Douglas McCormick - Episode 001 - Transcript
Doulas McCormick is the CEO of WYG.
Douglas has over 30 years’ experience in the engineering and construction industry.
During his 18 months at WYG Douglas has established a period of improved stability, creating significant for shareholders.
Douglas is a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and holds an MSc in Construction Management and a BSc in Quantity Surveying.
In addition, he was previously a Commissioner for the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and is a Non-Executive of the Institute for Collaborative Working.
WYG currently employs around 1,600 specialists in more than 50 locations throughout the world.
Jaemie: Hi Douglas and welcome to Engineering Success – can we start with how you first became interested in becoming a Quantity Surveyor?
Douglas: Yes, Jaemie good, so when I was seventeen years old I needed to do something with my life ‘cause they were going to throw me out of school, and I left school with a set of results which were not glorious. My Dad was a Surveyor, he was a general practice surveyor, he worked in land management. So I liked what he did but I didn’t want to be exactly the same as my Dad so I did Quantity Surveying instead of general practice surveying and I got a job as an apprentice and I went to the college a day a week for six years to get my first qualification.
Jaemie: So what was your first qualification?
Douglas: I did a part time bachelors degree in Quantity Surveying, at what is now Napier University and when I did that 1980 to 1986 it was the College of Commerce and Technology and you could read plumbing as well as Quantity Surveying, or bricklaying or plastering, it was a Technical College and surveying was one of the technical degrees. So I went for six years, I passed my degree and finished my apprenticeship.
Jaemie: And so what was the first company you worked for?
Douglas: I worked for an Edinburgh surveying company called George Berry and Partners. There was ten of us in the office, I was the Junior Apprentice working my way through to Senior Apprentice and they did a wide range of domestic, health…………..and Edinburgh being uniquely Georgian they were quite niche and specialist repairs to Georgian Buildings. So I spent two years on a hospital project, I ran a portfolio of Edinburgh stonework repairs which was fascinating. Really interesting repairing Georgian buildings to heritage standards – and that was very good. I moved from making the tea and coffee – cause in those days you did – and fixing the gestetner machine, which is something you used to put ink pads on to run-off ‘bills of quantities’ – don’t exist anymore. And I moved from that to having my own portfolio of projects that I answered to the senior partner for………………….and I learned, I learned how to work, I learned about people and I learned how to do the job and my education at college was directly related to what I did in the office. So where at school I couldn’t answer, so what, and my exam results weren’t great ‘cause I couldn’t answer and I wasn’t interested, actually I discovered that the more I learned at college the better I was at what I did at work. And so I really began to do extremely well so my exam results became really good and I started to see that, actually I could succeed.
Jaemie: Because you were enjoying it.
Douglas: Oh, I had a great time, I really enjoyed it and George Berry and Partners were delightful to works for and they had a real care for their people and a real discipline about making sure that you did pass your exams and you did work hard. So for somebody like me the discipline of that was just really helpful and then when I got the bug of “I can do this” I began to fly and it was great.
Jaemie: So looking back to when you first started out did you ever think you were going to lead a company like WYG? Was that the goal or was it, you just take every step as it comes?
Douglas: I never thought that I would be a Chief Executive and running a company. I’ve never had a career plan – I’ve never said “I will get to here” – what I’ve always said is when somebody’s come and said “would you do this?” and I’ve looked at it, and I’ve quite often thought that I’m not sure that I can – and I’ve said “Yes, I’ll do that” And so by taking on the next challenge, one step at a time, take the next challenge – and then you discover that actually yes, you can do that. Its not easy and you won’t get it all right………………….and so when the board of WYG came and said “we’re looking for a new Chief Exec, would you come?” I thought yeah, I’d be very happy do that. But no, I haven’t had a career plan and I do genuinely believe that you need to take one step at a time. In my experience people who have a career plan often find themselves disappointed because they’re not satisfied with what they do achieve – they’re always worried about what they haven’t achieved.
Jaemie: Yes, always the next thing….
Douglas: Life is for living and today is what we have so we should live in the good of that. So yes, one step at a time. There is something called ‘Imposter Syndrome’. So when I was a little boy I used to get into trouble, I was quite mischievous and I quite often would be places I shouldn’t be and somebody would come in an go “Oi you, why are you here?” and that’s imposter syndrome.
