Rulla Haifa / Senior Project Manager / TMX  / 
Work Experience Girl

story / Interview / May 5, 2022

I’m pretty sure, I was six years old when Rialto had just been finished and the observation deck had just opened. My mum took me to the city, to the observation deck and we went up and I saw the city of Melbourne spread out in front of me and I think that was the first time I fell in love with the built form. I wanted to build awesome buildings.

I got to my first day of year seven and whilst driving me to high school mum asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be an architect. She said to me, and this is a cultural response, ‘but that’s a man’s job’. I went through year seven to twelve so confused about what I wanted to do with my life. I can be fairly stubborn, so in the end, I made a decision that I wanted to be an architect. I didn’t make it. I missed out by one point. I did one year of a bachelor of engineering but the creativity and design aspect was just not there for me. I still wanted to go back to the built form. Something was pulling me in that direction. I ended up transferring into the double degree of architecture and construction management at Deakin. I completed the architecture degree, transitioned into the construction part and it was almost immediate. I didn’t want to be an architect anymore. I wanted to be a project manager.

I have ten years in hotel delivery, dealing with really complex stakeholder and governance structures and live environments, eventually ending up at TMX where I have been for the last five years. However, Covid hit and the hotel projects were terminated. TMX is primarily industrial focused and project management skills are pretty transferable across the sectors. TMX saw that and transferred me across to the industrial side of the business. I’m super blessed to be working on some of the largest distribution centres in Australia. The technology is at the leading edge. I’m just loving industrial. I’m not sure if I’d ever go back to hotels!

My first mentor was my first project manager. She was always the one I spoke to regularly if I couldn’t find the right person to turn to. We had a great friendship as well. Unfortunately we don’t actually speak anymore. You know, these things happen. I think that’s what I’ve learned through the course of my career. People will disappoint you or not live up to your expectations, but that’s okay because it leaves space for somebody else to surprise you. It was a big loss to me when we stopped communicating, but the people that stepped in were the people that I least expected. It’s so true when people say ‘one door closes another door opens’.

I’m very grateful for all the things I did learn from her. I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for the foundation that she helped me build in the early years of my career. Sponsorship is so important. What people say about you when you’re not in the room.

I felt like I was always treated, early on, like the ‘Work Experience Girl’. There was one time when I was leading a project and at site meetings with the builders I felt like I just wasn’t being acknowledged in the meetings. I thought it was because they thought I was the Work Experience Girl…so why would we speak to her? Once, I went up to the builder’s project manager and said ‘What’s the problem, why are you not engaging with me? I’m the project lead and the project won’t work if we can’t communicate.’ I could tell by his face he was flat out in shock with what I was saying to him. He said, ‘I had no idea how you felt or that I was doing that.’ That led to a couple things…

Firstly, I realised that a lot of it was in my own head and I needed to change my mentality and bring my game to the table. I did and I have every day since. It’s improved how I engage with my stakeholders significantly. I’m definitely more assertive. I try not to be that alpha female and act with aggression – there is a way to do it that is still respectful. The builders after that actively changed their tune in how they went about engaging with me and it was genuine.

Secondly, if I hadn’t brought it up it probably would have spiralled. That is why it’s important as females to also take some responsibility. If you’re not happy about something – speak up in a respectful way. You should be able to work things out. I’m not discounting that some women have really bad experiences, but I do think a lot of it comes down to your attitude and reaction in a situation as well.

Construction is quite male dominated, but industrial even more so. We’re actually doing a lot of work at TMX to try and make an impact and bring in female talent. Our leadership team has just asked me to lead an initiative in the company called ‘Stronger Together’. We want more women in the industry, but men need to be on board for that too. If we battle as individual genders it’s not going to work. The two main purposes are to retain, educate and empower our existing females in the business. Secondly to attract more females into the industrial sector and into the industry as a whole. That’s from senior levels, through cross sector pollination and from university and high school level. We’re doing lots to actively change it, including a Podcast series I’m hosting called ‘Daring to Lead.’

Something that I do tell the students that I speak to is to try and focus on their softer skills and exposing that in their CVs and cover letters. Our jobs are more about people skills, yes our jobs are technical but you’re going to learn that on the job anyway. Learning how to establish relationships and keep them, manage expectations with your stakeholders, and communicate in a way that is fair and reasonable – that is really important. Don’t downplay any experience that you have. Even working in retail is an experience that is customer facing – talk about that in your CV. You’re a student, we don’t expect you to have worked on site. If you have – even better, play that up. I wish people had told me this.

I was super shy. If I was on the phone with my mum I would turn purple. I was also super stubborn and strong-willed. I knew I wasn’t going to make it in this industry if I didn’t overcome that. While I was studying at university I went and got a job at the old school local gym on reception, which forced me to speak to guys all the time. It changed my life to overcome my shyness and build my confidence.

I’m Lebanese. My parents are pretty young, old school but progressive in their own way. Growing up my Dad always used to say to me ‘you finish school first, you get a good job, and then you think about getting married’. And that’s probably why I’m 33 and still single. It was always about building myself up so I could be independent if I had to. My parents are my biggest fans. They still think I’m an architect when they speak to people and boast about what I’m doing.

My house is a jungle. I love plants. I love my dog. I have a German Shepherd called Bruce, named after Batman. We spend lots of time with in nature. I live 5 minutes from the beach so I’m pretty lucky. Being on the beach helps me switch off. Naturally, I love travelling and hiking. I’ve seen so many beautiful parts of the world, from mountain tops to the desert. And my nieces and my nephew. They are everything to me. I set up a disco for them at home on Saturday – do you want to see a photo!

(Rulla kindly lent us the photo she showed us of said disco! see below!)

They are awesome. Having fun with them – they make me feel like a kid again.

 

We spoke with Rulla via Zoom, in or around, a COVID lockdown. Rulla is a strong and passionate leader. Authentic with what she has learnt on her journey and focusing her significant energy on advocating for better representation and equality of women in the industrial sector. We had a blast with her honest and witty self in our chat. And can’t wait to see what Rulla brings to the table at TMX and beyond. Mad fans, J & D x

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