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Key lessons from Zaha Hadid’s Global Head of People & Talent

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In the latest part of the Hays Journal series, we spoke to Caroline Roberts, Global Head of People and Talent of Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA). Established as one of the most forward-thinking practices in the sector, ZHA has worked on groundbreaking and iconic projects across the world. Coming into her role just two weeks after the death of ZHA’s founder, Roberts had to learn her initial lessons pretty quickly.

A company losing its founder is difficult at any time, but an added layer of complexity is present when they are as involved as Hadid was with her eponymous firm’s major projects. The impact is still present even now on a daily basis. “People are still coming to terms with it,” Roberts says. “There are still projects we’re doing that she played a major role in. The shock was huge, as was the sadness. People have a tremendous loyalty to her. There was a huge generosity and genius to her character that people really appreciated. People still talk about her as though her death was yesterday.”

1. Leadership should inspire learning

Roberts says the firm is lucky that so many of its staff have been there since its inception, including Hadid’s business partner Patrik Schumacher. “It’s almost like her mantle has been passed to other people,” she says. “There’s a huge loyalty to honour what she started. Teaching is still at the heart of the firm and Patrik does a lot of it himself, lecturing internationally and in the UK. We have particular links to the Architectural Association, where Zaha had a studio and lectured herself. As a thought leader, we host regular smaller group sessions at the gallery. We also have regular continuing professional development and knowledge sharing sessions and encourage innovation.”

2. Break down your barriers

Roberts started her career in radio production at the BBC. She then progressed and took on more senior roles with increasing managerial duties, eventually becoming responsible for staff training. She was offered a role focusing on that across the whole of the broadcaster and set up a pan-organisation attachment scheme, allowing workers to spend time in other departments, learn relevant skills and then apply them to their own role. “It’s a fantastic way of getting real learning and inspiring people who are very creative, and for whom doing an online or classroom course is not the right thing,” she says. This is a principle she still stands by and applies at ZHA. “We have monthly lectures that different departments will give, but people also transfer across the organisation.”

3. Brexit has presented real challenges internationally

The firm is also looking ahead to international challenges. While the headquarters of ZHA sit in London, it has additional offices in New York, Mexico City, Dubai, Hong Kong and Beijing… as well as a hugely international workforce. Brexit has been a difficult situation for the firm. “For many international workers, it’s not just the red tape of applying for permanent residency,” she says. “People feel very hurt by it here. The immigration skills levy in the UK is a business cost and I do wonder if it will make it more difficult to hire skilled workers.”

4. Your workforce is ready to question policies

Being very aware of this, Roberts now knows that when bringing in new policies, she must ask herself questions in a way she has not needed to in the past. “When you are talking to people who can divert rivers, coming up with a poor HR policy is going to be found out very quickly,” she laughs. “If a river being in the way won’t stop them, if they can command the elements, an ill-thought-out piece of people planning will be found out straight away. In this business, even those without formal management training have startling intellects and a grasp of people issues, so you never have to explain things twice.”

5. They’re confident, but they still need support

While architects at ZHA have the confidence to give robust feedback, the nature of their work means they often need to be supported too. “We get our work through tenders and through competitions,” Roberts explains. “Architects can be working for months on designs that they truly feel are the best for a particular project and then come second. That can be almost like a bereavement in itself for staff.” With this in mind, she has introduced more skills training to help them deal with this, and to help managers lead these pivotal conversations with their teams.


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