After studying interior design and mental health at university, London-based Polly Burn took her first steps into the construction industry. She talks to us about how a passion for connecting with people led to setting up a business-development consultancy, and her wish for the industry to continue to focus on mental health.
How did you end up sitting where you are today?
How much time do you have? Where I am today wasn't intended, and it wasn't your average approach.
I studied Interior Design and Mental Health studies whilst at university in Leeds, and I always found my drive and passions came via creativity and through supporting people to get to where they need to go.
It wasn't until my early 30's that I started to realise that I had a natural flair to connect with people. I find people genuinely interesting, and I enjoy connecting; I find I can learn so much listening to other people's stories.
People are my passion.
It made sense to head out on my own and felt like a natural progression, so I just jumped in. The decision was made in November 2017 and, two months later, I set up Polly Burn Consulting and was up and running with my first client.
What gets you excited about your industry?
The people and the abundance of creativity and skills that we have within this field are what gets me excited.
Before I ventured out on my own, I found with most of my previous jobs, the real driver for me was starting from scratch, being able to be creative with my approach.
People say "you don't have to reinvent the wheel", yet I find that one of the most enjoyable parts of my career and I can get quite laser-focused on making those ideas come to life. It's what keeps me busy and fulfilled. This is why I have a variation of clients on contracts of different lengths - some from three months, others I have worked with for up to two years.
Business development skills are transferable, and I can adapt to new clients with ease. The variation keeps it fun!
Construction and Real Estate, in particular, are two of the biggest earners for the UK and to be a small cog within this vast arena makes me feel so proud. To know that I am making a difference to support companies and individuals gives me a great sense of satisfaction.
What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?
It was from my aunt, who is a now-retired Dr of Biology at Manchester University. She taught me always to keep learning and to be curious. She made me realise that a closed-door is just a diversion, and the path to success isn't going to be in a straight line.
Failures will happen along the way, they are merely part of the process, and I must learn to embrace them.
What, or who inspires you?
I love architecture; it truly fascinates me to hear about new projects taking shape and understand how those projects are going to be built. I just become in awe of it all.
The built environment, particularly here in London, is a forever changing landscape, full of fresh ideas and inspiration. These splendid buildings are created by some of the greatest thinkers, designers, engineers and architects in the world, and I get to meet them! I feel the utmost gratitude for being a part of the process.
To think that Christopher Wren had a vision of St Paul's Cathedral and went on to create one of the most iconic buildings in the world - isn't that just magnificent?!
How can you not be impressed by Architecture?
How do you keep up to speed with what's happening in the industry?
I don't think one can really know it all, it is a vast subject, and the information and trends change regularly. But what I have managed to do is check-in daily with the news and keep in touch with connections.
Being surrounded by the right connections that share the same values and interests helps because it deepens the topic and means the subject of construction forms the majority of the daily conversations I have. The industry over the years has become ingrained in my DNA.
What was the most challenging project or assignment you've worked on?
At the start of my career in London, when I was new to the industry and worked for a demolition company, part of my role was to find good weather days to arrange aerial photographs for the redevelopment for a famous building on Leicester Square. It was for a four-sided facade retention scheme, and if you google those very words, it will be one of the first images shown.
I had to coordinate all staff on-site, check all PPE was in place (bearing in mind this was a live and dangerous demolition site) find a good weather day, arrange the helicopter for the aerial photography and the magazine company to be on site. It was thoroughly enjoyable, yet it was tense, what with the time constraints.
For anyone new to the industry, I found that working with a demolition company was one of the best ways to be thrown into the middle of the construction world. I gained so much industry knowledge and learned how much of an integral part demolition plays in the process of a build. I found it the best place to understand the market place and what projects were planned within the City of London for the next five years. Most of the projects have since been built, yet some are still coming out of the ground. Like anything in this industry, it took a bit longer than five years for those projects to materialise, but it is worth the wait!
If you could start your life again, what would you do differently?
I would have listened to my intuition more and studied economics.
I have just entered into the fourth decade of my life, and only now am I starting to really believe in myself. I think starting a business has accelerated that belief, and it certainly has helped me to mature and appreciate how difficult it is to run a business. I have to take accountability for every action and decision, and it can be tough at times.
As for the economics, it would have complemented the creative side of the business quite nicely and given the company more of an edge.
You finish work today and step outside the office to find a lottery ticket that ends up winning $10 million. What would you do?
I'm going to find the perfect location and open a wellness retreat. Covid has highlighted how fragile people are, and I am a huge advocate of mental wellness and philanthropy. I want to do something with what I know and create a safe place full of expertise and care.
For the past 24 years, I've been on a mental wellness journey. I don't agree with having just a mental health awareness day, and I feel it should be a standard everyday practice. I am pleased to see that the industry is starting to recognise this more and to incorporate mental health representatives in the workplace, but that's just the start. Mental health requires lifelong learning, and the wellness "toolbox" can vary from person to person.
We should all be more human in our workplaces and learn to be kind.
How do you switch off after a day at work?
I tend to practice Yin yoga, meditation and partake in some cardio exercise, a few times a week.
Stretching is incredibly important for releasing pent up tension and stress. I think it's one of those things where you don't realise how much impact it has until you've tried it. I highly recommend Yin yoga - I think it doesn't get enough recognition!
I also recently found QiGong which is great for being present and focusing the mind.
Finally, I like to get out into nature; it's a good place to go and reset, and without the downtime, I tend to lose my creative edge.
If you had one wish for the future of your industry, what would it be?
To pay more attention to mental wellness in the workplace, be more flexible, and open-minded, and appreciate that everyone has different needs.
We all know that Covid has accelerated the digital age, and it does have an impact on our wellbeing. Therefore it is paramount that we share knowledge and intelligence on the subject.
Life is short, and we must learn to support one another and look out for the signs when a peer or industry friend is in need. Take stock and care for one another.
How should people connect with you?