CRE Success: The Podcast, S01E07

ROB AIRD, Unispace


business, people, role, podcast, commercial real estate, strategy, spend, industry, workplace, success, strategists, cre, manager, construction, real estate, workspace


Welcome to CRE Success: The Podcast, where we help people working in commercial real estate achieve their professional goals. Check us out online at cresuccess.co/podcast. And now here's your host, Darren Krakowiak.


Darren Krakowiak:

Hello, this is Episode 7…how time flies when you're making podcasts in the midst of a pandemic?! Yes, this podcast is being released in the week when Melbourne has been placed under some very severe lockdown restrictions. Wherever you are listening to CRE Success: The Podcast, I do hope that you are healthy and safe.

Today my guest is Rob Aird, the managing director of Unispace in Asia Pacific. I think today's interview highlights the fact that this is a podcast for everyone who works in commercial real estate, not just people who work in agencies.

Rob joined Unispace, which is a global leader in business and commercial interior design, in 2020 and before that, he spent nearly a decade in various leadership roles at Lendlease, which is of course a leading global construction, property and infrastructure company.

One of the things that Rob and I will be discussing is transferable skills. Rob has worked in other industries such as fast-moving consumer goods, resources and the public sector. So he has good knowledge about how to engineer a career change, which will no doubt be of use if you currently don’t work in commercial real estate, and you'd like to break in, or if you'd like to know how you might be able to utilise your commercial real estate skills in another sector in the future. We'll also talk about leadership success and ambition.  

If you'd like to review any part of today's episode or any of our previous episodes, did you know that we provide transcripts? There is no need to take notes because you can read through our interviews just like you would read through a profile in a magazine, by visiting our website: cresuccess.co/podcast. You can see the transcripts located in the middle of that page, just under the embedded podcast player and episodes.

For now though, don't go anywhere because our interview with Rob Aird of Unispace starts in 30 seconds.





And now it's time for the interview on CRE Success: The Podcast.


Darren Krakowiak:

Rob, welcome to CRE Success: The Podcast.


Rob Aird:

Thank you, Darren, I appreciate your time.


Darren Krakowiak:

Rob, the first thing we do is we ask people at the start of the episode to step into the virtual elevator and to give us their 20 to 30 second introduction, their elevator pitch if you will. So, Rob, who are you?


Rob Aird:

So, I am the Asia Pacific MD of a company called Unispace. We are specialists in the design and construction of workplaces around the world. I'm what they call a generalist manager. I've worked across a lot of different industries. I've worked in lots of different roles. I've worked in lots of different types of companies, and so bring quite a broad experience, as opposed to a deep, deep experience in real estate itself. And, so, I suppose that's been quite handy, given the last month or two as I've moved into a new role, it helps me to deal with what's been a pretty, pretty wild ride with Coronavirus, chewing up two months as my first four months on the job.


But you're not new to real estate because your last position was at Lendlease, correct?


Yes and no. So I spent nine years and then less. In part though, large part I was in the infrastructure side of the business more than the commercial real estate side of the business. So, it was really only last year or two that I crossed more into the commercial real estate. But having said that, I was part of that environment and watched a lot of them as part of that larger organization for that entire time.


Okay, so tell me more about your role at Unispace.


So at Un space, I run the Asia Pacific region, which means Australia, New Zealand and Asia; Australia and New Zealand businesses are quite mature. So heading up, upwards of 150 million revenue growing quite rapidly 20-30% per year, and we do strategy design and construction of workplaces. So for most of the large brand name companies, you'd know out there where we're working across the board, the legal, pharma, industrial energy, etc, etc. I've got quite a large team, we've got a couple of hundred people spread across the region. We have a combination of strategists, designers, construction managers, project managers, estimators, pre contracts, finance, etc, etc. Quite a large sales team as well, to go and find those projects and to bring them in. So really interesting role managing all of those and trying to bring it all together for a outcome for our business needs, obviously, but also for our clients.


And you mentioned strategy and design. And given everything that's going on at the moment with the Coronavirus, people are obviously looking for information about what is the future of work going to look like. So, I can imagine that your strategists, in particular, are in quite high demand.


