Heidi Smith / Partner / Gray Puksand  / 
Connector

story / Interview / October 5, 2019

Sometimes, I think there are skills that can be taught, but the desire to want to do something, to create something, I think comes from within you. I have no problem with people who get their inspiration from outside of their work. That’s fantastic. I, however, am a career person.

In my first job, I was working on predominantly heritage home extensions. I was in my early twenties. It wasn’t a good time to be in construction because it was the middle of the recession and basically, we ran out of work. John, who I was working for, got his builder’s license and we took on building of one of the extensions we had designed. I ended up demolishing the back off a Victorian terrace house in Coburg. Me, in the oldest jeans I had and my volleys, straddling the roof ridge with a sledgehammer. Ridiculous! But it was actually a really great experience. I think it made me better at my job now. It helped me understand the reality of what I was doing.

I worked with John for eight years, then I decided to move back to my hometown Geelong and I worked for an architectural partnership, designing and documenting education buildings and new homes. After a while, I came back to Melbourne and started at Gray Puksand (GP) where I discovered workspace design. That was sixteen years ago now. GP saw something in me, saw my experience and determination, and looked past the piece of paper. In time, I became the second female project leader in the studio. Then I was the first female Associate, and now I’m the first female Partner. Gray Puksand are very supportive of me, and they reward good work. And for that, I am grateful.

I find it really interesting to reflect on the fact that I work in a male dominated industry. Early days, absolutely – I was the only female in any group. It didn’t really bother me because I didn’t know any different. I don’t have sisters. My Mum’s a ‘70s feminist, I was raised in the ‘80s when ‘girls could do anything.’ And I took that attitude all throughout my life. That’s not to say I don’t recognise challenges that other women have had, or bad behaviour from male colleagues. I’ve experienced that too; I feel maybe I have been lucky that it hasn’t defined my experience as much as it has for others.

I had female colleagues come up to me when I got made Partner and say, ‘Right, what do you do, what’s the structure? Tell me the exact steps I have to go through…’ But I don’t think it’s actually about that! What I did to get where I was going, was the job I had…and I did it well. I didn’t look so much at where I wanted to go, I looked at what I was doing and how could I do that the best I could do it.

I’m reluctant to say it was luck. For me it was hard work and smarts. It’s funny because I’ve never felt that I was strategic. It took me a long time to figure out that not everyone thinks the way I think or works the way I work. To discover that’s not the case, was quite an interesting growth for me and has been part of my growth as a leader.

I do a lot of business development work. Expanding my network. Understanding and building relationships. Quite a few years ago before I became a partner, I had to figure out who I wanted to be. I decided what I really wanted was to be a connector. I wanted to be someone who you’d pick up the phone to and say, ‘I need help with this, do you know somebody?’ And that’s how I built my business relationships.

On the thought leadership side of things, I tried to build my skill set so that I could be a trusted advisor to my clients. What are the latest developments in workplace designs and how is that applicable to my clients? Interpreting trends and really understanding what those elements are and how they can best serve my client’s aspirations. That’s the role I play in projects now. Lots of front end, uncovering real aspirations, real needs. I love it!

I’m probably more inclined towards informal mentoring, but I have also been a member of the Property Council’s mentoring program. I strongly believe the key to success is a proactive mentee. They have to want to work and put the hard yards in. It’s not about the mentor telling the mentee what to do. It’s about helping the mentee uncover what they want. Enthusiasm and proactiveness goes a long way. I’d take those two things over talent any day of the week. Because you can be talented and unmotivated and how is that going to help anybody?

I’m very aware of the challenges other women have faced. I’ve always just taken the attitude that you turn up, do your job well and because I’ve worked at businesses where that merit pillar has been part of their culture, I don’t feel like I’ve been held back. I have a husband who is 100% behind me and he would always say ‘Make sure they recognise you for the work you’re doing.’ He would always build me up. Even though I felt I was not being direct and assertive, I was seen that way and as a result I was perceived as ambitious. I honestly never saw myself that way, but in the end being seen as an assertive female has been a good thing for me.

Outside of work I run marathons. I’ve done New York and Berlin and I’m doing Melbourne this year. It’s quite a fitting parallel to the way I work. Being dedicated, working hard, committing to the goal, the training, the food, the sleep. I get a real kick out of that. As a kid, and a teenager – I was NOT a sports person so it’s actually a surprise that this is what I love. I was encouraged into it by my husband, who said I needed a ‘thing’, so I joined a running club. As soon as I joined the club, I knew I’d be sucked into doing an event. The marathon training has forced me to get balance. To prioritise getting a decent night’s sleep. To get up and do the training and then go about my day. If I didn’t have the thing to train for, I’d probably be less balanced and less motivated in my work.

My mother has fuelled my passion for reading, for cooking and for travel. Exploring life through those mediums and using all those things to nurture your loved ones. That’s a big philosophy in her life and one that’s part of me. My dad on the other hand is the ‘work hard’ philosophy of life. If you said you were going to do the ‘thing’ then you keep going until you do it. But he also never takes life too seriously. There’s nothing better than a Dad joke and nothing better than making fun of yourself. That’s also a big part of who I am, which can sometimes make me feel less ‘designer-y’ and professional, but I think actually makes me better at my job. I’m a healthy dose of both my parents.

 

Heidi is very much the bright spark in a room. She is warm, clever, introspective and happy to have a laugh at anything, including herself. As a member of the TEN network of badass women (we don’t think they mind us calling them that), she is making moves in the industry, to support a network of amazing women, whilst being a badass role model herself. Kind and funny, we very much enjoyed our interview with her over a vino at Punch Lane. Heidi was candid, which as always is a breathe of fresh air and totally endearing for us. We wish Heidi all the best with the rest of 2019 and thank her for being such a super-awesome-legend of the industry!  J&D x

2 thoughts on “Heidi Smith / Partner / Gray Puksand

Nhung Vo   October 7, 2019 at 9:11 am

Very real conversation and straight to the point. Heidi is very her own person, self aware and sure of herself. This interview was very inspiring!

danielle   October 14, 2019 at 4:48 pm

Thank you! Heidi is extremely inspiring!