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The power of design: Callum MacBean

Speaking to a leader like Callum MacBean is invigorating. He’s so passionate about his job at global architecture and design firm Gensler Hong Kong that his enthusiasm has you hanging on every word. His career path has been anything but a straight line, taking him from studying architecture at Scotland’s University of Dundee, to working in London, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Callum MacBean, Principal and Managing Director of Gensler Hong Kong

Callum now has 15 years of experience working in Asia. After years as a Project Manager at Gensler in London, he relocated to Shanghai as Principal and Managing Director. What began as an office of 15 grew into 150 during his eight years there, and the business expanded to include commercial office space, mixed-use, government, and retail and workplace interiors.

Callum moved into his current position, Principal and Managing Director of the company’s newly established Hong Kong office in 2012, which has been growing ever since.

Having all this international experience gives Callum a global approach to understanding different people and cultures, and how communication and business focuses differ across the world. “The drive is essentially the same everywhere,” he says.

“Business is all about people. That’s all the more reason to have a diverse group of people working with you as a leader. You have to understand how to communicate and build a trusted adviser relationship with your teams and clients so that you can deliver the chief business goals.”

Callum believes that to be a quality leader, you must listen to people to understand and appreciate the diversity of talent. His experience has helped shape him into the leader he is today. “I think an international approach allows you not just to see where you are but also where you have been,” he explains.

“This helps me determine the elements and different people in the world the design firm can touch. The larger the perception someone has, the better they can lead, because it always comes down to people. Having a global perspective is essential because that’s the world we live in.”

The culture at Gensler is people-centric. “We invest in our talents, the talents influence our assets and our assets will grow. We truly believe that design will change the world,” Callum says.

Callum MacBean, Principal and Managing Director of Gensler Hong Kong

“We are a collaborative and integrative design firm that embraces diversity. We hire people obsessed with design, which allows us to provide great design solutions. To build and grow a business, you need to hire people who are smarter than you, let them do what they do and get out of the way. When you invest in people, they grow, which in turn helps the business grow.”

“When you invest in people, they grow, which in turn helps the business grow.”

The culture at Gensler is embracive and supportive. Callum says it’s a culture that is pushing the boundaries, and where people’s goals align with the firm’s goals. “We have 48 offices around the world, and it has grown organically because clients ask us to be in certain places,” Callum explains. “That grew into global firms, and we hired people in each that are very talented.”

Every success, however, comes with its challenges, but Callum believes that each challenge brings an opportunity to find a solution. “Every day is a challenge, as it should be,” he says. “Every smart professional learns continually; if you’re not learning every day, you’re not growing. It stretches you.”

The biggest challenge Callum faces personally is achieving balance as a leader. “Prioritising becomes important,” he explains. “The pace of work in a competitive environment is difficult, where you must ensure you are leading, not following. However, if you don’t enjoy it, you shouldn’t be in that position. I think as long as you have achieved balance, you become more successful.”

Another challenge in the design business is that its clients are changing. They prefer more of a global perspective from the firms, and it can be challenging to stay ahead at times. “Their businesses are changing, and we have to adapt to new ways of working and be responsive in a competitive world,” Callum says.

“You must push the boundaries of design to look after clients, and you have to hire the best talent. In a growing business, it is always about the right talent. The talent to compete against other great design firms.”

A family man at heart, Callum sees his family as his greatest accomplishment. Career-wise, he’s proud of growing the Gensler staff in Shanghai and Hong Kong. When it comes to specific projects, he’s particularly fond of the Shanghai Tower, China’s tallest building that reaches 632 metres.

“You must push the boundaries of design to look after clients, and you have to hire the best talent.”

“It’s been a great opportunity over the past 15 years,” he says. “Being involved in the Shanghai Tower project was incredible and has contributed to our firm’s success.”

Callum MacBean, Principal and Managing Director of Gensler Hong Kong

Recently recognised as the top architecture-only firm for the ninth consecutive year on ENR’s 2019 Top 500 Design Firms list, Gensler is working on several exciting new projects.

Despite past successes, Callum hopes that the best achievement of his career is to come. “I’m fortunate to have achieved certain things that couldn’t have been done by myself. I’m proud of what we’ve done, but we have many more projects ahead. It’s an exciting time. We will continue to push the boundaries to be better than the last project.”

Along with Callum and his team, countless business partners have contributed to Gensler’s success. “We work with many great partners, and we try to be equal and balanced,” he says. “Our success reflects on our partner’s success. We believe in a collaborative process. We ensure they do great work and vice versa. It’s like any relationship; it’s about building trust.

“They respond to the trust and put their best efforts towards a project,” he adds. “They believe in the projects as we do, which leads to client satisfaction. Everyone profits because these good relationships deliver the best and most efficient work possible. We move through challenges together and working together leads to being successful.”

The company doesn’t just focus on what it can achieve; Callum says everyone in the firm believes in a corporate and professional responsibility to benefit society. “Our firm focuses on creating a better world through the power of design,” he explains. “When you’re designing buildings, spaces and products, you’re affecting millions of lives every day. We take this responsibility seriously.”

