Sarah Horsfield Director Urbis  / 
Determined to Change the Story

story / Interview / November 15, 2015

It was in Year Nine Geography that I first knew I wanted to be a town planner. We were asked to design the layout of a new town and something clicked inside and I just knew I had found what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’m now 22 years into my career as a town planner, and  it excites me just as much now as it did then. I joined Urbis 13 years ago, and just like that moment in Year 9 Geography, I just knew from day 1 that I had found the place that I wanted build the rest of my career.

I am always commented about as someone who is always focused and driven. I have a strong work ethic that was instilled in me as a child, watching my dad who worked really hard and taught me that success comes to those who work hard and aren’t prepared to accept failure. And it doesn’t often feel like hard work when you love what you are doing. I feel incredibly lucky that I have found a career that am passionate about and gives me purpose.

Most women don’t back themselves, which is something I have been guilty of for much of my career.  I am naturally introverted, so I have had to really work at being more assertive and  learning to speak up for what I believe in. I have watched many women hold themselves back by their own fears about not having the skills to do something or not being as good as others. Its taken me a long time but I have learnt, particularly as my career has matured, that being afraid of failure will almost guarantee that you never find success. I have learnt that I need to just have the courage to jump in with both feet, despite often having no idea how to get to the other side, because more often than not my male counterparts don’t either.

My principle role is leading clients on projects. I’m a Director within the Melbourne Planning Team at Urbis, and I’m involved in a wonderful range of projects, from greenfield residential projects on Melbourne’s fringe, to central city towers to major urban renewal projects. I often feel my job is not unlike that of a salesperson – operating as the person at the front of the room, helping to communicate an idea or a project in a way that is persuasive and compelling to government or decision makers. The strategic positioning of a project at is the part of the job that I love best. Finding ways to shape a project and turn it into a compelling proposition for government, council or the community, is a challenge that I relish.

I love strategising around project tactics too. How do we pitch the project? Which stakeholders do we talk to first, and in what order? I have learnt that planning is as much as about politics and strategy as it is about good urban outcomes. To get successful outcomes for clients, you cant just be a good technician, you have to understand the political landscape and how to manage the egos within it.

A huge part of our value as a business is our ability to lead clients through what has become an increasingly complex planning system. Knowing how to be persuasive and influential with stakeholders, and having the maturity and experience to know how to navigate a project to the finish line, faster than others. And often, helping clients see when they need to make concessions to get a better quality of design outcome or better result.

About three years ago, a staff survey within Urbis revealed very different perceptions between men and women in around the path they saw to building a long term career in the business. Our Managing Director and Board saw this gap between male and female perceptions as an incredibly important issue, not just around gender diversity, but as an issue for the future growth of our business and retention of our best talent. They took immediate steps to establish a Diversity Board (lead by the MD) and populated it with men and women from across the business, who set out to come up with a plan to change the experience for women in our business.

The Diversity Board reviewed all of the fundamentals that influenced career paths for women in the business – our policies around flexible work, returning from maternity leave, and promotion to senior leadership. The MD and Board set a target that by 2019, 40% of our directors would be female. We did a whole lot of research about how other companies have enabled and supported the progression of women into senior roles, but found there is no silver bullet. It takes a whole package of tools and approaches, most of which are dependent on cultural change being driven from the top.  We know that to get to our target for 2019 will be a massive stretch, and that we need to act with far more direct intervention if we are to even come close.

A major sponsorship program for women in the business is now being developed. High potential women will have the opportunity to be more directly supported by dedicated sponsors, internal leaders and external coaches. We are now in the process of getting it underway.

Diversity needs to be embedded in culture. At Urbis this is lead from the top by our Managing Director, and its wonderful to see this culture of diversity now becoming more entrenched across the partnership. Many of our male partners are now leading the charge on this issue. Five years ago, we knew we needed to change things if we were going to stop the departure of talented women who couldn’t see how they could map a future with the business. The business is determined to change that story.  As a senior leader in the business, I am incredibly passionate about seeing this change process continue and become deeply entrenched in our culture into the future.

My father always told me not to hide my light under a bushel. He encouraged me to believe in myself and my strengths, to take risks and jump in without fearing failure. And if I did fail, he was always adamant that I should just pick myself up and keep on trying. That is something that has stayed with me and has been a great guide in my life and career.

Horsfield greeted us in her office foyer with a strong professional handshake. Don’t let her petite stature fool you, this woman knows how to hold her own. She listened intently as we explained our vision and intention for the Gazella project. Initially cautious, as we probed her with questions, she began to reveal how incredibly passionate she was about working at Urbis. Admitting to being incredibly fortunate throughout her career, it would be fair to say her pathway formed organically however not through lack of hard work and dedication. Now at her next crossroad, any minute now she’ll be expecting the arrival of her first child. We couldn’t be more excited for her. We wish you all the best, for you and the little bub!

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