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Emma Lewis - Episode 002 - Transcript

Emma Lewis

Emma Lewis is the Managing Director of Rogers Geotechnical Services.


Emma has been pivotal in establishing RGS as a leading Geotechnical practice.

After obtaining her Law degree Emma capitalised on her skills to provide a solid commercial foundation for the business. She is responsible for the business management, finance, human resources, PR and marketing amongst other duties.

Emma prides herself on a hands-on approach and is often on-site conducting walk over surveys and completing phase one environmental studies.

Emma represents RGS at various forums and networking groups and is involved with a local 'Women in Leadership' group.



Jaemie: Hi Emma and welcome to Engineering Success, on International Women’s Day 2019  – can we start at the very start. After completing a Degree in Law why did you decide to work in Geotechnical Engineering?


Emma: It wasn’t something that I’d particularly decided to do, probably like a lot of people I feel into it. It’s been entirely organic, my career so far. I completed my Law Degree and realised it wasn’t going to be for me as a career, and at the time my husband and father-in-law wanted to start a company and I was therefore automatically a share-holder – and it went from there.

I started off at a job in a bank where I worked four days a week – full time - so I had a day free and I started off in the business looking after the accounts. I taught myself booing keeping, learnt about accreditation and it went from there. And within eighteen months I was full-time employed.



Jaemie: So how long did it take you to become Managing Director?


Emma: So, I started within the business as Office Manager but at one of the Board Meetings about twelve months in the fourth share-holder said “it seems that Emma does quite a bit more than managing the office, I think she deserves a different job title” as I was really fulfilling a function of Financial Director at that stage so, at that stage I became Financial Director so that was in 2006, I think – and in 2009 was when I became Managing Director and we started to think in terms of succession planning for the technical Director, who up to that point had been the main person of the business given that he had been in Geotechnical Engineering for thirty-five years, at that point.



Jaemie: So what challenges did you have to overcome to be the MD at RGS?


Emma: Internally, no challenges. Everybody voted me in, everybody put me forward basically – so internally there were no challenges whatsoever. Very much supported by my directors and the employees.

Externally I would say that the challenges have been, that I was – at the time I was Emma Rogers – so there was an assumption that I got the role because I was a Rogers and because I was Steve’s daughter-in-law at the time. So I’d got there because of that rather than being there on merit. There’s always some silly stereotypes out there and strangely the most memorable one was, in a meeting with Steve and another male engineer and his female assistant who absolutely refused outright to believe Steve when he introduced me as his Managing Director. As far as she was concerned, I was his secretary – I was very surprised and that’s got to be the one most memorable one. Other than that I would say that there’s been nothing to stop me from being what I want – to stop me in my tracks.



Jaemie: So, who or what has been your biggest inspiration so far?


Emma: So far…………………… there’s no one in particular that sticks out in my mind – I don’t have an idol, I don’t have somebody I aim to be like. What I would say is that I’ve been involved in a peer-to-peer networking group locally for the last ten years and I’m very much inspired by the people I know through that group who are of all ages and running business of all sizes, a lot in the face of adversity on a personal level – and they inspire me for all sorts of reasons. They’re all very good at very different things and it’s meeting up with people like that locally that inspires me to carry on doing what I’m doing.



Jaemie: So, we hear a lot of leaders have daily or weekly habits – some unusual habits I’ve heard in the past – do you have any habits that you do weekly or daily?


Emma: I don’t have anything significant I suppose in my week. The thing that shapes most of my day is, or my daily habits, is my son………. and work. All that I would say is that I’m definitely at my most effective when I’ve managed to rise early enough in the morning to get a forty-five-minute dog walk in, a leisurely breakfast and two cups of tea. I’m definitely at my most effective then – if I don’t rise in time to do all that I always feel as though I’m not at my best.

All the other parts of my life are really taken up by being a mum, which doesn’t leave much room for any habits.



