As soon as I graduated from school I went straight to the UK and worked for Turner and Townsend for about a year. And it was kind of from there that I thought it might be good to actually have a degree. My family are South African, I’ve grown up in a very strict household. I don’t know how much you know about South African parents, but they have very high expectations. There’s really no time for play, put it that way. But it has really suited my personality, so hasn’t affected me negatively. But that’s why when I graduated it wasn’t going to Greece to have a good time…
So I did that for a year. It was possibly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was 17. Looking back, I was so young and naive to deal with how challenging it really was.
I came back and went to Uni and straight into work for a tier 3 builder. I’ve been in the industry for 15 years. Which has always been a bit weird because my experience doesn’t really correlate with my age. That in itself can be really tough, and it was definitely challenging coming up through the industry and explaining to people at the age of 23 I already had 5 years industry experience.
I come from a family that is very strong minded and I just decided very early on in my career that I was never going to make my gender a thing. That’s not about not speaking out, because, absolutely, if you feel uncomfortable you should speak out, but I just set out to earn the respect of my peers based on what I do, the skills that I bring to a project, not the fact that I’m a woman. It was just a decision I made early on and it’s worked for me.
I feel like you learn a lot from the really awkward, uncomfortable moments in your life. These are the moments where you grow the most. Thinking back on my first job returning from the UK, I learnt so much from my boss back then that there are moments even today, where I repeat what he said to me 14 years ago. But he was also quite a bit of an arsehole, and whilst I didn’t quite know how to deal with that back then, I am grateful for what I learnt from him. You’ve got to take the positive out of every experience, otherwise your left with a period of time where you have no growth.
What do I do now? I work for Lendlease User Experience. We are a strategic business unit within Lendlease Building who specialise in fitout and refurbishment within the broader Lendlease team. I lead and am part of the project management and design management team. We are currently a team of 6 in Victoria. All women, which I must admit, I’m really enjoying – working with such a strong group of women around me.
I actually met my husband at Lendlease. I was working for Lendlease in Queensland when they decided to send me to Melbourne for training. He was my trainer for the week! It wasn’t until months later we started dating long distance for over a year. Eventually someone had to make the move, which I did. He did offer, which was very sweet of him, but Melbourne’s clearly the better place. Maybe not the last eighteen months though!
I get to work on a lot of complex projects. Projects that really need us to focus on relationships. Because that is really where we have found our industry is moving to. You really need someone in there who cares about the relationships and cares about the outcome as opposed to just filling out a particular role. This industry is so small. That whole ‘don’t burn your bridges’ thing, could not be truer.
I feel proud to be a female because I think we have a unique ability to analyse a situation, digest it, understand what’s happening, and then manage that situation by pushing the appropriate outcome. It also comes down to our ability to self-criticise. We possibly do this a little too much, maybe to the point where we do lose confidence. But it makes us so unique and I think it’s a reflection of why I do have an all-female team. Funnily enough most of the self-development conversations I have with my team are never about ‘what do you think you can do better?’ because when you sit there, that’s the first thing they tell you – what they are shit at. And it’s like, no! Let’s actually talk about the things you are good at, because the things you aren’t good at, you already know. As long as you are aware of the things you find more challenging, it’s up to you to choose whether or not you want change or improve on that.
The last few years have been really tough for me. The last few projects I’ve worked on have been challenging projects. I’ve felt like I’ve come into tough environments where my role has been to steer the project in a positive direction. This has meant that I’ve gotten very good at listening and appreciating everyone’s point of view. This is really my hot tip for all those coming up in our industry – listen more than you can speak.
So, for me in the immediate future, I’m really looking forward to going on parental leave. I never thought I’d say that because it does scare me. I’m so fearful of becoming irrelevant during the time that I’m off work. Work has been a huge part of what has defined me. I think what it has made me realise is that I’ve been living a slightly unbalance life and that there has to be more that defines me than just work. So that’s what I’m really looking forward to, taking some time to enjoy what will be a new challenge and then coming back with a fresh outlook on what the next 5 years look like for me. I love working for Lendlease and I love my team, so I don’t see myself going anywhere anytime soon. I’m supported by such an amazing group of people and even though I probably shouldn’t say this, I also love working with my husband – I know that sounds so cliche. We’re a really strong team. Actually, we’re having a boy. My husband is Italian and I’m South African, so it’s going to be a half Italian, half South African, Leo (August baby), boy. What’s he going to be?! Either going to be mental or the opposite, but knowing us, his going to be a handful.
Number one advice would be to be respectful. I have learned you can get so far in this industry, just by being respectful. Not just to your peers – which should go without saying – but actually to people who have been in the industry longer than we have. Whilst they may not do things the way we think they should be done, they’ve been around longer and you if you just listen, you’ll learn an incredible amount from them.
And listen. Still today, I can sometimes struggle to listen more than I speak. Especially when I’m angry. That’s when the real South African Laurissa comes out. Listen more than you speak.
Be personable. I’m not saying be friends with everyone but be human for goodness sake. If you don’t relate to someone on a personal level, at least understand where they are coming from.
My last one is, and I think women are amazing at this, that whole ‘there’s no I in team’ thing, right? If I look back at my career and what I have achieved, I realise it’s more than I thought. But I could not have done it without my team. Be a team player. Be respectful. Listen. And you’ll get a long way.
I don’t like getting sentimental, but reflecting on the last 15 years, what I will tell my kid is to be a sponge – in every aspect of your life. This means personally, with your friends, at work, and with your teachers. Be an absolute sponge and just absorb every piece of information your given and take it in, but, don’t just respond. Take the time to decide what your view is. Because we can be molded to think and be a certain way, that I think it’s actually hard to have is actually your own opinion. And not be opinionated for the sake of it. I do not like overly opinionated people. Just be a sponge and take from life what you want. Knowledge is power at the end of the day.
That ‘industry is small’ adage holds true here. All of us connected in a way through past projects and companies. We sat down with Laurissa a cold May night before Lockdown 4.0 kicked in, at the 405 Bourke St office, where Danielle and Laurissa are currently working on the NAB fitout. We knew Laurissa would be perfect for an interview, with her years of experience and her direct approach. A strong leader and a strong relationship builder, Laurissa holds her own and shows age and wisdom aren’t always correlated. We wish Laurissa all the best for her next chapter and also look forward to what the future brings for her. J, D & R xx