They are in massive demand at the moment between the strategy team and the marketing team. That's where it all is not much revenue and profit coming off them at the moment, to be perfectly honest, but hopefully laying the seeds for the next 6, 12, 18 months. But yeah, the future of work is, actually, starting with return to work, is a massive focus area, because that's got its own complications. But thinking more ahead to what the future of work is, is quite profound at the moment. So, we're doing a mix of things there actually, Darren, where we're interviewing people. So, our strategy team is split two ways. We've got some doing primary research, talking to C suite executives about what they're currently experiencing and what they're thinking the future holds for them. So that we've got that that raw data We also are talking to a lot of clients advising them on what we think best practice looks like. And yeah, we've been doing a few radio spots, some stuff on CHANNEL SEVEN recently, we've been in the Fin Review, we've been in all sorts of places getting our message out. So it's pretty exciting times actually, for those strategists.


Yeah, previously, if you look at some of the commercial real estate service firms, they weren't a front and center but they never matter.


Yeah, look, I think this is our 15 minutes of fame in some ways we, we have a chance to talk about something that is, it's always been important. It's always been a big strategic investment for our clients. But, you know, it's extremely important at the moment to think about how Coronavirus changes the workplace and how people want their workplace to change the culture and the work methods of their business, which is a pretty important time to be around.


So Rob, I guess it's not just the workplace that's been impacted by Coronavirus in your world, but also your first 100 days on the job, which are critical moments for any senior leader in a new role. How has the last two or three months been different to what you would hope for intended?


So I probably had my first 50 days and then my second 50 days were very, very different. So my, my first 50 days were much like what you'd expect, not a very tactical operational, sort of 50 days, I was lucky that I was coming into a, a successful, well managed business. It was actually a new role I was coming into we've grown a lot. So our that my predecessor is actually now full time as the CEO of the business. So, I essentially came into a newly created role, which means I didn't have to be doing transactional day to day sorts of things because, it's not like anything done before. So I was actually able to kind of inject myself slowly and focus on strategy and relationship building, and all those sorts of things that you need to do to manage an entry well into that sort of environment. So, I spent all my time on that. In Asia actually had to focus a lot more in a strategy build, trying to work out what their market entry was. There was so, lots of sort of higher level things which were all going quite well. And then all of a sudden, over the course of a couple of days, like most people, I think we realized that Coronavirus was a whole lot more serious than what we thought it was back in February, and I straightaway swung into crisis management mode. So, ended up being pretty heavily involved in driving out of global crisis management response for the business. So working out how to get people out of offices working out, you know, cash management, scenario planning, working out what we do with our labor costs, because obviously, in a business like ours, it's essentially entirely a labor cost driven business, and thinking through all sorts of, you know, other safety and quality sorts of issues. So it kind of swung very quickly into that mode. And then over the last few weeks, it's turned more to rethinking what the future is going to look like for our business. So, I think we've got a view of what our pipeline looks like and what our financial forecast looks like now. So, it's pretty much about resetting the cost base of the business to those things, and refocusing our priorities. So, pretty wild ride over the second half of my hundred day plan, I have to say.


But I guess given your, as you described, generalist management background, a lot of that strategy and a lot of that crisis management know how would have been very useful during a period like this.


I think so I think that was a testament to the nine years I spent in Lendlease and some previous roles that I've been able to, if not being involved in things firsthand, I'd certainly been around an awful lot of different business situations. I've been around growth cycles, I've been around turn downs, I've been around crises, I've been around different business models. And so that equipped me fairly well for managing Coronavirus, I think it was a lot more about pattern recognition than it was about having to work everything out from first principles.


So before Lendlease you worked for a diverse range of industries fast moving consumer goods, resources, of course that Lendlease infrastructure and construction. Now you're at Unispace. And I'm curious to know, what do you think the specific traits are that are important to be successful in real estate or more specifically commercial real estate that are perhaps unique to the industry we work in?


