for it. You really do. The space looks much better. All that effort you put into the design is shown in its best light, if you will, pun intended. Inevitably there are decisions that are made that will save a lot of headaches, a lot of time and energy down the road.

Sandra 34:52
In terms of maintenance, in terms of energy costs, that's the savings?

Deb 34:58
That's the savings. One of my old mentors used to say to me it's funny how clients have the ability to pay for it the second time. Meaning they get it wrong the first time and then they have to change it the second time. We've been involved in a number of projects like that where you know I just hate my lighting and I need some help.  Then it becomes the second project. So you can't avoid all that.

Sandra 35:29
Oh and the other cost-saving you mentioned was just not buying more fixtures than you need.

Deb 35:42
Exactly. Design fees are usually let's say 10 of the the cost of building the project. But for every hour that I spend I can have an impact on 10 hours for the construction team. So it's this small proportion of cost that has a massive impact.

Sandra 36:07
Simplify and do what you need to do and nothing more. Thank you Deb for your time and your insights. You've been listening to 'Get in the driver's seat!', stories about leadership moments in small to mid-sized professional practices. I'm your host, Sandra Bekhor, Practice Management Coach at Bekhor Management.