I sometimes sit in quite senior meetings with clients or with investors or with staff and think somebody’s going to come in and go “Oi you, what are you doing here?” so I’m getting over my imposter syndrome.
Jaemie: Yes, do you think that happens a lot to a lot of people in your position?
Douglas: Yes I do, as I talk to friends and colleagues in the industry there’s a lot of us don’t take for granted that we occupy senior jobs – and I think that’s good, keeps you humble.
Jaemie: Yes, yes, I think you’re right yes. So through your career were you inspired by other people in companies or was there a person you looked up to?
Douglas: I think there have been a number of people in my life you have been really quite character forming, I mean there are two people in particular. Moved to London in 2005 to work on the Metronet project, which Atkins were my employer, they were a joint venture partner in the refurbishment on two-thirds of the London Underground – it was a difficult project and it wasn’t going terribly well, and I came to work on that project in London from Scotland – that was a big change for me – and we had a Managing Director who joined that project called Bernard Ainsworth. Bernie had just finished The Dome – worked for John Laing Construction, in the days when John Laing Construction was a major company in this country. Still a great investment company. And I learned a huge amount from Bernie, who no matter how difficult things were, and no matter the pressure of the project and the stress when things were not going well – behaved like a gentleman, was always calm, was assertive and direct, and took decisive action. Sometimes got that very right, sometimes not quite so right, but the thing I learned from Bernie was “think of three ways to solve every problem before you open your mouth”
Douglas: Because I’m very good at talking, and I can normally talk my way out of most things but Bernie taught me to think about three things before you open your mouth. How can you solve this? What three things could you do? What different ways could you approach it? So not just first answer and I’m away – thinking through that.
And then I think the other person who was a role model – Keith Clarke who was the Chief Executive of Atkins for most of the time I worked there. I think Keith is probably the best Chief Executive that I have ever worked for – and as I sit in the Chief Execs seat at WYG I quite often reflect on what Keith might have done and how Keith behaved or how Keith presented himself. And the thing that both Bernie and Keith taught me is I think one of the most important things is that actually it takes a team to deliver everything and success is about the people around you and working together. The ‘hero school’ doesn’t exist. There are great hero’s in our industry - but actually, really successful people are people who know how to gather and to work together and to build a team and to drive success through the success of other people. And I think between Bernie and Keith I still reflect those lessons hold good this morning to.
Jaemie: Good. So a lot of leaders have daily or weekly habits – do you have any habits you do on a daily or weekly basis?
Douglas: Actually, not really. I live a much more random life.
Douglas: I’m seldom in the same place for more than one or two days. I’m a morning person, so I’m normally……………..in winter when it’s still dark I might be up about six, in summer when it’s light I might be up anytime between four and six. And by nine o’clock at night or ten o’clock at night I need to go to my bed.
I think the other things around habits – you need to have balance ‘cause this is just a job.
Douglas: So I paddle board – I live on a river and I do stand-up paddle boarding in the summer when it’s warm. I like water sports, I walk and I read. But a creature of habit I’m not. I’m not as regular as clockwork, other than the fact that I’m a morning person and I need to go to bed at a decent time.
Jaemie: So what attributes do you need to be the CEO of a company like WYG?
Douglas: I think there’s a few, you need to have drive and resilience.
Douglas: You need to know where you’re going and you need Plan A, B and C because if Plan A doesn’t work and Plan B doesn’t work you need Plan C. If you get to plan C and you don’t have one you probably need to think of Plan D. Hopefully you won’t need that much.
And you need to be resilient because it’s not easy. Running a business in the twenty first century in what is fast becoming a global village – its not an easy thing to do. And the responsibility of, we employ around sixteen-hundred people – so we put the kids to school and pay the mortgage and all the livelihood of our staff actually that’s our responsibility. So making wise decisions around that and making good decisions and sometimes difficult decisions – so you need to have drive and resilience.
You need to be a bit of an original thinker. If you always do what you’ve always done, then you always get what’s always been had.
Jaemie: That’s right – yes.
