In the second part of this interview, the current Global Chair of Aurecon and strategic advisor to Ashurst lawyers – explains to Peter Wilkinson and Liam Cox how he, working with CEO William Cox, turned around Aurecon and its fractious.
Click here to view part 1.
When you were at Aurecon, you had offices in 27 countries, over 7,500 staff. How do you bring everyone on the journey with you?
It was a firm that did incredibly good engineering work but was created at the merger of three firms, and it had not got together. So, there was a lot of friction, and I had to break that down. Anybody that’s worked with me will tell you that I’m an over-communicator. I communicate a lot because I really do believe I’ve got to find a way of getting the messages unfiltered to people.
In my early days at Deloitte, voicemail was still commonly used, and the Deloitte system was such that I could dial in a code and I could speak to the whole firm, or I could speak to just the partners. Every second week, I would have a quick phone call, a two or three-minute message to everybody in the firm, talking to them about the one or two things that I’m really proud of, that was working, and something that’s concerning me. When there was some really bad news, I was very honest, they heard the bad news from me.
These messages were never scripted by the PR department. Now you would have worked out that English is a second language, and people very quickly pick up if it’s not my English if it’s somebody else’s, and then there’s no credibility. By the time I got to Aurecon, voicemail had died out, and I was travelling around a lot because I felt I had to get in front of people to talk to them about the change I want to make, but you can only get to see people once or twice a year.
Even then I almost killed myself flying around, but every time I would get in the plane, I would write a chatty email to everybody. I will tell them where I’m flying to, what I’m expecting to see, and what I’m focused on. No more than two or three paragraphs, and perhaps a link to a video I’ve seen, or link to an article, to help people be informed about what I’m up to and what I stand for. Although every email was written in a different mood, always on a plane, there was always a joke because it started off by saying, “I’m on a plane going.”
There’s two points off the back of that, that I want to raise with you, Peter. It’s something you speak to CEOs a lot about. One is authenticity, and the second is strong and honest conversations, which don’t happen at a lot of workplaces but need to happen if you want real change and effective communication.
Yeah. The authenticity, certainly, you’ve just heard that, but the strong and honest conversation is the difficult one because it’s not just talking down to people but listening upwards as well. So, a strong and honest conversation is understand first, then be understood. Often, it’s the understanding that is the difficult part.
Particularly… sounds as though Giam struck this… if you’re moving from country to country or from office to office, every office has a different culture. So Giam would be walking into a different culture every time he visits a new office, with the same message, but working out how to communicate it. Am I right Giam, in saying that?
Yes, you’re quite right. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a product called Yammer. Yammer is an internal chat group. In both organisations, I used Yammer extensively, but what I did in Aurecon is when I went onto these roadshows, I went out and said, “I’m going to visit these offices. What should I be talking about?” There would be a conversation with me and in view of everybody, on what people think they should be talking about, and what other people think that the Vietnam office should know about. That shaped how I could move into that office.
So, the staff would be, in part, involved in this conversation?
Anybody could because the important thing of Yammer is it has no title, and it just has your name. I had a lot of debate around our strategies, the way we handled our branding, in public for everybody to see. You had exec members debating first-year graduates with different viewpoints, and everybody knew it was okay, as long as your voice tone was fine.
How long did it take and where did you land, with Aurecon?
The turnaround happened really, really quickly, and we did some good stuff. We, very early in my time there, won an award for the best piece of engineering in the country. Now, that piece of engineering, the key design would have been done long before anybody had heard my name, and it was a wonderful piece of work. Then 10 days later, the Diversity Council of Australia voted us the most inclusive organisation in the country.
We made a big thing of the fact that… see, and again, yeah, I did a lot of good stuff about diversity and inclusion, but I inherited a leader in Australia that was passionate. So, we had the basis, we just communicated in a different manner. When we combined these two awards, we actually created an ad that said, “We have these two awards, coincidence not.” That gave our people so much confidence to say, “You know what, we’re actually doing something interesting now, and we have a different way of talking to our clients, to our competitors, and to our own people.”
So, the difference between you and the previous CEO was really what, a matter of just changing the way you communicated?
I didn’t really know him, but I think he was very focused on the size of the organisation, so the merger was important to him. I had a greater focus on how do you actually collaborate and remove the competitive walls? Because it was a long-drawn-out merger negotiation and a lot of bad blood. If you negotiate the merger for two years and you put in all sorts of constraints, you don’t end up a happy family.
You needed somebody from outside that could look at all of this and go, “Folks, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t part of that fight. The results are showing that we’re not performing well financially, engineering shows we’re doing unbelievable work for clients. Let’s just get a culture that people can enjoy it, where there’s energy and where we fight the outside and not each other.”
Yeah. Once again, Liam, what you need there is you need a very strong leader, or as Giam would say, a leadership team. You need absolute support from the board. Then you need a very clear definition of what the problem is and a very clear definition of what the solution is and how you’re going to get there. You need rewards along the way so that people can see, “Oh, this is actually working, and I can see my role in this new game.” You’ve got to move people on if they don’t fit, the stick-in-the-mud people have to go.
Giam, I love what you’re saying about transparency between everybody in the company and the leader, and your ability to over-communicate, so everybody knows they’re on the same page. A fascinating insight into how you built culture from the ground up at billion-dollar companies. Giam, thank you so much for your time. Very much appreciated.
Okay. That’s a pleasure.
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