As Adonis and Heseltine have shown, a vital element of leadership is a refusal to toe the line – in our industry, we need such champions for change 

There are two people I will miss from my working life this year. Both have taught me much about what makes a good leader. Both gave up something they loved, and were supremely good at, because they refused to toe the line. And both chaired commissions on which I still sit: Lord Adonis, at the National Infrastructure Commission, and Lord Heseltine, at the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission. 

As leaders, they had the qualities you would expect from two people with such distinguished political careers: vision, integrity and passion, to name a few. But it was their identical mischievous twinkle in the eye that I found so intriguing. It reminded me of that “look” my teenage daughters would give me in defiance of what they often saw as some silly grown-up rule being imposed on them. Far from making me cross, such attitudes would (secretly) fill me with delight. There is nothing more powerful than those willing to question the norm, especially when the norm leads to mediocrity or to an outcome that is the lowest common denominator. 

So I count myself as lucky that in the past year I have worked alongside two people who have managed to hold onto a remarkable level of energy and vitality in a world where pessimism and cynicism are rife. That they did so with humility I found strangely at odds with two such (justifiably) large egos, but both went out of their way to encourage, include and support me. 

There is nothing more powerful than those willing to question the norm, especially when the norm leads to an outcome that is the lowest common denominator

When compiling the Cambridge/Milton Keynes/Oxford report, Lord Adonis had no qualms about commissioning an architect-led housing study and subsequent design competition. And when I suggested to Lord Heseltine in a meeting that we should hold a charrette, he first exclaimed: “Sadie, what on earth is a ‘charrette’?” But once explained, he thought this suggestion of an intensive, dedicated workshop to address the issue such a good idea that he stopped the meeting then and there in order to “get on with it”. 

I found this direct approach by both of them completely liberating, especially now I have had first-hand experience of how slow anything connected to bureaucratic government process can be. And I learned that it is much easier to “get stuff done” when you command the respect of your team and have a deep understanding of your subject, coupled with the ability to persuade and articulate your argument. It sounds simple, but it’s no small task. 

According to a survey of 655 construction industry professionals by the Chartered Institute of Building, the three most important qualities of leadership are communication, strategic vision and understanding. Integrity and decisiveness closely follow. As we come into 2018, we will need more people with these qualities in positions of influence, not fewer. But it is telling, as we look to our leaders, that the vast majority – including the two whose loss I have been writing about here – are men. 

For the short term the majority of those champions will be male. It will be up to them to make every effort to encourage, empower and enable women

It is well known that companies perform better when they have at least one female executive on the board, and in an era when productivity levels are falling and economies trade within globalised markets, a more diverse perspective can only be a good thing. Women are often considered better at communicating, more empathetic and better at multi-tasking than their male counterparts – yet the lack of women in high-profile leadership roles, especially within the construction industry, is pitiful. 

Women make up just 12% of the industry and 16% of its senior roles. Great initiatives such as that of the Construction Leadership Council aim to help change this, but with only two women on the 13-strong council, the challenges are clear. I remember as far back as 2010, the chief operating officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, giving a TED talk about why there are not more woman in leadership positions. One of the pieces of advice she offered was to “sit at the table”. But in order to sit at the table – in other words, to get your voice heard – you need first to be invited. 

It is up to us all to make a positive contribution to change in 2018, but it will be the leaders of our industry who will have to guide the way and become champions of change. Which means for the short term the majority of those champions will be male. It will be up to them to make every effort to encourage, empower and enable women to have a greater part in our industry. 

My daughters – now young women themselves – are almost two generations apart from Lords Adonis and Heseltine, but share with them an unmistakable spiritedness and wonderful optimism. I can only hope that they too are lucky enough to benefit from the support of two similarly extraordinary people. Perhaps by the time they are my age, their mentors will both be women. Here’s hoping. 

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