Franziska Locher Program Manager RMIT University  / 
Seize the Opportunity

story / Interview / June 27, 2016

I finished studying architecture in Germany at a time when the economy wasn’t doing well and finding employment was difficult. We knew that when we finished University most of us would be unemployed. However, I was lucky in that my sister, (she’s a lawyer), worked with construction law and through her connections I was able to start working within in a medium sized Engineering and Architectural Consultancy firm.

Architecture work was drying up in Germany, the writing was on the wall and two and half years later I was retrenched. As I had always planned to go and work overseas this was the perfect opportunity to do so. Australia sounded like a nice place so I packed my bag and came to Sydney, because obviously Melbourne doesn’t exist when you come from Europe. It was just after the Olympic games and again there wasn’t much architectural work going around.

I finally found some short term work with two guys coming out of university and setting up their office. This was my introduction to working in my profession in a different country with different regulations, environment and requirements. I had to learn quickly. This employment concluded after a few months and I made my way to Melbourne to try my luck. This was the best decision, I found employment with an established architectural firm where I stayed for the next ten years, working on fantastic public building projects.

I’m working in a Program Manager role at RMIT at the moment. Fifty percent of the role is occupied by people management. You manage the consultant team; the project manager and the internal services team. But you also have to manage up within Property Service and the University, which is challenging at times.  Additionally, you have to be across all aspects of the projects at high level. You do a thousand things and ‘keep the plates spinning’ without getting lost in the detail.

People management is really hard and I don’t necessarily think that it’s my best skill. I think there are very few people who are truly good at people management. A lot of people are required to manage staff. The more senior a role is, the more people management is involved. However, I don’t believe this always comes naturally to people and it’s a skill that may need to be acquired. People management somehow doesn’t seem to be embedded in our University courses, although it is so important and makes up such a large portion of people’s daily work.

The way I think I conduct business is probably fairly direct and outcome driven. I get a lot of comments that I am very organised and in control. Not necessarily the way I see myself, but one probably sees and judges oneself quite differently to the way people actually see and experience you.

I know exactly what I want, and if I don’t, I ask, or come to a decision quickly. I think that most consultants and builders would say that in that way it’s quite easy working with me. However, I am very demanding and have high expectations of the team and the builder and it’s hard for me to accept an average try. If people don’t give their best and try the easy way out, that’s very hard for me to stomach.

The best advice I’ve ever received was to always employ people that are smarter than yourself. Even when engaging a consultant team, I always want to be surrounded by people who know better than me. That gives me the opportunity to learn, but also to lean on them.

Universities are quite hierarchical, but somehow also have a flat structure. That flat structure makes it quite a political environment and drives an inclusive stakeholder approach during the project development’s early stages. There are strong opinions within the University and rightly so, as the projects we deliver directly impact on core business of the University;  research, learning and teaching and the student experience. It’s very important to understand the politics and stakeholders, because if you manage this engagement well, you are able to progress projects in a linear way. This is where we as Program Managers play the biggest role, ensuring stakeholders needs are met within the Governance structure of the University and the Consultant team and Contractors can progress their work uninterrupted.

Project management is such an organisational job. What we do suits the skill-set of women. Organising, doing ten things at the same time, that’s what women are really good at. What’s difficult in the industry, is the next step up in the hierarchy. It is still quite a strong boys club, but changes are happening and women are being recognised!

I think there’s still that fear that a female joining a male dominated workplace upsets the dynamic. And maybe we do? But maybe it’s more changing than upsetting? There appears to be a bit of apprehension, especially in work social life, where the guys get invited and the ladies not so much. That’s where gender imbalance is most visible to me.

I’ve never planned much ahead. I’m more the person that when opportunity knocks and something comes together, it can be a new start. Who would have thought I’d stay in Australia. I came here for a year…now it’s fifteen years later.

My father always told me, not to always say ‘no’ (and he added, ‘Because you’ll never get a husband.’) I still do it. Kevin (my boss) says ‘You always disagree!’… Or maybe I just have an opinion?

 

There are no two ways about it. Franziska is direct. But spend some time with her and you’ll appreciate she bounces between being funny, wise and real. She gives surprisingly honest answers to questions of self evaluation and imparts a sense of candid reflection. It’s refreshing to see a women who does not compromise on high expectations. She’s a force not to be reckoned with. Justine can vouch that working alongside Franziska was an absolute pleasure. She is a strong role model for all women. Go out there and seize every opportunity. It’s the only way you grow. We thank her for being a great supporter of the Gazella tribe. We must catch up soon Franziska! Love Gazella x 

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