Yeah, I've been lucky to work across a lot of different industries, I have always sought out different sorts of roles or sort of different challenges. And I found myself in real estate, somewhat coincidentally, to be perfectly honest. I find, you know, probably 80% of things, much of a muchness across industries, there's always a 20%, that's different. And that's what you have to go and learn. In the case of real estate, I find it's about the complexity of the industry structure. It's about how many stakeholders there are and hence how many contractual relationships there are between them. So, for me, I really struggled early on to understand that contracting environment. It's not something I'd been exposed to before I came to this industry, and it took a long time to learn, you know, things like the accounting structures around construction, but also simply the risk sharing and balancing that and enforcement of contracts, how to manage the interpersonal relationships around those contracts. It was those things I found difficult. So, I think that's what's unique about this industry. And then the probably the second thing also is related to that, it's because there are so many stakeholders, you have to spend quite a bit of time on your network of relationships. Whether that's in order to develop new business opportunities, you need to know who's out there, who's doing what, how to partner with people or who to partner with. And then also as you're working your way through the project, there's a lot of stakeholders to manage to resolve conflict with, to work through issues with, to look for opportunities with, so that networking piece and relationship building is probably more important in this industry than many others.


So how do you level up those skills required? When would you transfer from one industry to another, and there may be people listening who perhaps want to break into commercial real estate but they're currently working in an another sector, what advice can you give them to help them break through and to demonstrate that they can be successful in a in a new sector?



There’s probably two halves to that. So the breakthrough pieces a challenge. So transitioning to a new sector is hard. I think if you look at my career breaks, they look a little bit random in hindsight, they usually mine have certainly been around my change management skills, or my leadership skills and my strategy skills. And, so it's been when someone in the particular industry I've moved into has been looking for something different. It's when they've been looking for someone from outside the sector who brings transferable skills, yes, but a different way of thinking, because they hadn't been able to crack certain problems with the people they found in their industry or in their business. So that's the path I've found into new industries. You know, if I'm talking to a recruiter or to a line manager, and they are looking to tick 12 boxes on the exact criteria for that role, invariably I have not been that person, there's always been someone out there who's got 11 or 12 of those boxes ticked, whereas I've only got half of them. Whereas when someone's looking for something a bit different, be it the recruiter or the line manager, or typically both. That's where I've been of interest. So I'm not sure if that's great advice for some people. That's certainly the path I've found into new industries, including to this one. I came into this quite randomly to run a business that was acquired by Lendlease. And I came in purely as a change manager. And then I found myself in a construction environment and then slowly morphing into the broader LendLease business over a period of years.


I've taken a look at your LinkedIn profile and it does mention a number of pillars such as strategy, M&A, change management, which you've just mentioned, team building, and operations. So, it sounds like a mix of hands on and also high level. What's your favorite thing about being a leader?


It's all of those. So, I thrive on variety. So, I love strategy until it's not being implemented. And then I want to dive down into the detail and help make things happen. I love the detail until I get bored and want to go back to the big picture. I love leading people, but I'm an introvert. So, then I like to hide sometimes as well. So, I find it's actually the variety of the leadership roles that makes me excited. So, you know, today I've been mentoring some people, I've been trying to understand some new technology that we're looking at bringing into our business and how that might change our business model in editing some documentation for some people. And so, I really love the this the sheer variety of all of those things. So, it's very hard for me to slip in there and one of them; if I had a role that was only one of them, I'd be quite unsatisfied. It's very much about that that variety piece for me.


So, what's the most challenging part of leadership for you?


I think I find conflict in the team to be the hardest for me. Often when you go out to hire talent, you can end up with some pretty interesting people and they're all passionate, they're all driven. They all want to achieve things they've all got their particular personality quirks. But collaboration and teamwork is supremely important. Finding the balance between those can be hard. Because you definitely need talent, you need some you need some stars, but you also need the star team. That's where I find most of my, the things that get me stressed, typically is around resolving conflicts between team members that are difficult to resolve, because I value the talent, I value the contribution from individuals, but I also value the cohesive teamwork. And, sometimes those situations resolve fairly quickly. But I've had a few in my career that have been either six or 12 months, sort of mentoring/coaching to get them resolved, and sometimes they've not been resolved. And I've had like some really hard calls on good people. They're the ones I find the most stressful.


