The team of partners behind Collective Works LLP talk leadership, challenges, and future plans.
What is it the company does?
Collective Works is an architecture and design studio working predominantly in London and Oslo with a focus on residential and hospitality design projects. The studio is led by three partners with extensive experience at international practices who take a leading role in each of our projects.
Describe your role in no more than 100 words:
Alasdair Ben Dixon: My project work at CW is mostly in our hospitality, cultural & branding sectors which involves plenty of public facing design work that I enjoy. Alongside that I head up our Strategy, Marketing and Responsibility departments which means keeping up with the trends, opportunities and threats within the busy London market whilst ensuring we're completing innovative research projects, pro-bono projects and continuing to do our share of charitable giving.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
We all started out via working in large practices with international acclaim. Khuzema, who hails from New Jersey, was previously with Grimshaw Architects as well as RSH + P. Originally from Norway, Siri started her career working on tight sites in Japan and later gained experience on large scale infrastructure, housing and competition projects at Foster + Partners as well as RSH+P in London. She has seen a variety of small timber residential projects through to completion and her attention to liveable spaces and innovative use of joinery are a hallmark of her influence on projects. Alasdair started his career working on large projects at Morphosis and Grimshaw Architects and is also Trustee of Architecture for Humanity UK.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
Siri Zanelli: I have worked under some absolutely brilliant architects over the years, unfortunately being a great designer is sometimes the opposite of being a great leader. The great leaders that I have worked with are the ones that see potential, are not afraid of letting go and allowing team members to grow with increased responsibility. I also admire an ability to see the big picture, and new possibilities when things have gone wrong and new direction is needed.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
Khuzema Hussain: My position isn’t particularly unique: I’m a qualified architect who is a Partner in a company. And I suspect my biggest challenge thus far is also not singular: trusting the people around me.
We are five years in and my two other business partners and I are working alongside each other better than we ever have. Collectively we are addressing project challenges and business targets while maintaining our vision for the company. At the same time, we have a great network of co-workers who help us design amazing spaces and well-built buildings.
Becoming more trusting has led to my contribution within this smoothly-running system.
A business partnership is in many ways tantamount to a personal relationship. And although my colleagues and I had all known each other before starting the business, within the context of running a company, we were not only inexperienced but our relationships untested. In hindsight, I am surprised at myself for how long it took me to trust in their capacities and strengths. I first had to recognise my own weaknesses which perhaps itself took some time. And then I had to admit those openly and trust that this deep knowledge about me might result in a closer bond with the people around me.
It has taken the patience of the people around me, many difficult conversations, and some management coaching to help me become more trusting. The challenges ahead, are by some measures larger mountains than what we have already faced, but working collectively and trusting in each other lets us surmount them with ease.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
Alasdair Ben Dixon: Nowadays I find the best thing for alleviating stress is Ashtanga Yoga or running a couple of laps around Victoria Park.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Siri Zanelli: Hah, I wish I could say astronaut but I think it was hairdresser. Thinking of it I believe hairdressers have one of the highest job satisfaction rates, but architects the lowest, so I should probably learn something from my early aspirations. I guess it is about creativity, following a project from start to completion, and client satisfaction.
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
An untidy kitchen really gets under my skin.
If I’m in early enough, the energy and potential of a new day motivates me to tidy it up. I’ll put away the pile of washed dishes. Maybe dust off the counter and restock the paper towels and coffee. If I’m in a bit later, or simply grumpy, I will do my best to ignore it.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
Alasdair Ben Dixon: We're excited to continue growing our portfolio of great Housing, Cultural & Hospitality projects whilst also doing exciting Branding & Community projects that fit our profile. As well the UK we've got exciting projects in Norway, Sydney & Latvia on the cards so won't rule out opening an overseas office in the next 5 years! To deliver all this work we'll need to invest more in our team, so we look forward to offering our co-workers more responsibility and day to day benefits whilst still allowing them the flexibility they enjoy.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
Siri Zanelli: Being a talented and successful professional, whatever your profession is, does not make you a great leader. Learn about your strengths and your weaknesses, and team up with people who are great at what you are bad at. That way you can focus on your strengths, which obviously is more fun and will get you much further than struggling with what you are bad at.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
Khuzema Hussain: This is an easy one: I wish someone had told me that I had no idea what it meant to run a business!
To be fair, I might not have listened. I am a qualified architect - as are both of my other business partners - which required almost a decade of university education and specialist training. Along the way, we even had to learn about practice management. Nevertheless it was folly to think that I was equipped to manage a business.
Fortunately, once I realised that a company needed to be designed analogous to how a building might, that helped dramatically. My business partners and I formed a team to collaborate on the ‘project’; we researched precedents and started to learn about the systems that build a company i.e. vision, positioning, marketing plan, cash flow. My architectural training didn’t put me in a better position than any other entrepreneur, but it was the way that my eyes opened to all that I didn’t know about the implications of running a business.
There is certainly something to be said about diving headfirst into the deep. The pressure to sink or swim can be a great motivator. I had already decided to take the plunge into having a design studio of my own. But if someone had told me that swimming isn’t exactly like walking, I might have floundered a lot less that I did.
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