Linda Walmsley is a professional interviewer and business owner of UK executive and management recruitment firm, Walmsley Wilkinson Associates. During 2021 she continues a series of interviews with Business Leaders who have innovated within their field of expertise and have warranted the description of being an inspiring leader.
Colin Wood is Chief Executive, Europe, AECOM, the world’s premier infrastructure firm. In this role, he leads a team of around 9000 professionals serving public and private sector clients in planning, design, engineering, consulting and construction management. Prior to this, he served as Chief Capability Officer for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) and Chief Executive of Civil Infrastructure for EMEA. Before joining AECOM, Colin held a range of senior positions including Managing Director at Air Tanker, Chief Executive Officer for the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO), Head of Olympic and Paralympic Games Readiness for Transport for London (TfL), and Airside Operations Director at Heathrow Airport. He also served for 19 years in the Royal Air Force as an air traffic controller and aviation specialist.
What was your first paid job?
It was a paper-round; for which I got paid the grand total of £1.40 for delivering 120 newspapers. My first job for a company was when I was about 15 years old and I worked for a company called Rediffusion, a TV sales company. I was the Saturday Boy in the TV workshop.
What were your career aspirations when you were younger?
It probably started with my parents as they always used to take my brothers and I to air shows on days out and therefore from a very early age, I had an interest in aviation. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to join the air force. Now whether that was an aspiration or just wanting to play with something fast and pointy, I’m not sure, but that’s what I ended up doing so I can’t complain at all.
Who or what, inspired you to embark on your career?
I had some fairly tough discussions with my parents about what I should do as they weren’t keen for me to join the military. I left school a couple of months before my sixteenth birthday after completing my O levels. I then started as an apprentice with British Aerospace and then moved on to working in the civil service at the Land Registry. Looking back, I listened to a lot of people and ended up doing jobs I didn’t enjoy and then eventually ended up in the right career. I suppose the inspiration for me was actually trying a few things before ‘joining up’ which to me confirmed my ambition to join the military was right.
What 5 words best describe you?
Honest, Ethical, Motivated, Consistent, Loyal
Do you have a favourite saying or quote?
I’m not a huge one for that, but a quote that has stuck with me over the last year or so, particularly due to the coronavirus situation, is Benjamin Franklin’s “out of adversity comes opportunity”. It’s a really tough time at the moment. We are learning so much about how people can work from home, how they can’t work from home, how it affects mental wellbeing. I think we’ve got to take all that learning and really apply it back into whatever normality turns out to be. I used to travel 3 weeks out of every month. Do I really need to do that? No definitely not and what’s the impact on my family in my doing that? For our teams we can now look at working in a different way. I think it came true for me when I caught Covid. I was down for a couple of weeks with it and that gave me a lot of time to think about how we can do things differently. So that’s the quote I’m going to pick on, as it’s just got such resonance over the last year or so.
What technology are you passionate about?
I’m going to talk about video conferencing. I think this has changed the way we operate. I’ve taken over some fairly large parts of the company and I’ve had to do it by video and as best as it can do, it’s really worked. We’ve also managed to move a lot of our social activity onto Teams and this has been really successful. I’m really passionate about it, as I think the ability for us to use video calls for work and social has been fantastic and has been critically important for mental wellbeing.
What’s your approach to interviewing and hiring?
If people are going to work directly for me then I’ll be very much part of the process all the way through in terms of identifying what the need is, what the scope of the role is, whom I’m going to interview with, how we’re going to approach it, being really clear with candidates about the process they are going to follow and making sure we follow up.
I’ve been on the other end of it when you’re promised follow ups, and nothing happens. I’m really keen that when you talk to a candidate, you engage with them directly, personally by phone or by at least sending them a personal email. Even if they’re unsuccessful, I’ll speak to them afterwards and offer feedback. Some take that up, others don’t. When we are recruiting into the teams of the people that directly work for me, I like to come in on the final interview, but not to make the hiring decision. The way I view it is that the people who we are bringing in at that level are likely to be successors to my direct reports so it’s good for me to just get a feel for them from the beginning and it’s good for these people to see me right from the outset. In short, I like to be actively involved and I like to give feedback when we can.
Do you have a favourite interview question?
It’s more of a statement and its one I was asked years ago and has stuck with me. It’s “tell me about yourself”. I think people come prepared to run through their CV and it can become a little dry and bit formulaic. I think you can settle people down with “tell me about yourself” as they might talk about their families, their hobbies, their life in general and in my opinion, it relaxes people.
How should the Human Resources function operate within an organisation?
As a full part of the leadership team. When I took over the organisation HR was known as a support function. They are more than that. They are a straight partner to all we do. We often talk about HR Business Partners. Jo Atkinson who is my HR Director is a full member of our leadership team. I’m really keen that people who sit on that leadership team, don’t just do their day job so for that team it’s not just HR type of activities. They might be involved in other areas such as Bids with the ability to bring a completely diverse approach to what we are doing and sometimes we don’t always think of things from a people aspect. So for me, absolutely fully part of the team. I don’t see them as a separate function at all.
Has workplace diversity now become embedded or is there still much more to do?
I would say that certainly in AECOM it’s pretty much embedded and we focus a huge amount on equity, diversity and inclusion. We’re actually in the market at the moment for an EDI Lead which we’ve decided to recruit. That said there’s always more that we can do and that’s not meant to be one of those cheesy answers because I think there is always more that you can do, more you can learn. We’ve got to create an environment and an atmosphere where everyone is valued and where people aren’t afraid to ask a difficult question. Sometimes issues are created and it’s not because people are deliberately trying to cause offence. They just don’t understand and sometimes they’re afraid to ask the question. When we stop talking about diversity, we’ll know we’ve cracked it. That’s the way I look at it.
