With projects and offices across the planet, Foster + Partners is a truly global enterprise that deals with an equally global talent pool. As HR lead ers who are intimately involved with attracting, developing, retaining, and transitioning Foster’s talent pool, Charlotte Sword (Partner, Head of Human Resources) and Laggi Diamandi (Associate Partner, Learning and Development Manager) have a unique perspective on the global talent picture. DesignIntelligence recently spoke to Charlotte and Laggi about the state of global talent and how the firm is responding to change. This is Part 1 of the interview.

DesignIntelligence (DI): One of the most common talent issues firms face is the multi-generational workplace. What generational dynamics are you experiencing, and what are you doing in response?

Charlotte Sword (CS): The feedback we’re getting from our partners now is that young architects and young professional engineers coming in want more communication. They want it immediately, and they want it enabled by technology. Laggi has been working on some projects in learning and performance development, how we enable that through our mobile technology and how we use our learning management systems to make access to knowledge and feedback more immediate. That’s a journey that we’re on at the moment.

Laggi Diamandi (LD): We try not to discriminate between generations, but the reality is that we do have generational differences within the organization. So, a lot of the things that we offer through learning are available in many, many guises. That means that I use a plethora of methods to reach different colleagues: face-to-face, online, mobile gamification, badges, you name it. We’re doing it for everyone, because I don’t want to say to younger staff that a course is available online, and to the older colleagues that they can only attend face-to-face training. We are actively promoting all aspects of learning.

CS: We’ve been doing mentoring for a while, but now we’re looking at doing reverse mentoring, which has gone down incredibly well. So instead of senior people mentoring youngsters in the business, some of our senior partners have taken a very sort of pragmatic view, and said, “I don’t understand (everything) I’m having to deliver for my clients. What I need is a young person (who can help me understand new approaches to challenges).” So, we’re now teaming up partners with junior architects or junior engineers. (The partners) stop to challenge their own way of thinking, which I think is really interesting.

DI: Is your approach to mentoring formal, or is it largely informal?

LD: It’s a bit of both, actually. We have three types. We have the formal program in which a mentee applies for a mentor: we do a matching process, there is a formal application, there is contractual agreement between mentor and mentee, and then they go off and do their thing.

We have another mentoring program that is engineering and architecture specific. Engineers are required to have mentors as part of their qualification for chartered membership—as does an architect—in the UK. When they are completing their final qualification to become a registered architect in the UK, they must have a mentor sign off something called a PEDR, or Professional Experience and Development Record.

Finally, we have the informal mentoring approach. Although we don’t know how much goes on informally, we certainly have very experienced and high-level individuals within the organization who naturally assume the roles of mentors. Let’s take Lord Foster as an example. I think he is a mentor for many, many people.

CS: It might be through (events like) the CPDs (Continuous Professional Development) and announcing all the mentors, all the mentees, where we enable people to start to connect. We found that sometimes people will want a mentor for a specific reason, and we didn’t want to over-formalize those conversations; we wanted to enable them. So, we try to create as many contact events as we possibly can. Now, whether those are through using WebEx technology, with our CPDs we enable (participants) to actually see them in real time as well as record them, so people can pick them up and watch them on the train on the way home or listen in their cars.

DI: Are you offering training to help experienced people to become better mentors?

CS: Yes. On the formal program, they need to go through some training so that they can really understand what they need to be doing individually, and what those key requirements are. That’s for some of the statutory sign-off (the mentors) are doing. They are also given self-awareness training and some psychometric (testing) so that they know themselves, they know what they’re good at and they know how to communicate.

So, it is interesting how we capture the mentoring and the knowledge sharing and the formal training, and I think this is where Laggi has been instrumental since he’s joined the organization, in bringing that blended learning approach that uses a medium that best suits the individual.

DI: How would you describe the culture at Foster + Partners?

CS: As we say in London, we’re on a campus. It’s a university, and it’s continuous learning. People have a voice, and we start every project with a blank sheet of paper. We try to understand the problems that people need to solve, and we help them do that by giving them options.

The culture is one where we question ourselves a lot, and then we do something, and then we do it again, and then we do it again, and then we do it again. That’s what makes us different. We are constantly reviewing and innovating and changing and improving. That comes down from Lord Foster. He’s always striving for something new and innovative; something that is really and tangibly going to make humanity and life better.

Foster + Partners is very much an end-to-end design practice— whether it be from the interiors, the furniture, the door handles, the toilets. Whatever that might be, we will go through the whole piece. And that makes life very, very interesting.

DI: How is it to perform a business function like HR within such a design-driven organization?

