Keith Griffiths is chairman of the global board of Aedas, the world’s second largest architectural firm, and also chairs the company’s Middle East and Asia business. He studied architecture at St John’s College, Cambridge University in the UK. He has spent more than 25 years of his professional career in Hong Kong.
Griffiths has led the development of many prestigious projects around the world, including designing the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link in West Kowloon, the Elements Mall in Kowloon and the 350,000 square foot retail and residential development of the Landmark Mall in Chonqing.
In his own office, Griffiths brings the concept of learning on the job to life with a highly fluid and innovative training style designed to empower his staff. He talks to Liana Cafolla.
What is the most difficult aspect of your job, and how do you deal with it? The most enjoyable aspect is design. The most difficult aspect is people. If the staff are comfortable and happy, then their delivery – their product – is good.
The building process is an incredibly expensive and complex process over a period of years. The amount of money being spent is huge. The opportunities for loss of trust are massive, and the most important thing we have to do as professionals is maintain that high level of trust that the clients have in us, and the confidence of our teams that they can deliver. So these are the difficult areas – maintaining this balance and high level of professionalism and service which means keeping staff happy and trained and invigorated.
How would you describe your leadership style? We’re a people company. That’s all we’re about. We don’t have any value except our intellectual value. So it’s really important that the standard is set for the company and that it’s a consistent standard. And it’s really important that people coming in feel that the company cares.
How do you motivate your staff? We give ownership to local people, very importantly. They have shares, and they share the profits of the company. And we encourage them to take more shares. And we encourage them to open other offices. We say well, anywhere you want to go and open an office, we’ll support you. We [also] have a very clear structure, which is a professional structure. What key quality or qualities do you look for in the people you hire?
I look for people to be good communicators, upfront, direct and honest, and very competent at what they do. And if they’re young people straight in from university, that they show the aptitude to be either a good designer or a good detailer – either a good maker, or a good conceptualiser. We’re incredibly picky about who we take on. We’re only taking on the top 10 per cent of the market, so there is a very competitive environment in this office, in the nicest way.
Can you describe your office environment? We have to have an open plan office. There are no fixed geographical desks. The amount of desk you get changes from day to day, and your desk position will change at least once a year. The team will be located in a relatively arbitrary place, somewhere around a director. What does that do? Well, that means that his knowledge is not just moved from team to team, it’s actually physically moving around the office as well. And that’s really important.
Can you describe your training process? I have team leaders who have 15 years experience, and below them, three or four deputies who have five to 10 years experience, and below them you have architects with less than five years experience and so on and so forth.
A typical team might be 20 to 30 people structured in that way. Our teams are very flexible. They are built around a project. They only exist as long as the project exists. All these people come together and they create that product.
Well, guess what? By creating that product, they all improve. They all increase their level of professionalism and their expertise, so they’ve all now notched up a grade. By migrating to the next series of projects, they take that increased expertise and move it on into the next project, and so on and so forth. What happens then is that people have a clear career path, a clear training path. They can see the process going on all around them. We carry a huge amount of expertise into a job, but we also learn. So that’s our training process.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a leader? Communication, communication, the biggest thing is communication. How to communicate effectively and well, and precisely and consistently. Consistency is so important. I don’ think I‘m the greatest communicator in the world, and that’s something I’ve had to focus on very hard. I’m a good communicator about my designs. It’s easy to communicate something you have enthusiasm for. It’s less easy to communicate about the more humdrum aspects, though they may not be humdrum to someone else. I suppose what I try to do is to see the advantage in everything, no matter what there is. In the 2008 collapse, [I thought] there must be something good, and yes, there [were] people out on the street to be hired.
How would you describe yourself? I think people think I am way over the top as an optimist. I’ve always been an intuitive optimist, one of the most dangerous varieties. And intuition’s good if you’re leading a company, and you need to have other steady hands to pull you back occasionally. So one of the most important things about being a leader is to have a team, to trust the team, to build a good team.
Just like everyone at Aedas, Griffiths shares a desk in an open-plan office
He is director of the Asian Youth Orchestra and the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong
He believes an old Welsh saying: he who would be a leader must be a bridge