Jaemie: So, what attributes do you need to be the Managing Director of Rogers Geotechnical?


Emma: Given the variety of skills and people that there are in our business – so we’ve got Sales & Development staff, we’ve got Drillers, we’ve got Lab Technicians, we’ve got Engineers, we’ve got Project Managers, it’s really empathy and flexibility. And being able to approach any problem with the broadest mind possible because there’s some very different personalities in the business as a result of what they are.



Jaemie: So what challenges do you face on a weekly basis?


Emma: I think really…………………….well there’s challenges that come with employing people because everybody is different and people have different drivers. Everybody has a level of expectation based on what it is that drives them and motivates them. So there’s obviously always some sort of challenge in relation to people. And that applies to suppliers as well, so managing all of those aspects.

I think specific to the business is that we’re constantly up against the clock. The sector that we’re in is very unpredictable – lots of peaks and troughs – so time management is probably the most significant challenge for us within the business – delivering on time in a very up and down environment which makes it difficult to resource if you don’t have a consistent workload. It’s very difficult to resource yourself in the busy times, so when it comes to training people that then becomes a challenge. People new to the business – there time management isn’t the best – we need to focus in on that because if you can’t manage your time effectively in this job you will fall under.



Jaemie: So what would your number one piece of advice be to someone thinking about a career in engineering?


Emma: Work experience. I talk about it all the time and I don’t think it’s specific to engineering but I think that given there are so many arms of engineering out there, I think its really critical to get work experience in, to try and get a taster. At least of what the different disciplines there are out there, that you could apply your degree to. We’ve got a lot of success in our business with Engineers coming in from work experience. So they come in from college level or ‘A’ level or GCSE level not really knowing what site investigation is but they’re interested in Geology. So naturally they would find something of interest in here – we’re drilling soil and rocks on a daily basis – but most of them are quite surprised then at how we then apply our knowledge in a commercial environment and they generally don’t understand about investigation at all. But we’ve got four successes from work experience in our engineering team who all came to us through various repeat periods of work experience throughout their ‘A’ levels and their degrees. And they’ve all come out with jobs at the other end of it. So yes, work experience.



Jaemie: So why do you feel there is a skills shortage within the engineering industry in general?


Emma: I’m not entirely sure that the universities and colleges are pushing degree apprenticeships enough. I think that one of the biggest challenges for us as a small to medium enterprise is taking a graduate and moving their theoretical knowledge to practical knowledge in a commercial environment. And I think – for us – to take somebody and train them into that role is quite a big challenge because we don’t have the resource and time for somebody to join this business and potter along while they learn the skills. At the end of the day the backbone of our economy is small to medium size enterprises. So graduates are coming out of university and they’re struggling to find jobs because they don’t have enough experience in the role. So I think that universities really need to start pushing the degree apprenticeship because I think that will generate the skills.



Jaemie: So do you think that engineering in general could promote itself better in schools and colleges? Do you think its promoted enough?


Emma: I don’t think it’s promoted enough at all! You know we’ve got very close links with all the colleges in this area, but I don’t recall we’ve ever been invited to a careers fair to promote what we do. So I don’t think there is enough promotion when the young people are making those decisions about where to take their degree, which degree to choose and which career.


Jaemie: Do you think that’s amplified getting more women into construction then or just in general?


Emma: I just think that’s in general.



Jaemie: So why do you think we don’t have as many women and girls coming into construction?


Emma: I think that, for whatever reason, there is still that perception that it is a male environment and I think that engineering is quite often viewed as something related to do with something mechanical or physical. But obviously it’s so much wider than that. I do think there are gender stereotypes in roles out there – I don’t know what the numbers are but I wonder what the statistics are for women and men in say accounting. I think probably we’ve got the reverse flip problem in those industries. But I think this is carried over from previous generations.



Jaemie: So do you think we need more role models like yourself, you know, an MD running a successful company, do you think the industry is crying out for more people like you to promote this in schools?


