Leading from the top.

Leading from the top

How have life experiences shaped the Presidents behind the Diversity Agenda, and what advice can they give the next generation of engineers and architects?

We talk with Judi Keith-Brown, Colin Crampton and Ian Fraser, the current Presidents of Te Kāhui Whaihanga NZIA, Engineering New Zealand and ACE New Zealand – the organisations joined together to lead the Diversity Agenda.

They discuss the reason for getting into their professions, how they have managed to achieve work-life balance, and why they decided to stand.

Why did you want to enter your respective professions?

Judi: As a child, I always noticed the spaces I lived in. In Wellington, we had a house in Johnsonville, then we moved to Boston and lived in a Modernist apartment, which helped me to see there’s more than one way of living. My father was interested in architecture and took us to lots of cathedrals, and I learned very early on that people had designed these buildings, and those people were called architects.

My parents were left-wing and socially-minded and believed in equity of access to things like healthcare, good housing and justice. It was this belief, in combination with my love of spaces and a natural sensitivity for light, texture, materials and how people live, that led me to pursue architecture. I still believe everyone deserves access to good design.

Colin: I have always been interested in how things worked. As I grew up my father always talked about what I was going to do at university so when I finished the 7th form at Nelson Boys the University of Canterbury was the only option. Because my father was an engineer I sort of migrated into the course and next thing you know I was an engineer.

Ian: I was looking for a profession that would include some work outdoors, so I studied Geology. I was also really interested in groundwater as my father had been a water diviner. Getting a job as an engineering consultant allowed me to carry on learning about natural resources, so the technical work has always been a pleasure.

Can you think of a time when you or someone you worked with was excluded in your workplace or made to feel like they didn’t belong? How did you or your peer manage that experience? 

Judi: When I went to be interviewed for the job at the university, the Head of School asked me to meet him at 7am, which was extremely difficult for a mother of two boys under the age of four. He really put me through the wringer. He was patronising, put down my knowledge and experience, and at one point, told me I wasn’t intelligent enough to understand a student’s work (I don’t think he did either!). I should’ve stood up to him but I was desperate for the job so I just put up with it.

Later in my career, I hired someone who had started out as a labourer and become an architect later in life. He didn’t fit the conventional mould of an architect and had been marginalised in his past workplaces because of it. He hadn’t been allowed to meet clients or go on-site because of the way he looked and spoke. But when he worked for me, I encouraged him to get registered and made sure he got lots of varied experience at work. I took great pleasure in removing the barriers to his advancement and he’s now a registered architect running his own practice.

“When I look in the mirror, I find myself having an unconscious bias to some people which is disappointing. I am working really hard on this issue and I am enjoying the openings such new behaviour brings”

Colin Crampton

Colin: I like to run a collegial leadership model where everyone in the organisation is a peer and feels comfortable having their say. For this to work I need to lead by example. Over the years, when I look in the mirror, I find myself having an unconscious bias to some people which is disappointing. I am working really hard on this issue and I am enjoying the openings such new behaviour brings.

Ian: New team members can sometimes end up excluded from important discussions, resulting in us missing out of their valuable insight. It’s really important to proactively manage the on-boarding of new employees irrespective of seniority and to focus on their engagement to ensure they are ‘truly included’ and we get the true diversity of perspective we are seeking. 

How have you managed your work life and your family life? 

Judi: I have always worked, even when my sons were small. After working in Scotland for three years, we came back to Wellington to have our family, and I had Zak, then worked with architect John Daish part-time. After Nathan was born, John asked me if I wanted to work as a university tutor. This led on to me being appointed a lecturer and I worked at the uni for 10 years before going back into practice. The best thing about doing that work and raising my family was that I now know so many people and architects all over the country, and they know my sons!

I think the hardest challenge for female architects is the clash between having enough experience after graduation to go for registration and working out when and if to have children. Often female architectural graduates don’t get registered, which means they can’t practice as architects. Or they get registered just as they are having their first child, which can make it difficult to stay current or to keep your job once you finish your maternity leave. But I think things are finally changing. I know a lot of really smart young women in their early to mid-thirties who want to work differently. They’re setting up their own practices and I think that’s going to be the thing to start changing the way architects practice in New Zealand.

Colin: I try really hard not to allow my work to get on top of me. From time to time it just does and so I try to train myself out of bad habits when the workload reduces. For me, exercise and nature are the circuit breakers. If I can kayak around Matiu Somes Island and absorb the energy of the sea, the vista and the birdlife then I’m going to be fine.

Ian:  I have had a busy career and personal life with four active children, so there have been times when I have felt a bit overwhelmed. Following and supporting my families sporting interests has always created time for us all to be together. However, putting aside time to focus entirely on family or me and ‘really be present’ has been something I’ve had to learn over the years.  

“I wanted the public to see architects aren’t all the same. We can be women!”

Judi Keith-Brown

Why did you put yourself forward for President?

Judi: I wanted the public to see architects aren’t all the same. We can be women! We can be sole practitioners. We can work with our team to alter and add to houses, to build houses and schools and sheds and medical centres and public spaces, not just skyscrapers. There’s a widespread perception that architecture is only for the rich and famous, and I want to help make it more accessible and approachable. There are a lot of us out there doing good work for all sorts of different clients, and I want people to understand what architects actually do.

Colin: Giving back to the profession that supported my earlier career and a sense of volunteerism. 

When asked I felt my corporate and business skills could be used to consolidate what was a very exciting agenda being lead by Te Ao Rangahau Engineering New Zealand.

Ian: I’ve really enjoyed the forums and conferences and the relationships that being involved with ACE New Zealand, has given me. I want to ensure that the value our industry brings to our communities in New Zealand and abroad is well understood by those in Government and that it remains an exciting career path of choice for our young people. 

Any advice you’d offer students, graduates, architects and engineers in response to the uncertain times we find ourselves living in?

Judi: I would say – we are going to get through this. There is hope! Architects, in particular, are good at identifying problems, then clearly articulating a solution. This is a mode of thinking that can be applied in all industries, and particularly during this crisis.

To the young architects, I would say, get out there and get involved in as many diverse projects as you can. Join community projects, activate your streets and waterfronts, tutor in schools, do odd jobs, stay connected with Te Kāhui Whaihanga and the architects in your area. Acquire new skills and consolidate traditional ones such as drawing and model-making. Identify the practice you want to work for, find out what skills or knowledge they need and make yourself the solution to their problem. Above all, meet as many people as you can from a whole lot of different backgrounds and industries, because that will make you a better architect.

Colin: Run with the wolves. Change is all around us and it’s always going to be there. Those who will be successful in the future are those that understand change is a constant companion and to “run with the wolves” you need to be adaptable and agile.

Ian: Be flexible and back yourself to take opportunities that may arise out of these times, irrespective if they were part of your plan or not. 

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