On 1 February this year, I walked out of the office from executive life and into sunny retirement. After 1460 days at the helm of Aurecon, I am now starting Day 1 of life’s next adventure. Am I looking forward to it? Absolutely. Will I not know what to do with myself? Most probably. But one thing I know for certain: I’ll sip my first coffee in the morning and linger on the veranda, and delight in immense gratitude for these past four years and all the many things I’ve learnt.
With the season of giving behind us, I reflect on some of the truer, more lasting gifts I’ve been given – the kind that you just keep unwrapping. So, what have over 7500 employees, a fair share of challenges, and a million good moments at Aurecon, given me?
The gift of limitation
When I stepped into my role four years ago, I had to answer a recurring question: what business does an accountant have in leading a bunch of engineers? It was a very fair question, and one I had to ask myself many times over.
I could speak the common language of capital and cash flow, but the language of bridge building was outside my vocabulary. It was as if I’d been trained my whole life to be a tennis pro, and someone walked into the room and handed me a golf club. Luckily, this is a lesson I learnt early in my career; there are some things I can do very well, and others I shouldn’t even try to do. My job would be to find talent who are able to, and then help them to do it even better.
When you work on your strengths instead of focusing on what you aren’t particularly good at, something extremely powerful takes place . You learn the true art of collaboration. You start listening and inquiring, and observing what needs changing. You develop a sense for possibilities. And then you hone – you chisel away, you excavate and you dare to be audacious and you put the right leaders in place.
You move things forward disproportionately, because you focus on finding masterfully skilled people and you are empowering them to do what they truly love. You play to their strengths, make peace with your weaknesses, and champion the collective contributions towards a collective win. And then you appreciate, all the more, how overcoming limitations has allowed us to move beyond the power of one, setting a snowball effect of inspiration into motion.
The gift of problems
And then there’s the issue of problem solving.
As an auditor, it’s imperative to be skeptical. The job of the auditor is to dig out discrepancies and look for the gaps that could engulf an organisation’s momentum. Problems present roadblocks and need to be removed. But engineers, on the other hand, see problems through an entirely different lens, where the problem becomes a springboard to solutions.
Often, inside the problem is the DNA for breakthrough innovation : it simply needs to be unscrambled and reassigned to unlock the answer. Once the thinking behind the solution becomes logical to an engineer, the aim is to improve it, rather than to break it down.
This requires a courageous culture, but the result is that highly creative solutions are formed out of the cracks. Obviously, problems are enshrouded in the unknown, and mistakes have been made along the way. But aspiring to get it right 100% of the time will most likely derail your chances for real competitive advantage, because mistakes inform better solutions .
And, as a culture of ‘falling forward fast’ has been nurtured, the unknown has not been seen as a handicap but a breeding ground for true innovation. Some of our most rewarding moments came out of mind-stumping scenarios, where we were able to ‘crowdsource’ the design process and see what came back in the form of new solutions.
For example, the roof design of a prominent building in the Middle East was a conundrum solved, after throwing the problem out to the Aurecon community worldwide and gaining nine workable designs in six weeks. The outcome was a completely transformative and original design.
The gift of complexity
Aurecon has allowed me to ask the question, ‘why?’ Why do we do the things we do, and what problems do we really want to solve? It’s the single most important word embedding our activities, because it’s the only word big enough to incorporate the complexity of a global digital world in shift.
Moving beyond the traditional ‘fix it’ approach has meant a complete step change in how we engage with our clients. Now, rather than sitting back and receiving known problems to solve, we are going out to find problems that clients don’t even know they have.
The deep complexity of accelerating change has demanded a broader definition of design and an attitude that can, as Ben Hamley puts it: “love uncertainty, and lean in on the chaos”. It has paved the way for our Design Academy and design thinking as a way of Aurecon life – an altogether different way of future building that embraces human skills, talent and ability as its cornerstones. I’ve loved the journey, of seeing contributions unlocked and silos overturned in a collective design experience that has bred beautiful optimism and bright talent to shape our future world.
So, as a way of saying thank you, what would be my gift back to the greater Aurecon community? I think a simple encouragement to say, keep doing what you do. Keep steady on your tiptoes, peeking into the future and pulling it towards you.
According to Indra Nooyi: “the more we can break the rules, the better off we’re going to be.” Be radical in your research and deliberations; don’t fear risk. And keep telling yourself and others the success stories that inspire more transformative and meaningful design. Together, they form a narrative which I’ve decided to entitle ‘Aurecon: the privilege was all mine’.
– Giam Swiegers