Douglas: So you need to be looking and thinking about “what else could we do?” or “how could we do it differently?” and actually you don’t do that alone.
Actually one of the joys of employing apprentices and graduates in a business is bright young people come with fresh ideas, and so one of the challenges is how do you make sure you’re listening to your organisation and sometimes to people who are quite junior. But clever ideas are not the prerogative of just senior people – so you need that. And you need to know where you’re going so you have to have some vision about what the company looks like in three years’ time, and you need to be able to articulate that because people want to know.
I mentioned you need a team, and you do.
So, there are things that I’m not good at and so I have people around me who are good at the things I’m not good at. And I’m good at some of the things they’re not good at, and you build a team that plays to your strengths and defends your weaknesses.
I have a fabulous Finance Director because I’m not a Finance Director, now I can read spreadsheets and balance sheets and accounts but it’s not the natural air I breathe in the way a finance person breathes it. So I have a strong finance person for that reason and other people who bring skills to the team.
You need to be able to communicate. I think somewhere in my past my mother kissed the Blarney Stone and I’m not unable to talk – shutting me up sometimes can be a problem.
And I think the other thing is, you need to be able to motivate people, you need to be able to catalyse them to action. You need to be able to lead and you lead from the front.
Douglas: And the definition of a leader is somebody with followers – not necessarily someone who just has a Chief Exec’s badge or a Senior Managers badge. A leader is someone who people follow. And often in organisations there are informal structures as well as formal structures and you can always spot the leaders because people follow them. And you need to be able to create a following so you create trust and respect and you value people and you care about people. You do that genuinely and actually then people give you their best because there’s that mutuality of respect.
So you need all of those things and probably a few more that I’ve forgotten.
Jaemie: Do you find it easy to motivate your staff when you go around to offices, I’m sure you interact with everybody, do you find it quite easy to motivate people because it’s not an easy skill to do is it?
Douglas: It’s not – I think key in any organisation, particularly people organisations, and even if you manufacture widgets, it’s people that are there. People are everything and I think openness and transparency, and honestly are just critical and I think when you are open and transparent and honest and you tell people how it is, sometimes that’s good or sometimes it’s not so good or sometimes we’re doing really well, or sometimes we’re not doing so well. And I think as you respect and value people then they trust you – and trust is the motivator.
So everybody gets pay in rations. You can go to any employer in the land and they’ll do pay and rations. Some will do better pay and rations than others – not all of them will care for you and respect you as an individual, not all of them will invest in you as a person. I think it’s that, identifying yourself as no more or less important and as somebody doing a job as everybody in the company is doing a job – I think those are the things that help motivate.
But people choose to be motivated. I can only do what I do and people will either choose to be motivated or choose not to be motivated. If you create an exciting vision, even in the difficult times, then people like to follow people who know where they’re going and so as I articulate my view of that however inadequate that might sometimes be then people are trusting and we see people who want to follow. That’s very exciting and I don’t take that for granted.
Jaemie: So what challenges do you face as a Chief Executive on a weekly basis? I’m sure people would love to know that.
Douglas: I think there are some real micro-economic challenges around at the moment. There is no doubt that leaving the European Union, rightly or wrongly, the uncertainty of the length of time it’s taking mean that the market is less active than it was and winning work is harder than it was. I think for us to, we are sixteen-hundred people we are one hundred and sixty millionish revenue company. We’re not fifty thousand people or one hundred thousand people, we don’t earn billions and so how you make the company profitable and you generate cash – cash is everything, without cash you’re dead. You can be clever and your accounting can look really good but if you don’t have cash then you’re in difficulties.
And dealing with problems. So largely what comes to me is when things go wrong and how do you sort those out properly.
Another part of my role on a weekly basis is looking after our clients. So its important that our clients know they have access to me, I don’t live in an ivory tower. We only exist as a business because we have clients who are pleased to give us their work and pay us for our services. So looking after our clients is really important.
And then at the same time thinking about where we’ll be the day after tomorrow. Because there are people who worry about today, who are employed to deal with todays job. There are some people who are employed to think about tomorrows job too and my job more often than not is to think about where will we be next year? What should we do? Where should we go? And the whole world is our oyster you know, and all of those things fly around on a daily basis.