What legislation would you amend or implement given the current climate?
Given the Brexit situation, at the moment, we need to be really mindful of Right to Remain. We need to make sure we don’t unintentionally unpick something there which could really cause a problem for employers in the country. My role spans Europe and it’s interesting that as the UK has exited Europe, here at AECOM, we’ve brought the UK & Ireland region and the broader European region together. We believe we’re much stronger together doing that.
I suppose for me in terms of the legislation piece, I would want people to think very carefully about the impact it could have to employers and employees if we made it more difficult. 25% of our graduates come from Europe to work in the UK because they see it as a fantastic place to work. We shouldn’t make that difficult. It doesn’t mean there aren’t graduate roles for those who are born in the UK. Again, it goes back to that diversity piece. We are working with global clients and we should reflect the global teams we work for. In terms of legislation, let’s not unpick anything which will cause us difficulties later.
What do you think are the key elements of being a successful Chief Exec?
I’ve given you 5 words that describe me, and I do think you need elements of them, particularly on the loyalty side. People always talk about leaders and leadership, but a concept that I was made aware of a few years ago was around “followership”. Sometimes being a good follower is just as important as being a good leader. I think that loyalty has to work both ways. If you’re going to expect your team to be loyal to you, you’ve got to deserve that, so conversely, you’ve got to be loyal to them. I’m cheating because although you asked me for 5 words to describe me, I thought I’d add a few more. I like cooking, it’s one of my passions away from work, so perhaps take this as a bit of spice on top of the other words. I think you need resilience; I think you need to be decisive, I think you need to be balanced, but perhaps most critically you need to be visible and that’s the big thing for me. If you’re going through challenging business times, like a redundancy programme and you’ve got a leadership team that’s trying to deliver it, you’ve got to be out there and almost take the punches for them so that they can get on with the day job. I think that being resilient is important because some of the issues clearly won’t be of your making but I’m a great believer that you never try to pass the buck to someone else, you’ve got to take ownership of it.
How would you describe your leadership style?
It’s a very open approach but very clear that the buck stops with me. Ideally, I think that where you can do so, that it’s much easier to operate by consensus. As a leader you’re driving consensus but leading the decisions or answers. I think I’ve used that all the way through my career. But where we can’t build consensus, and where I add value is ultimately, I’ll make a decision. So, take all the views you possibly can, if it happens to be the consensus view, then fantastic but if not then make a decision and move forward, but explain to people why you’ve made that decision. So, if it’s the right decision or the wrong decision, then I’ll take the impact of the wrong decision and they’ll take the credit for a right decision. I think that’s the way that it works, and I genuinely mean that.
How should you support your team as a leader in good and bad times?
By being consistent. I think what our people are looking for from us as leaders is consistency. Decision making is also key. In challenging times, I don’t really care if my team make a good or a bad decision as long as they make a decision. The worst thing is not making a decision when things just fester and get worse and worse. If it’s a good decision, fantastic and everyone can learn from that. If it’s a bad decision we can learn from that also, fix it and go on to do something else. Moreover, you can’t judge a team on one bad decision. That classic analogy of judging someone on their performance in the last football match when in effect their performance should be judged over a season rings very true for me. I’ll look at the team in good times and bad times entirely consistently and I’ll take a calm approach. I don’t raise my voice. I’m not one of these people who bang on desks and shouts. If I did, I think my leadership style would become inconsistent. I think the team would clam up and wouldn’t recognise the person they saw in front of them. That’s certainly the approach or leadership style that I react to best and I’ve worked for a huge number of leaders; some of them were absolutely fantastic and some of them I would cross the road to avoid. You’ve got to take the good and bad into account.
What’s your biggest career highlight or achievement to date?
I’m not really one for reflecting on things like that, but an achievement that I wasn’t expecting was that I was awarded an MBE back in 2003 for some work I was doing in the military at the time. I was just doing my job as far as I was concerned but other people had noticed, how I was doing my job and had gone to the trouble of putting a citation together. I suppose what that taught me is that in a good organisation there’s always someone who notices what you are doing, even though you might not think it!
I think if you take a professional highlight then working on the Olympics in 2012. I was born in London and the chance to work on the Olympics in your home city and the chance to make it work as well as we did; you’re never going to get that again. The reason it was such a highlight was that everybody pulled together for a common goal. It was just brilliant. Nobody had a different agenda. 7.30pm on the 27th of July 2012, that was the goal. When the opening lights went on the first time it was just fantastic. I’ll never get that time back again and the memories from that are just fantastic.
What’s next for you and AECOM
I’m in this role, which is a relatively new role. I’ve been a CEO in other parts of the company, but I’ve been brought in to bring two regions together. That’s going to take a while. That said, I’m a believer in succession planning. There will be people in my team who want to do my job and who may have the ability to do it better than I can as they’ll do it in a totally different style. I always say I’ll take roles to around the two year point and review it then. I think that goes back to the military. We used to move every two and a half years and there was a lot of freshness that came from that, both for the individual and the organisation. At the moment for me it’s making sure we bring our European region together and then what will be, will be. Who knows what’s going to happen in the future? I’ll play the hand that’s in front of me, let’s put it that way!