So, when it comes to conflict, it sounds like you don't want to avoid it. You want to actually tackle it head on and try to broker a result and resolve it.


I'd like to say that but there's certainly a little bit of conflict avoidance happening in there as well. I think I probably err on the boat on both sides there. I do like to encourage it. There's a couple of little battles going on amongst my team at the moment, which I think are really fruitful. They're actually helping the team and helping you individuals. But yeah, I'm certainly guilty of avoiding conflict at other times as well when it's getting to be too hard.


And how do you find staying above the fray and being independent? Is that difficult?


I think I'm finding it easier as I get into more senior roles. I think in more junior roles, you have to be more hands on you have to be more operational. But that's, that's why you're there. Whereas in more senior roles you can be, you actually have to leave your senior managers to do a lot more of their own thing. You have to leave them to resolve those situations. You have to stay out of the fray, because if the more you come into it, you're just devaluing them and their role. So, in some ways, it's actually easier I'm finding that the more senior I become.


Right, the more senior you become, the more you understand when you should be delegating and when you should not be taking control of situations and letting the team, if you like, resolve them themselves.


I think so. And then the more capable people are of doing it themselves, you know, I do find myself coming down and then realizing, hang on, that person's actually really good. I need to give them that extra week, or whatever it takes to step up into that void. So, you know, I do come too low sometimes, but I'm finding it easier to step up and out, because I think I recognize the talent in my team more than I did when I was a younger manager who thrived on micromanagement, probably like most.


You mentioned there when you were a younger manager. I'm curious to know how do you continue to grow and improve as a leader?


Lots of learning. I, um, especially having jumped across different industries. I've had to spend a lot of time learning. There's a mix of and probably, like everyone, that there's a lot of on the job stuff, I do spend a lot of time asking my people how they do things, and learning how they operate, and looking at different models, talking to competitors, talking to peers, so an awful lot of on the job learning. Then I've also been lucky enough to have a fair bit of professional development, you know, through Lendlease, and through prior employees, so anything from the Company Directors course, to the Securities Institute course to, you know, smaller pieces on innovation or on sales techniques, all those sorts of things. Yeah, just training to keep challenging how I think about things.


And as a leader yourself, how much do you take responsibility for developing your talent as opposed to relying on company resources or external consultants to come in and facilitate that leadership development and growth?


So, I tend to take quite a bit of that on myself in terms of a one on one mentoring relationships. So, I will take the time to talk people through my thinking and how I see things, and understanding where they're up to, and just helping to identify any gaps they've got. And not being critical in that, a gap is a gap, that's fine. Then just talking about how we plug it and that might be through my time, things I can teach them, it might be through connecting them to others who I see as being strong in those areas. So, making sure that we join the dots across the business, to make sure people learn from each other. Or it might be plugging in external courses that suit what they need. So right now I'm doing a big sales training program through the business. So teaching people things like spin training, because that's been a gap across the business, or some train the trainer things around that for some of my senior people. For others, where I'm trying to raise them up to go from being to the middle level managers to being future executives in our business, you know, the people will be succeeding the years to come. It's going off and doing things like the Company Directors course or an MBA to make sure they get that that generalist exposure to business skills. But then I also spend a lot of time giving them opportunities. So for example, getting them to chair meetings or to, you know, to run the monthly management reporting cycle and to be leading the reporting of the hosts or that the presentation of those results, and the discussion around them, to make sure they're getting, in a softer environment, the sort of exposure they need and the sort of accountability, they need to start to step up into those future roles. So yeah, quite a bit of time around that. And again, more so the more senior I get, the more I'm finding, I have to spend more time in that space. And I get value for money from that time, because those people are the ones doing the work. They're the ones who are training to people below them. So the more time I can invest in them, the more they're investing in the business and the people below them.