So yes………………..and no two days are the same which is part of the fun.
Jaemie: Yes I can imagine that. So what would your advice be to somebody coming into the engineering or construction industry? What would your number one piece of advice be to them, today?
Douglas: Come! Come and join us. Come and get qualified and work your way through your qualifications. So if you’re a graduate get a good degree, if you’re an apprentice get into your training, get into college, work hard for that. Success is not given on a plate – success comes through hard work. For the vast majority of us there isn’t an alternative to hard work and that doesn’t change, it doesn’t get any easier the older you get, it’s all about working hard. But I would say come, this is a great industry and there’s something wonderful about wondering around countries of the world and cities of the world and seeing projects that you were involved in and you had a contribution to. And never doubt that you can succeed – you can do anything that you put your mind to and always be pleased to take help, and if you need help – ask for help. Because my experience of people is that the vast majority of people are only to delighted to give the help that they can.
So come and join us would be my advice. Get qualified and look at how you grow your career one step at a time.
Jaemie: So why do you feel that there is a skills shortage at the moment in engineering? What would you put it down to?
Douglas: I don’t think we have portrayed our industry properly and I think erroneously we’ve portrayed engineering as a kind of, slightly dull and boring. When actually how you physically construct some of the greatest structures in the world, you know I’m from Scotland, go and stand on the edges of the Forth outside Edinburgh and look at the Forth Rail bridge. A feat of engineering. And then the road bridge, you know, a much later example. And the latest bridge finished in the last couple of years – a stunning example of engineering.
Or we’re sitting in London and out of the window of the room we’re in you can see The Shard.
Douglas: Or go to Dubai and look at Burj Khalifa, almost a kilometre high, you know, and actually engineering is about real clever skills that take the theory of structures and components and make tangible things that people live in or work in or travel in.
And I think the other thing for me and the thing that’s changing rapidly is the use of technology and all of that. If you want to be at the cutting edge of technology in industry then come and join engineering. That’s transforming what we do and will continue to do so.
And have we made all that clear to young people? – no, I think we’ve just made it a little bit dull and boring. Some of that’s because a lot of our companies are run by middle-aged grey-haired men like me and we haven’t said to our female colleagues that actually you can succeed to. This is a great world for our female colleagues and in our business we’re seeing lots of our female colleagues joining the industry and prospering - that’s good for everybody.
As we become as diverse as we can it’s a great place to be but I don’t think we’ve got that message across as well as we could. So if you’re listening that’s the message “it’s a great place to come and work”.
Jaemie: So how do we change the perception overall of engineering? Do you think it is changing with more women coming into construction. There’s a lot of thing going on with ‘Women in Construction and Engineering’ at the minute – do you think its slowly changing, or do you still think that there’s a lot more work to do?
Douglas: I think it is changing but I think there is a lot more work to do. I also think that it doesn’t happen by accident, so its not going to just happen. I think we need to make sure that we are positively encouraging of everybody. And clearly our industry has suffered particularly with the lack of gender diversity, but actually diversity is much bigger than gender. The message has to be that “anyone can succeed - on merit”. So I don’t want to be the token bloke in the company just as my female colleagues don’t want to be the token female. But actually on merit all of us can succeed and I think that’s important. But I think we need to be actively doing that – so we need to actively look at our recruitment and make sure that we are looking at a balance of male and female candidates that our gender diversity is right, but also that our general diversity is right. So irrespective of religion, sexuality, race, ability, disability – all the things that we have unconscious bias around – we need to work hard to make sure we’re not just hiring in our own image all the time, but we’re actively looking to be different in our recruitment processes. And when we promote to make sure we give as much opportunity across the spectrum of our businesses not just somebody we like or somebody that we think fits – there needs to be process that demonstrates merit and value.
Jaemie: Do you think that could be targeted?
Douglas: Yes I do. I think it can be targeted, it just needs to not be discriminatory. And finding that balance isn’t easy.
Jaemie: No its not.
Douglas: Balance is never easy.
Jaemie: No it’s not - but do you think that comes from the top? From the Executives like yourself at WYG and other companies – that’s got to come from the top down?