CS: One of the things that this practice really pushes back on me, which is difficult being in the HR role, is not being corporate. We don’t want it to be corporate. But, how do you have those policies and consistencies of practice without being too corporate? It’s a challenge.

DI: It’s an excellent question. How do you balance it?

CS: We have the laws and the processes that we have, but how do we take those from being policy documents to making them more principles-based? How do we provide people with guidance, and then how do we communicate it (effectively)?

Everybody gets policies and processes, sticks them on the Internet, and nobody ever looks at them unless they have a problem. Without having all of those different laws in all the different geographies that people operate in, that makes it even bigger. So, what we’re trying to do is [communicate our] principled best practices and what we stand for. That’s our first phase, when we’re dealing with all of our people, no matter where they are.

Also, that comes out from some of the fundamental principles that we have in the UK, where we’re signed up to things like badges and the London living wage. We don’t do minimum wage; we want to do something that enables people to live and feel comfortable. Then they can obviously start really thinking about the work at hand.

(Helping people focus on their work) goes through to how we approach sending people on international assignments, and the support that we give them around global mobility. We need those individuals to be focused on projects, and not worried about issues like: Am I going to get my child into a school? Where am I going live? How do I get to the supermarket? How can I open a bank account? Those are the things that distract, and actually make those assignments fail. Since I’ve been here in the last four and half years, we have not had a failed assignment.

DI: Certainly, something you are doing is working well.

LD: I think so. The way I see it, one of the main reasons that we’re not corporate is because we’re not segregated from the rest of the business. This is very relevant, because we are down on the shop floor with our brothers and sisters, feeling the pain, dealing with the issues, coming up with solutions. And, immersing ourselves as—I suppose—proper business partners. I think the business has embraced that. Because we’re not in a room, quoting policies, printing them, then sending people off. We’re immersed in the business fully, and we have a very, very good understanding of the business, its objectives, its vision, and the KPI (key performance indicators).

CS: Part of the vision, here, is to turn (HR) into an enabling function. How can we enable the business to do what they need to do, and enable our people to achieve what the business needs to achieve?

If we are setting up for projects overseas and time allows, then we’ll pull the (project) team together, and we’ll do exercises to try to get them gelled together very quickly. We’re pulling together high-performing teams, and we can help take down some of the barriers. We also do things like cultural awareness training for people when they’re going overseas so they are sensitive to their surroundings.

DI: How else does HR integrate with the rest of the firm?

CS: (One way is that we serve) on boards. We’re on the overseas licensing management board, and I’m on the management board. We know what the business is doing. We get an indication of where we think the next location will be, and we start planning with the business ahead of that.

Learning and development have also been very good in terms of understanding the bidding process and what the marketing team and the bidding team will need. Also, we have become more refined in [the cost models] when we’re moving people around. We can really help our colleagues understand that [component] when they’re putting their cost projections forward.

So, I think for us, it was about how you become more immersed within the business and make it truly commercially focused. One of the [most rewarding] moments for me is when we get some of the partners or the senior partners saying, “I’ve got a big bid going, can someone from your team come along and explain this, because this will help us win x.” And that’s pretty good, when you get HR to that stage, when you’re invited into specific business and client meetings.

DI: Even in very sophisticated firms there can be a bit of tension between the designers and the business-oriented functions of the business. How have you been able to escape that?

CS: I don’t know whether we’ve escaped it, and I actually think the conflict is quite healthy, as long as it’s constructive. We each challenge the other pretty well. I wouldn’t say we always get our way with how we want things to be within the business, and I don’t think they do either. But I think we’re quite mindful that this is an architecture and design-led business, and we need to enable that business to do what it needs to do. However, if we feel that something isn’t right, then we call it out. And vice versa. It’s part of that culture of being open to [constructive questioning], and then debating and challenging that.

DI: Charlotte, what is the primary difference between doing your type of work in the architecture and design industry versus other industries you’ve served?

CS: I worked for Vodafone, the big telecom company, which was very forward thinking in its HR practices, and then went into financial services, banking and insurance. Now banking and insurance are very much based on the bottom line. Whereas professional services and in architecture [remind me of] the R&D-type models, where you’re more mindful that you need to keep the innovation and the creativity and the debate and the conversation alive.


Part 2 of the interview with Charlotte Sword and Laggi Diamandi will be posted on Thursday, 8.2.18.



Charlotte Sword is partner, global head of HR for Foster + Partners.
Laggi Diamandi is associate partner, learning and development manager for Foster + Partners.


Photo by Coline Beulin on Unsplash.