You mentioned rotating things like chairing meetings. I think that's a really great strategy to see how people take on that responsibility, how seriously they take it and how well they can they can see into that type of role.


Yeah, it's a good way of doing it. So yeah, we've just launched a new weekly operational reporting process. And having some of the junior members of the team actually lead that is great. It gets them to think across the whole business, it gets them to be accountable around numbers, to understand the trends, to understand how we need to trade off certain KPIs at a lower level in order to hit the higher level ones around profitability or customer satisfaction, that you know that nothing's easy. It gets them into all those awkward spaces that that senior managers spend most of their time in. But sometimes at the junior level, you don't get to so much. So, it's been a really good tool so far for our business.


And of course, it also exposes the team to another approach which they may not get if those people aren't given those opportunities.


Correct. Correct.


We're talking about success and I'd like to ask you what you purposefully and routinely focus on that contributes to your own personal success


For me It's about being in a state of flow, for want of a better word. And I don't actually understand all the theory behind that, I kind of know it as a management concept. But when I think about how I operate, I tend to enjoy spending time where I'm happiest and when I'm in the flow, that's what that's what excites me. It's also where I add the most value. So I'll tend to spend more time on the things that excite me and where I'm really getting up into fifth gear, and I'll tend to deprioritize the things that are a bit more boring or mundane and don't excite me so much. There’s downsides that clearly, I'll tend to drop the ball on some of the less important or, or mundane things around day to day operations around BAU. The flipside is, I enjoy those other things a lot more. And so for me, it's better and for the business, I think it's also better because the business is getting me in kind of fifth gear, not first gea,r on a select number of things. So that might be strategy. It might be operational reporting, which has been the last couple of weeks. Might be crisis management. It means I'm in top gear on more things more often, even though I'm probably dropping the ball and some things that sometimes. So yeah, that's kind of how I find my balance. It might also mean that if I'm not really excited about something, I might just disengage for a little while. And I'll go home and go for a walk in the afternoon rather than sit at work and pretend I'm adding value if I'm not, I find it's just better to get away when I'm in first gear and struggling to get out and wait for that moment when something takes me into fifth gear.


Rob, we're nearly out of time. But I think there's one piece of advice which could be helpful to some of our listeners, and that would be to the person who's at the start of their real estate career or relatively early in it, but they're quite ambitious and they aim to reach a senior regional leadership role in the future, such as like the ones that you have held and currently hold. So, what advice would you give that person?


So for me, it's about finding a balance early in your career between delivering results in the day job that you have and expanding your horizons and learning so that you can grow into the role of the future. So by that, I mean, you know, finding a weighting, you know, spending a probably 80% plus of your time really delivering results, because your line manager won't respect you, won’t value, and won't promote you to future roles unless you can demonstrate, you've added value, you've achieved results. That's the first thing that carves you out as someone who's worth looking at for a future role. But then you won't get that future role unless you also demonstrate that you've got a broader value add, that you're curious, that you're a learner, that you understand how things fit together at a higher level or a more broad level. So you've also got to spend that kind of 10 or 20% of your time out there learning, poking around, understanding what happens in other parts of the business or the industry, and broadening your horizons, because that will show a line manager that you can take on a broader role. And the reality is as you move further up into senior roles, they get broader and broader and broader, and more complex, at each level, so you've got to be getting ahead of that before you can go into those roles.


Well Rob, it's been fantastic having you here on the podcast I want to say thank you for sharing some of your experience and your views on leadership, on success, talking about strategy, but also those actionable insights which will really help our listeners achieve their professional goals. Thank you for joining us on CRE Success: The Podcast.


Thanks, Darren. I really appreciate the opportunity.



For more information about our guests visit cresuccess.co/podcast. And now a final thought from Darren Krakowiak.


Darren Krakowiak:

Thanks again to Rob for being with us.

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That's all we've got time for this week thank you as always for listening and I will speak to you soon.



Thanks for listening to CRE Success: The Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, make sure you subscribe to us on your favourite podcast platform and be sure to leave us a five-star review. For more information about the show, just check the show notes on your podcast app or visit us online at cresuccess.co

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