Emma: Yes absolutely, I think we need to promote our industry and engineering across the board to girls and boys. But I think that for me when I was at college I would have been very inspired by seeing a women in a very high leadership role. Because when I was growing up – you didn’t see – I was very unaware of women in leadership roles. And I know that I would have been inspired by that, had I seen more of that through college and university.


Jaemie: It’s like your story – you did a degree in Law and then went into engineering. So you don’t necessarily have to do an engineering degree to get into engineering do you?


Emma: Absolutely not, and if you look at the engineers that are in our team – they’ve all got different degrees. So you’ve got Charlotte who did straight Geology, Rob who’s a Scientist, our Technical Director who started off doing a HND in Building, then did a degree, then became a Driller because he graduated into a recession and there were no jobs for graduates, became a Driller and then was a  Lab Manager and his career moved again to what he does now – he is very successful and very well known in our field.  Then you’ve got Mike who is an Environmental Engineer and was doing his PhD in contaminated land, and then we’ve got Dominic who has done a degree in Geology and followed that with a Masters in Environmental Science. So they’ve all got very different degrees but they’re all doing the same job, so it really doesn’t stop you – whatever your degree is – you don’t have to pursue that career. And I would never criticise anyone for not following what they initially started off doing at university because I think one of the biggest problems at the moment is that at eighteen ‘how do you really know what you want to do?’ I’d love to be making the decisions for them that I am making now – studying again – I’d love to do it as an adult and what life experience I’ve had.



Jaemie: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in engineering from the start of your career to today? What are the biggest changes do you think have been made?


Emma: Within our discipline the biggest change has been in the environmental engineering. So in relation to managing contaminated land and developing brown-field sites. There have been a huge number of changes over the years, as knowledge is being developed, and technical knowledge is being developed. There tend to be very little changes in geotechnical engineering – we were having a bit of a giggle about it earlier actually because one of the drilling rigs we use has its origins with the Egyptians – so there tends to be very little technology advance on the geotechnical side. But there’s been huge changes on the environmental side. When you look at what we were producing report-wise fifteen years ago – its hugely different - on the environmental side not geotechnics, but on the environmental side massively different.


Jaemie: What about the software – has that changed a lot?


Emma: Not for us – we don’t do technical modelling and drawings – the software we’ve got is specific to our sector and it’s not massively complex. The software really is limited to what we need to produce for a borehole log and manage the lab effectively because the lab management system in there connects with the borehole logging system. But beyond that it really is engineering calculations and work and thought.



Jaemie: So do you think it will change a lot in the next five to ten years? Maybe not with what you’ve just said…


Emma: No. I think it will do actually……


Jaemie: Geotechnical as well?


Emma: Again I think again the geotechnical – I don’t think they’ll be significant changes from the geotechnical field but we’re in a position now where we’ve learnt a lot more as an industry on the environmental side as toxicological studies have been progressing. Also as the demand for housing increases and the need to develop brownfield land increases, I think that’s where the changes are going to be. Because I think for us they are the changes we need to see as well to help our clients develop those brownfield sites viably and effectively would be for the knowledge to continue to develop on toxicology, so that we can make sure that we are mediating sites appropriately and in a  cost-effective manner whilst looking after people’s health and the environment. But also a greater collaboration with the regulatory authorities. At the moment there’s always a bit of ‘us and them’ and that’s not the way it needs to be – we’re all supposed to be working together to enable development – we need development – and we need to work together to make sure we are doing it effectively.



Jaemie: So, how do you keep yourself motivated?