Outside of the work they do, the Gensler team wants to make sure the company helps people in less fortunate positions in various ways. “As a firm, we have a community outreach program that focuses on the environment, health and wellness, housing the homeless, and the next generation,” Callum says. “That ensures that every office around our firm is active in the local community.”

Whether it is homes, school refurbishments or pro bono work, Gensler uses its resources and expertise to help the community. “We do bread runs to get food from stores around Hong Kong to distribute to homeless people,” Callum says. “We are involved with many different charities as part of the community. Moreover, it all requires design somehow.

Callum MacBean, Principal and Managing Director of Gensler Hong Kong

“Whatever the building, such as a home, school or charity, we want to make sure that we can help create a space that benefits someone. It’s not just a corporate responsibility; people in our offices have their agendas to support organisations. It’s personal. Our business is always about attracting people who believe in the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’ approach, which makes us better people and benefits society.”

There are plenty of things Callum loves about his job, but especially the people he works with. For him, it makes a world of difference. “Everywhere you go in the world, it’s about the community of people you’re involved with,” he says. “I love being part of a firm that supports the success of individuals. It’s not hierarchical, it’s a flat structure, which means everyone has a voice and opinion that is valuable.”

“Everywhere you go in the world, it’s about the community of people you’re involved with.”

He also enjoys being part of a collaborative process. “I love being engaged with wonderful people who bring something different to our company and are pushing things we haven’t thought of,” he adds.

Gensler is a global company that is continuously growing. This evolving, fast-paced environment is a draw for Callum. “Our clients are changing,” he explains. “We need to adapt and keep up with the pace of growth. Design is never-ending; it changes all the time, along with technology. We can embrace that and support our clients by offering the right solutions to create experiences for people.”

A people-centric philosophy and challenging environment make Callum enjoy going to work. “I’m proud of the fact that I like coming to work,” he enthuses.

“If you don’t enjoy coming to work, you shouldn’t be in this business because it isn’t your standard 9am to 5pm industry. The challenges push you all the time but create considerable opportunities to be successful. Also, every day is different. The exciting thing is that we can change the world. We work with powerful people and help them invest in their growth. We have wonderful clients who are trying to push their businesses in different directions and trying to come up with solutions to do that.”

Art Gensler is an American architect who founded the firm in 1965 in San Francisco. According to the company, he is “widely credited with elevating the practice of interior design to professional standing”. In the more than 50 years since it was established, Gensler has opened offices in 48 cities in 16 countries around the world.

As of 2017, it generated more than US$1 billion in revenue, more than any other architecture firm in the US. Art wrote a book titled Art’s Principles, which highlights “the essentials of leadership, talent acquisition and operations while outlining the creative strategies that propelled a small business into one of the largest and most admired in its industry”.

Callum MacBean, Principal and Managing Director of Gensler Hong Kong

Callum credits Art as one of his influences in business, because “he changed the dynamic of how people look at design”. “It’s about how you understand your clients’ needs and strategies,” Callum explains.

“To communicate well with clients, you need to speak their ‘language’. As a design business, we need to know where they come from, their motivations, goals and strategies, and discuss their point of view.

“You can’t just engage with someone who is part of what you want to achieve. If you understand, you can help them with the problems they are having and find solutions, which ends up benefiting everyone.”

Callum’s parents and family also have a significant influence on who he is as a leader. “They shaped me into the person I am, which allows me to understand people, respect, chemistry and communication; all qualities that are key in business,” he says.

Cultural awareness has also impacted Callum’s leadership. “It’s important to be aware of the social, legal, economic, political and technological aspects of your client’s business and where they are operating,” he explains. “That can be a geographical location or the company’s situation at that given moment in its life span.

“You must determine whether they are growing, shrinking or changing, and if they have strong leadership. The social, economic and political factors affect everything. Technology is changing all the time, which affects our clients’ businesses. Therefore, as a leader in the office here, I need to understand that to make sure that we’re setting our business up to be successful.”

He jokes about whisky being essential when it comes to a successful strategy, but lands on two genuine plans: a clear vision and the communication of it. “The first thing is, any business leader needs to focus on a clear vision and communicating that vision and the goals of the vision associated with influencing it.”

“Any strategy can be successful as long as you ensure you plan it correctly.”

Callum believes a leader must engage all key stakeholders to ensure their strategy execution will be successful. “This involves an extensive planning process and engaging everyone involved,” he explains. “That buy-in for any region is essential, or it won’t be successful. Identify who those stakeholders are, and ensure they engage with you in the vision process.”

Finally, looking at and understanding the culture of the client’s organisation, and the geographical location of the project, is imperative for success. “Whatever you do, it needs to be done with passion and a clear focus,” Callum asserts.

“If you have that, you must also understand the culture. Also, look for any barriers to success, then get the right people to deliver it successfully to your clients. As long as everyone owns the strategy and supports a clear vision together, it will work. Any strategy can be successful as long as you ensure you plan it correctly.”

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