Women in Leadership Mentoring Program: Peter Lee, HASSELL

Peter Lee is one of the most approachable senior leaders I have met. He always has a smile, warm greeting and asks after my family. What follows is our conversation about the ups and downs of leading businesses, mentoring, and his thoughts on why its important people return to work after parental leave.

Abby Jandro:                      Hi Peter. Thank you for speaking with me today. What does the day in a life of an International Director of HASSELL look like?

Peter Lee:                           It's never the same, and it's always interesting. I can be focused on anything from international strategy to dealing with clients on projects. All of the Directors work in the business. We have an external advisor who sits on the board to provide independent input, but all the rest of us have to be involved in the work. We are practicing architects, interior designers, landscape architects or planners.

I'm often running large jobs, which is the bit I love, as well as dealing with the issues around innovation and disruption. I am really interested in those elements to make sure we're differentiated from everyone else now and into the future.

I've been in the field since 1980. I graduated in 1979, so I've been doing it for a long time and still love what I do. I've been Director of design companies since 1983 and have never wanted to do anything else.

Abby Jandro:                      Did you always know you wanted to be in a Director role and how did that develop?

Peter Lee:                           I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision but I’ve always ended up in leadership roles from as far back as high school as an elected prefect and leader of a faction, to guild membership at University. I suppose I’ve been working since I was 14 and have always had a strong work ethic.

I remember a lecturer at Uni saying that the problem with our profession was people wanting the authority but not accepting the responsibility.  I’ve always remembered that and whenever something needs doing I just get on and do it – accepting the responsibility - then I think respect and authority follow.

Apparently I’m a big risk taker but after the effects of the 1987 downturn I’ve never really thought the risks were that great.

I remember starting my own business straight out of University in 1979 with two mates which with hindsight was a bit silly but we just went for it.  I had won the CCN Design prize which was some money and a job at CCN – I took the money and not the job. I then got an offer too good to be true and joined BPA, my staff number was 4.  I became a shareholder and director in 1983 and we grew across Australia and into the US and NZ.  In 1987 after the sharemarket crash we hit some trouble which resulted in Howard Puddy and I leaving the group and established Puddy Lee Partnership.  We flourished and in 1994 took over Melbourne design firm Spowers, the second oldest architectural firm in Australia (established in 1896).  We started The Planning Group with Dave Caddy and then between the Planning Group directors and Spowers we established ENV and Environmental remediation firm with Scott Bird.

Then in 2004 we merged Spowers with HASSELL and since then I’ve been an International Director.

Abby Jandro:                      How would you describe yourself as a leader?

Peter Lee:                           I haven’t really thought about that, I don’t really take myself that seriously so there isn’t much self-reflection.

I am a bit shy so I would say I lead quietly always pushing others forward and encouraging them to have a go.  I also really care about my people and we have a lot of people that have been with us 20 years plus, so I think that shows loyalty both ways.

One thing I have always believed in is being an early adopter and being at the front of change.  I put myself through a tough regime of travelling to Boston to study every February to make sure I am across the latest disruptive issues.

When you stop learning it’s time to get out of the way.  There is no place for inactivity on any Board.

Abby Jandro:                      Have you had mentors throughout your career?

Peter Lee:                           Not really. I learned a lot from the people I worked with early in my career Ken Bell and Howard Puddy around marketing and taking care of clients. I think in terms of mentoring, Ken Maher and Tim Shannon became mentors for me around running large practices when we merged with HASSELL.

I was lucky enough to join the Young Presidents' Organization in 1995 and there's still a group of people that I spend time with 22 years later. It’s a forum group that’s like an unofficial Board of Directors where we can raise and discuss issues in absolute privacy.  I’ve learned through my Forum group that our job as mentors isn't to tell people what they should do, but help that person find their way and their answers.  That has been an absolutely essential help in my mentoring.  At the moment I am mentoring seven people formally.

Abby Jandro:                      You have participated in the Women in Leadership Mentoring Program since the very beginning. What has really stood out to you about your participation in the program and your employees’ participation in the program?

Peter Lee:                           Most of my mentees I still see. It's really rewarding because there have been successful outcomes along the way. For me, understanding what women are going through is still surprising. It makes me more aware, and I bring what I learn back into the office.  It is also very valuable in understanding what my 3 adult daughters are facing.

The women from our office who have participated as mentees have enjoyed it. They’ve expanded their networks and formed friendships and have more confidence in controlling their futures. It’s a very structured program so you get really good results. It is a really effective program.

Abby Jandro:                      Thanks for the great feedback, Peter. You know that one of our goals with the program is to increase the inclusive culture within the property industry more broadly. I'm curious to know more about diversity and inclusion at HASSELL and how you approach it.

Peter Lee:                           When the other disciplines keep coming back but the architects don’t, that's hard. None of it easy to solve. It’s the biggest waste of energy, skill and training when a good person doesn't come back.

We did bring in a number of policies – all of the standard ones plus a few innovative ones. When people go on maternity leave, we let them take their phone and computer with them, and we invite them to all the company events. We want to stay in contact and have even had situations where women have been promoted while on maternity leave. We pay half of anyone’s child care costs when they return to encourage people back.

We have 51% women in HASSELL. We have two women out of the six elected Directors and we're pushing to have three. Foundation Housing, FORM and Open House Perth boards that I'm on are 40% or more women and those organizations are run by women that I really admire. I don't need any convincing about the importance or strength that comes from that diversity.

I seem to be offering the diversity of age on our board at the moment. Diverse boards don't make as many mistakes and things run much better. There is much evidence to support this, and that’s been my experience.

Our biggest challenge at HASSELL is having Architects return. That seems to be something related to the industry. We have 50-50 graduates and end up with 17% women in senior positions. I have a theory that it's as much to do with the clients that architects have. Until you have clients like Mirvac that have a stronger understanding and willingness to work with flexibility it will continue to be a challenge.


Abby Jandro:                      Could you say a little bit more about that?  I often hear about the challenges on both sides, the organisation and the individual, related to returning to work. For HASSELL, what is the benefit of having somebody return versus going back out to the market?

Peter Lee:                           Having someone who fits in, that knows all your systems, knows how you work and knows your clients coming back, well, they just slot right back in. Going to market and employing new people you have to ensure that they culturally fit and train them on all the systems and procedures. Economically, it's a major cost but it's also that good people lost to the whole industry adds pressure everywhere. There's massive advantage to have good people.

We will have people return at one day a week initially if that’s what they can offer. It’s not overly productive for us at that point, but it’s worth it to not lose someone good or the investments we’ve already made in them. Also, people who are balancing family and work are some of the most efficient and productive I have seen.

Dr Abby Jandro is Director WA at Serendis Leadership. Serendis is an industry leader in building inclusive leadership skill and facilitating effective mentoring programs. You can learn more about their services at www.serendis.com.au.