NSW President of the Australian Institute of Architects and Crone Architects COO Kathlyn Loseby reflects on the importance of stretching yourself, avoiding complacency and trying to do one thing every day that scares you.
Why did you choose architecture? What attracted you to the discipline?
During my first year of high school, my art teacher introduced the class to architecture. First term was painting, second term was sculpture, third term was architecture. The world opened up during term three! What I saw amazed me and those buildings are etched in my mind to this day: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, Corb’s Notre Dame du Haut and Piano/Rogers’ Pompidou Centre. Thought-provoking buildings that made a naive 11-year-old ask what a building’s purpose could be; how can a well-designed building transform, improve, heal, socialise and improve the life of an individual and a society? That was transformative and set me on my path.
What are your current roles? How does this differ from what you imagined doing when you set out to study architecture?
Currently, I’m the Chief Operating Officer of Crone Architects, the NSW President of the Australian Institute of Architects, and an assessor of registration candidates for the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia. There is no way I would have looked into the crystal ball when graduating from architecture school and thought I would be any of these things!
My COO role took me beyond architecture, involving an MBA (Exec) and a GAICD from the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Throughout my early work experiences, I noticed that not all architects possess business acumen skills, to the detriment of the practice and often the building industry too. So, I decided to round out my skills with post-graduate studies in business. Interestingly, for my HSC I considered studying commerce because it was a “sensible career”, but I chose architecture as it was a passion. I now get to blend these two disciplines every day.
I became an assessor as I believe registration is such an incredibly important and rewarding step; the capstone of architectural professional training. I applied for registration two years after graduating and failed the interview process because I didn’t have enough site or contract administration experience. This was a blow, but it made sense, so I arranged to work on-site full-time for one year and immersed myself in documenting, detailing and contract administration. It made me intensely aware of the procurement process and how it influences the quality of a building in so many ways. Because it was not a straightforward process for me to become registered, but an enjoyable one where I learnt a lot, I have always encouraged anyone around me to become registered as it is a hugely beneficial experience.
Would I have ever thought I would be the NSW Chapter President of the Institute? Never. When I started studying, past Presidents had been Prof Leslie Wilkinson (the University of Sydney Architecture faculty building was named after him), Martyn Chapman (who had been one of my lecturers at university), Lawrence Nield and Louise Cox. To even mention their names makes me shudder as I can’t see myself as ever being so notable; but the best I can do is give it all I have and contribute to the best of my ability.
What have been the biggest career challenges and successes so far?
I love the quote “do one thing every day that scares you”.1
I believe you have to stretch yourself and avoid complacency. I also think this is why I’m not daunted by professional challenges. If you take everything step by step, you’ll get there eventually.
The biggest challenges for me have been the ones that weren’t necessarily professional or intellectual, but the emotional side of combining parenting and a challenging career. That has always been a juggle and I have found it very difficult. I have been fortunate to have worked in various models including from home, part-time or full-time. I have also run my own business. Even now I feel ‘the guilts’ when my 13-year-old son is at home at night by himself because I am working late. That said, pleasingly both my sons are respectful and encouraging of my career, and I know they both think it is normal for both parents to have rewarding careers.
Are there particular roles or projects that were turning points in your career?
Early influences would be the practices I chose to work for because of the architectural discourse and quality outcomes. Working overseas was definitely worthwhile, experiencing perspectives that were quite different to those in Australia at the time. SOM I chose because Gordon Bunshaft won the Pritzker in my final years at university; Norman Foster I joined before he won the Pritzker, but his intellect was evident in his works well before the award was granted. When returning to Australia I worked for AJ+C and it was not a surprise when Keith Cottier won the RAIA Gold Medal. Collectively they all taught me the importance of intellectual discussion about the merits of quality building. That quality can take many forms, whether it be an urban design perspective, materiality, procurement processes, or business practices to support discourse and accomplishment.
Have you benefited from mentors (formal or informal), sponsors and / or other supporters? What was the impact?
I don’t have a nominated mentor, but I reach out to any number of people for advice. I find people who specialise in areas where I lack skill and ask for their thoughts. When I was younger, I was always fortunate to have talented senior people in the offices where I worked, so mentoring was daily and on-tap. This is one of the many reasons I like large practices; mentoring happens every day and there is so much opportunity to learn from highly skilled and experienced colleagues. I’m grateful that I have worked in environments where I always felt comfortable to ask any question, regardless of how silly it seemed. I relish the opportunities now to pay it forward.