Douglas: Yes it does. You know, water never risers higher than its source. What I do as the Chief Executive, as the leader of this business, everybody else will do. And if I set an example around how we behave, how we recruit and the values that we share amongst our people – then people will follow that, or not, as they choose. But if I don’t set that then it will never happen. So those of us who are privileged to be leaders in our business, in this industry, in this country and where we work around the world, if we don’t set the example – it will never happen.
Jaemie: So we said about the change in technology, where do you see engineering in ten years? Can you see engineering in ten years or is it too far to look?
Douglas: Do you know, one of the challenges for me is that all of this technology has been invented in my lifetime. I used to go to school with a two pence piece in my pocket, so that in an emergency I could go to a phone box. Now for those who don’t know a phone box was a red thing with a phone in it, and you could put your money in the slot and phone home to say there was a problem.
So mobile phones and the internet and computers are all things that have come in my lifetime. As I look at, particularly our younger members of staff and their use of apps in the way they deliver the work and, you know, BIM, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, design – all of these things which are challenging for somebody of my generation. What I do think is that the next three to five years will completely transform our industry and the automation of management of data will take away a lot of the grungy bureaucratic, uninteresting bits sometimes of our work. And I think that allows us to be hugely creative in a way that I think is hard to imagine and ten years, goodness………… if you think of the technology move in the last ten years to now and if you were to say, if that was to be the same what would that be. And one of the reasons that I really want to be encouraging all young people coming as apprentices or graduates into our industry is - that’s your future and you bring those skills. And when you marry the life experience of people like me with the cleverness with technology of our youngsters, and if you can get that balance right – when you marry experience and technology and the cleverness around that then you really are heading for success.
Jaemie: What keeps you motivated?
Douglas: I love what I do. And I love the challenge of what I do. To take a business and to make it successful and to deal with all the things that come with that – I find that hugely motivating.
I often don’t appear hugely competitive but I am. I like to succeed. I don’t like to succeed at the expense of other people, I like to succeed with other people and the joy of my job is to take all the folk who are good enough to work for WYG and lead us to success.
And that gets me out of bed in the morning! Even in the difficult days when I need to be the one that thinks of the plan it’s down to me to say ‘Ok, we’re here and this is what we need to do to get to where we want to’. There’s great fun in that – and always remember “it’s just a job” and you must keep that, this is just a job, get a life, make sure you have a life. And so the balance of that – that’s what gets me out of bed in a morning.
Jaemie: I think it’s important to continually develop as a person even at executive level, so what do you do to continually develop yourself?
Douglas: You never stop learning. I think it’s time to die if you stop learning ‘cause actually there are so many things around and the challenges that come - so I changed my reading.
The paper I read doesn’t have sports pages on the back anymore. I read around global issues – so if we were to have a global conversation, what are the three global things, what are the three things in the world that effect the world and society and humanity. And they are water, energy and people. Those are the three great themes of our world! How do you know that? Well you need to read widely enough to think on a large scale. So I read differently to how I used to read. And I talk to people and I’m curious. I don’t read management books particularly but I do read about ‘Where is technology going?’ and what about market trends and global tends – so we could have a different conversation about the geo-political nature of the world today and where global threats come from. And how, what Mr. Trump does in America, and what the Chinese President does, is having an impact here in the UK as well as the European market and the fracturs nature of our European partners. How do you know all that, because actually you learn to think much wider that just your technical job and you need to have a big world view.
Jaemie: We’ve talked about the attributes to be a Chief Executive – what attributes do you think you need to be successful? Just a normal person that wants to be successful. What attributes should they have or try to gain?
Douglas: I think the highest calling in life is to be a decent human-being. I think success is not about being technically competent – that’s a threshold thing for me. we employ all sorts of people on the base assumption they can do the technical job we employ them for. But the thing we look at is their behaviour and values – and what will make you successful is how you behave and what your values are. If you trample over everybody to get where you think you want to get to you probably will fail and you certainly won’t be respected. You might prosper, at what price? So I think actually values and behaviours of people skills – the most successful people have those.
And a resilience and ability to take decisions and be responsible. When things are going really well and somebody says ‘so who’s responsible for this?’ it’s easy to say…….me! When things are going badly and it’s difficult it take a big person to say ‘this is my responsibility’ or ‘I’ve made a mistake’ or ‘I didn’t get this right’ or actually ‘please I need some help’. So I think those are the kind of things that make people successful.
