19 OCT 2020


The wider infrastructure industry has a great deal of work to do in cultivating the next generation of leadership, and needs to start now, says Rob Jones of Arup.

With so much focus dedicated to responding to the pandemic it’s easy to overlook what was already a comprehensive list of challenges faced by leaders working in transport, infrastructure and construction.

Transforming organisations to enable the benefits of digital technologies, improving health, safety and well-being, embedding innovation into organisations, maximising the opportunities of off-site manufacture, driving a fundamental shift to more sustainable delivery of even more sustainable outcomes, developing a truly diverse and inclusive workforce, supporting development of the vocational skills that can deliver world-class infrastructure and transport systems… the list goes on. 

The scale of challenge upon us presents a clear need for sustained and capable leadership. Despite this, there seems little evidence of a leadership surfeit and efforts to address that appear transient. So, where are all these leaders going to come from?

Buy or develop leadership?

There are only two ways to find leaders – grow your own or buy them from others. But what guarantees that leaders hired from elsewhere are going to be better than those you already have? 

You don’t have to look too hard in infrastructure and transport to understand that ultimately there’s a relatively defined pool of people distributed amongst a number of organisations (from operators and clients, to contractors and consultants) moving around from one company to the next. And in an industry that’s already starting with a major skills deficit and lack of diversity, how sustainable is this?

Review a number of industry initiatives published over the last 20 years - all reference the need for change and most reference the need to improve skills and capabilities; but none recognise a systemic need to improve the way we develop leaders or that without sufficient leadership enabling all the other changes referenced above will be significantly harder.

Leadership shouldn’t be a matter of luck.

If we can agree that there aren’t enough leaders to go around and that the need for leadership is imperative, how are we going to develop them? In the debate ‘are leaders born or made?’, the ‘made’ side won the battle some time ago, but it could be argued that those made are, in fact, made largely by accident. And if our failure to create a more diverse industry is an accepted truth – then the accidents aren’t producing the right blend of leaders.

Having been fortunate enough to talk to many people about their formative career experiences, there seem to be a number of recurrent themes: they worked for a great leader they are seeking to emulate. They worked for a leader who failed to engage and encourage them, and they are seeking to do the opposite. There was a significant intervention from a person/people more senior which in turn guided their career direction and decisions. A boss took a risk on stretching them. Accelerating their professional development became an imperative only by chance when a business or training opportunity arose. It’s often this personal and particular.

Good examples can be found, but far too often the structures that systemise and support professional development are considered discretionary, or the drivers of organisational success underestimate the value of leadership. This is largely due to the fact that the value is delivered over time and is often difficult to measure and attribute. 

Plainly, this is not a sustainable way to develop leaders and our industry can’t rely on happenstance if it’s to successfully navigate the complexities and uncertainties ahead. There needs to be a systemic change to the way we develop leaders.

Improving leadership, industry-wide.

This is not a single organisation problem – it’s an industry-wide issue; just as much as the challenges and opportunities of all the changes listed above don’t just point to single employers, government departments, government clients, owners, operators, contractors, consultants or other parts of the value chain.

In order to improve the quality and quantity of great leadership we firstly need a shared recognition of the need for leadership that can drive the changes we say we need. It will also mean making a significant and committed investment, and a systematic, pan-sector effort.

Bringing an end to the cycle of underinvestment will ultimately benefit the interconnected worlds of transport, infrastructure and construction, which is be good for business in the long-term. 

But there is another, more important imperative. The role we play in shaping and operating the built environment for millions of people. This alone should necessitate the investment and collaboration that’s needed to develop excellent leaders, who can deliver the change we say we need for the wider benefit of society and the planet.

Rob Jones is director, people and organisations, at Arup.


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