Wondering how construction's big cheeses got their jobs – and how you can follow in their footsteps? Ian Robertson, chief executive of Wilson Bowden, tells us his recipe to making it as a major player in the housebuilding industry
I spent 20 years in the food and drink industry before moving into housebuilding.

You don't need to have 20 years' experience of the construction industry to be a successful executive – the industry can always benefit from an infusion of experience from outside. Every industry needs a balance of experience and a fresh viewpoint.

Coming in from outside means you can ask why people are doing something in a certain way, why it is better that way. You can learn a lot yourself but also you can bring new ways of doing things into the company because you'll have a fresh perspective. Challenging why we do things and being able to learn from it is what it's all about.

Number cruncher
To succeed as a housebuilding executive you need to have a balance of three core areas – financial knowledge, surveying experience and land buying experience. People at the top of our company's regional operations tend to come from one of these backgrounds. You can obviously benefit from taking courses to boost these areas. If you don't already, you should make sure you have an understanding of how finance works, and also strategic management.

If it's not one of your strengths, people management skills are important and increasingly so as you move up within the business and you rely on people to deliver for you. These are all courses worth looking at.

You're also looking for flexibility, being able to move with the times and even be ahead of the times. You need an entrepreneurial spirit, being able to balance risk and reward and see when you need to cross the boundaries or head in a new direction. These are the kinds of issues that someone considering entering the executive level needs to consider.

Get out and about
You've got to be willing to go out and see what others are doing, you can't just lock yourself away in your own company box.

I'd say to someone wanting to move up the ladder that they should get involved in industry working groups that let you see what's going on outside your own company and see new ideas and approaches – you're not going to get all that from inside your own company. Look at other companies' websites and accounts and see what you can learn about their approach from that. Go and see other people's sites and talk to suppliers if you're in a position to do so – they can tell you a lot about what your competitors are doing. You need to focus on building an intelligence network, rather than just trying to do your current job better. Raise your head over the parapet and see what's going on.

Know your product
A construction executive needs to understand the basics of the industry processes. An accountant doesn't have to be able to go out and build a house, but he does have to know enough to look at a scheme and spot when something's going wrong.

In my previous industry, the raw material was already there freely available to be bought – but in housebuilding the key material, land, isn't there so you've got to have an understanding of the process of getting hold of it, getting value out of it and adding value to it.

Be interested in all aspects
I've been very lucky that as I trained as an accountant I can poke my nose into everything – because money is in everything in a business. This is the case in all industries and it gives me the ability to stick my nose into every aspect of the business and hold my own. You get involved in someone else's job, you can ask all sorts of silly questions, and really get into the details of problems and feel you're involved across the board. If you're going to be successful at this level of business you've got to have a real interest in all aspects of the business, not just your specialism.

Having the respect of other people and good communication with them is key, so people will talk to you and be confident you know enough about their jobs to appreciate what they do.

  • Ian Robertson joined Wilson Bowden as finance director in 1994 after 20 years in the food and drink industry. He was appointed deputy group chief executive in February 2001 and became group chief executive in March 2003.

    Ian is also the president-elect of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland for the year 2004/5.