What experiences (both at work and in your life outside work) have informed or developed your leadership style?
I believe you take a little bit of the good stuff with you from all your experiences, and I’ve been fortunate to have worked closely with many great leaders, experiencing different leadership styles, across different practices and markets. My experiences working overseas in particular have really shaped me and my leadership style, understanding cultural nuances and being adaptable in my approach.
Completing my MBA also opened my eyes to so many leadership styles, both in terms of the theory and in terms of the people I met and worked with throughout my studies.
What do you consider the key characteristics / skills of an effective leader?
You need to have real drive and be laser focused on your goal, and you need to have aspirational views. It’s about aiming high; pushing yourself and doing things that may be outside your comfort zone. That’s the only way you will ever really know what you can accomplish.
Perhaps the most critical element of great leadership, however, is being able to listen. Give your team a voice and the freedom to push themselves, even if that means sometimes failing. Provide that safety net so they are comfortable to step outside their comfort zones; this creates not only great leaders, but great teams.
In broad terms, what equity problems does the profession face? Is there anything notable or innovative that the organisation you represent is doing to address these?
I’ve approached this question from the perspective of achieving an equity position within a practice, which I think speaks perfectly to equity from a diversity perspective too.
Equity in architecture practices is largely based on who brings in the most business in terms of new client revenue, much of which is linked to networking and relationships that are often cultivated outside office hours at industry events. While women still largely carry the load when it comes to caring responsibilities, it often means that they cannot commit to the same level of out of hours networking as their male counterparts. This doesn’t mean a lesser commitment to the practice but it can still act against women in achieving equity positions, and more broadly in achieving senior leaderships roles. It’s worth noting that social media, unconstrained by gender, time and place, has unleashed a whole new form of networking possibilities; a flexible way to stay informed, engaged and connected.
I’d love to see a skills-based equity model that acknowledges the variety of skills that make a practice great – from driving new business revenue to design excellence and everything in between. That would certainly lead to more diverse senior leadership teams, which I believe would be a huge benefit to practices and to our industry.
Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of so far?
My children have really shaped who I am today, and I’m incredibly proud of that and of them. While that’s not a career moment per se, it has spurred my desire and drive to continue to push myself and achieve career moments that I never would have thought possible. Knowing that I’m setting a good example for my children and showing them what a parent (and a working woman) can achieve when they follow their passion, is something that cannot be underestimated.
On a professional level, I’ve been lucky to have many highlights in my career so far. When I first graduated, I worked in public service in Canberra, which gave me access to an abundance of senior level support and mentoring at such a very early stage in my career – that was a fantastic experience. I also spent a year working full-time on-site, which gave me a really rounded understanding of architecture beyond the drawing board – again, an invaluable experience.
And, of course, my MBA broadened my perspective further and set me up for success in a COO role, with a greater understanding and appreciation of speciality skills.
What advice would you give a young woman embarking on a career in architecture academia or practice today?
There are two key pieces of advice I would provide. One, take risks and push yourself. It goes back to my favourite quote: “do one thing every day that scares you”. You’ll never know what you can achieve if you don’t step out of your comfort zone every so often.
Two, look after your relationships and stay connected with those you admire. No matter where your career takes you, you will cross paths again.
Kathlyn Loseby is President of the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects and Chief Operating Office of Crone Architects. She is presently heading up a group of industry leaders from across key organisations to develop widely informed policy positions and take cooperative action to improve the built environment.
She has a passion for the built environment developed over 30 years of practice in the architectural profession, balanced with a business acumen secured by the principles learnt from an MBA and GAICD. She has appreciated multiple perspectives from experience working for US, UK and Australian businesses. Her key concerns are quality design and a built environment that respects all persons in our community, one that also protects and embraces sustainable business practices. She has experience across various building typologies for design, documentation and site services. These include hotel, apartment, residential, office (commercial), education (child care, primary and secondary), aged care, hospital, industrial and heritage buildings.
- I first heard this in Baz Luhrmann’s Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) song. Whether the quote originated from Eleanor Roosevelt or Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, doesn’t matter. It’s the intent of the quote that matters.↩