Base things – you must be qualified, get qualified – if you have it, it doesn’t matter – if you don’t have it, it does – and then learn people skills.
Jaemie: Do you think those change over time? I think when you first start, being a good listener is a great attribute to have because obviously you listen to everybody and you take in the information that you think you need and disregard the things that you don’t and as you climb up the ladder, so to speak, I think being a people person and being able to read people is a great attribute t have as well. Because like you said, not everybody’s got the same plan as you have. So I think over time, do you think the attributes change a little bit? You know being a good listener and a good learner to leading?
Douglas: I think they remain very constant, so I’m a good listener and I’ve created forums in our business where I can listen to staff directly without being interfered with the skewing that sometimes comes from more senior people. The ability to listen is key. God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak - I don’t always remember that.
I think the difference is clearly the longer you live the more you experience and you can’t live any faster than you do, we all live one day at a time, one second at a time, one breath at a time, but becoming maturity and learning how you apply experience. But good behaviour and good values are constant through your life but being mature around them. And I think too – when I was younger I was always in a hurry – now I’m in less of a hurry and I take time to reflect and to think. Now sometimes you need to act quickly but actually what’s on your desk today will probably be on your desk tomorrow.
When I was an apprentice my first boss, a lovely man called Gerry McCue, he has a tray on his desk - and this was in the days when you wrote letters on bits of paper and you gave them to a typist and she typed them and it came back and you read it over corrected anything that needed correcting - and he used to have what he called on his desk ‘His Tomorrow Tray’. So he would write an angry letter about something and he would read it and then he would put it in his ‘Tomorrow Tray’. And in the morning when he came in the next day he would pick up what was in his ‘Tomorrow Tray’ ‘cause it was now tomorrow and he would read it and go ‘no, I couldn’t possibly send that’. Why, because with a bit of calm and a bit of thought he’d take time to reflect and you know, what do they say, “act in haste, repent at leisure” and so I think it’s about becoming mature and growing up. Not everybody grows up and not everybody becomes mature but behaviour and values dot change and being a good listener is important.
So I have a rule at my meetings – if you talk over somebody I will stop you. Interrupting somebody means you don’t think what they’re saying is important enough to listen to because what you want to say is more important – even though you haven’t taken on board what they may wish to share. That’s arrogance! And so learning and listening are lifelong skills.
Jaemie: So, having achieved so much, what does the future hold for you?
Douglas: Oh goodness… I don’t know. At some point I will probably change from this full-time quite frenetic, very demanding job to a bit more of a portfolio career. I don’t really ever see myself retiring. I had a wonderful Uncle, my Great-Uncle Frank by marriage, he retired at ninety-eight and the energy and enthusiasm for life that he had has been really an inspiration. Now, god only knows if I’ll make it to ninety-eight, but actually I think the way I’m involved in this industry may well change the older I get. But I don’t see myself coming to a point where I don’t have an involvement – I’ve learnt a lot in my life and I think there’s a lot to share. That doesn’t always need to be about making money, it can be about adding value. So this conversation is part of that and I don’t cross my bridges until I get to them and I don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will take care of itself.
Jaemie: I’m like you, I don’t think there’s a time that I will ever not be involved in the industry and I don’t know why that is – maybe the passion of what I do and wanting to give back to an industry that’s been so good to me. Maybe it’s the same for you? You feel that you need to share.
Douglas: And also too there’s a joy about – you know, you need to keep yourself physically active and well and you need to manage that proactively. But you need to be mentally well too. You know, one in four of us will at some point in our life suffer from some kind of mental illness – that’s the time to change challenge – world mental health day challenge this year – there’s no shame in that. Part of continuing to be well is to keep your brain active and to be involved, to do stuff. So finding stuff that’s interesting, whether that’s ‘how you make your living’ or whether it’s other things that you do. I don’t ever see a time coming where I would stop doing that – I hope not.
Jaemie: Well thank you very much Douglas for your time, it’s been a pleasure to interview you today.
Douglas: Jaemie, thank you, it’s been a real pleasure.