Emma: How do I keep myself motivated? It’s something that I pay a lot of attention to because it can be very lonely in my role. I think everybody thinks it must be a doddle running a business. You know, you can take yourself off to a salon when you feel like it, or whatever it is you want to do, it must be a doddle. But it isn’t - there is a lot of time and energy and mental energy used in running a business outside of work hours. So for me, it’s focusing on the successes and the positives. Because inevitably you’re going along in business and you’re growing, there’s always going to be mistakes and there will be failures - and some of those failures develop then into your successes. So focusing on those successes and positives – I do a lot of work around mindset, a positive mindset. Keeping things in perspective. But I also work most effectively and I’m most motived when I’m very busy. So I’ve constantly got a list of ‘to do’s’ to review, and I’m constantly looking at that list making sure I’ve always got something that I am working on and developing. That motivates me to feel like I’m constantly moving forward.


Jaemie: How often do you write a list out?


Emma: I have a daily list and it is very basic – it’s handwritten. I don’t like to use technology for that, I have reminders on my phone as I don’t have a great memory so I’ve learnt I have to manage that. So at work I have a diary – I have a daily list. At the beginning of the week I’ll look at last weeks list and see what I haven’t done to make sure that it gets done the next week.



Jaemie: So it’s important to continually develop as people and as leaders – what do you do to develop yourself?


Emma: Well, I’ve already talked about it, but peer-to-peer discussion. So back in 2010 I met a lady called Phillipa Coulfish and she was a Business Link advisor and of course Business Link were offering a lot of help and services out, for free then, before they closed it down. And I was keen to utilise anything that they could offer – for me and for the business. So I met Phillipa then but Business Link came to an end but Phillipa decided that she was going to continue her role as coaching and support for a number of businesses she’d met through Business Link. So she built a peer-to-peer business forum and best practice forum and there’s also an off-shoot from that which is a ‘Women in Leadership’ group and also a quarterly action group that I am part of. So I spend a lot of time with other business owners that I’ve met and known for a number of years now and we talk through each of the challenges, support each other through each of the challenges, and I’ve learnt a huge amount from that. Phillipa is training consistently with me and the team since 2010. I repeat training sessions with her because I find that you always take away something new from a training session because you’ll always be applying it in the position you’re in at that moment in time.

We’re also lucky enough that we’ve got a Non-Exec Director, Gary, on board now, and so I take an awful lot of learning from Gary – he’s very, very experienced in running businesses – he’s a massive support to me, to the team and he is a huge mentor.



Jaemie: Right, because that leads me onto my next question which is, have you had any mentors who have helped you on your journey apart from Gary? Has anyone else been key to you running this business?


Emma: Yes, to be honest I would say the same – the people who have really helped me along the way have been my peers that have taken time in the sessions when we meet up to take the some time to listen to any problems or challenges I might be having and try and find a solution. We talk it through and you learn things as well – but yes them and Gary. They are the people who have massively influenced and helped me to get here.



Jaemie: So my final question is – what does the future hold for you?


Emma: Obviously building on the success of RGS on a personal level, but also on a team level. I want the team to succeed and as a team I want everyone within it to meet their potential and I want that team to be the future of the business – so supporting those guys in that. I think I’ve already mentioned it, but I would like to study again at some point. I’d like to do an MBA if I manage to get on somewhere and can find the time to do it – but it will have to be – that’s something that’s going to have to wait as I need to get my sleep so I’ve got to be able to commit to it and enjoy it and  have the time to do it because I often look back now and think “I wonder how I would view my degree now, if I was doing it now, as opposed to twenty years ago” when life was very different and life experience was very different. And long term I’d like to be in a position where I can help and mentor young people because it really does drive me. I like to help people; I want to see them succeed and I want them to be the best they can be. And it’s a big driver for me to see young people succeeding so hopefully at some point in my later years I can take a back seat from being MD and I can give back. In the same way that people have given to me – I think it crucial if we’re all going to make this work.


Jaemie: Yes I agree. Well Emma thank you very much for your time it’s much appreciated. Thanks for being part of Engineering Success.


Emma: No problem at all, thank you.


RGS website:

Twitter: @RogersGeotech

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