From retaining employees to diversifying a portfolio, industry leaders dove into the most pressing issues behind running a business today during HD Expo + Conference 2023.
On building team culture during the pandemic
Tien-Yueh Kubach, principal, Lubert-Adler: I moved to Singapore [to lead real estate development for Marina Bay Sands] in November 2019. My husband stayed behind [in Philadelphia] with the girls. My family couldn’t get in, and we were separated for seven months. Work is what kept me going. I had inherited a team of 10, and I had to grow it to 120. We had to find people who were interested in moving to Asia that were also specialists in casinos, stadiums, and hospitality, while also trying to build a team culture remotely through the pandemic. I had to learn how to manage a team differently in a country that is not used to working remote. There was solidarity in the fact that we were all stuck in the same situation. COVID was hard for everybody. Sharing in the compassion and the empathy of what we all went through also helped build a team. We learned to recognize the beauty of work-life balance. It made us think about the future of work, what our employees want, and what we want for our employees.
David Ashen, principal, Saguez & Dash: I was fortunate because we were able to keep my whole team in place through the pandemic. A year later was the mass resignation and trying to recruit people to build a team was rough. But it did give us the opportunity to pinpoint the talent that we needed to fill the gap. It was a good time to rebuild and restructure.
Adriana Marianella, chief development officer, CultureWorks: It was an interesting time for me because I started working at essentially two companies [NeueHouse and Fotografiska] that were emerging from COVID at level zero. I was able to ramp up teams because hotels were closed and people still weren’t employed in the industry. There was this sense of rejuvenation and exuberance of getting people back to work. The biggest challenge with being remote is that people aren’t asking questions. So many of my adventures came through chatting with people over lunch or peeking over my wall to talk to the creative team. That’s how we did our best work. One of the initiatives we’re doing at NeueHouse is to encourage [people] to get their teams together offsite so they’re sharing ideas in a more open environment.
On retaining employees during tumultuous times
Lorena Gaxiola, founding principal, Lorena Gaxiola + Gallies: I invest a lot in my team. Instead of working for me, we work with each other. We also have the ability to pivot. I’ve kept my company under 11 people. My strategy has been to not grow the company too much because then you’re just managing people. My team is very driven. They’re all under 30, and they’re the ones bringing new ideas on what to do with our intellectual property. If I implement their ideas, they feel part of the process.
DA: One of the things that’s important is understanding how to work together more effectively as a team. I try to set paths for growth for people. More recently, I initiated a training program, and that’s been powerful. If you can help people visualize where they want to be and help them get there, then you help build a culture of growth and support.
On the next big growth engine
TYK: Being nimble is incredibly important. On our side of the business, it’s not unknown that the capital markets are crashing right now and money has become more expensive. We quickly shifted into rescue capital because projects are harder to finance. We are able to pivot to do what’s best for the organization. At the end of the day, the projects don’t happen if we’re not providing money.
DA: Diversifying projects has also been important. During the pandemic, I started a thinktank that is now a nonprofit around senior living, which was a new category for us. It’s not about designing the next thing but about improving the lives of people. It’s opened other avenues for us.
AM: We started to bring the club back to life by creating these salons where you can have conversations with people who are leaders in their fields. Our salon membership has blossomed. People are so hungry for community that has real impact in their lives.
On what they’d tell their younger selves
AM: Seek out a mentor. I am so grateful to all the mentors in my life.
DA: Embrace the failures because the only way you grow is through failing. As a young person, I was so terrified of failing that I held myself back and not until I was willing to fail was I able to improve myself.
LG: Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. When you’re young, you don’t want to feel like you don’t know what you’re talking about, but there are so many people willing to help.
TYK: It’s good to meet new people and to learn from different experiences. You’re never too old to build relationships.
On lessons learned
AM: Be patient. The biggest screw up I made was due to impatience and not thinking through a complex situation. My first project with André Balazs was on the Chiltern Firehouse in London. We were interviewing a Michelin-starred chef, and the development team was all over me about locking down the pro forma. I asked the chef how many covers he anticipated doing, and he looked at me and said, ‘I’m not making a McDonald’s. I quit.’ I lost the chef on what we all know now as an iconic hotel because I was too impatient to think through what was happening.
LG: Whenever I add too much emotion into my decision-making, I tend to make a mistake. I need to follow my instinct and move on.
TYK: Many of us are inherently perfectionists. We have to make sure that doesn’t debilitate the process, because as a developer, we have to keep things moving. It’s a very delicate balance to make sure everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to do in the way it needs to be done.
DA: The biggest mistakes I’ve made are when I’ve lost confidence in myself. I made choices that didn’t benefit me, my company, or my client in the way it should have because I didn’t have enough faith in myself. You need to own your successes as much as your failures.