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What it takes to be a construction and property leader today

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An interview with Richard Steer, winner of the Building Awards’ Personality of the Year

The annual Building Awards are the construction and property industry’s longest running and most prominent recognition of excellence for organisations and individuals in the sector. At the most recent awards, once again Hays sponsored Personality of the Year, the most prestigious award of all.

The deserving recipient of the award was Worldwide Chairman of Gleeds Richard Steer. For over 130 years, Gleeds has advised clients from almost every sector in the industry on how to make a success of their construction and property projects, playing a key role in some of the UK’s most prestigious projects including the London 2012 Olympics and Crossrail.

Since his appointment as Chairman in 1999, Richard has helped drive the business forward, growing into a global organisation with a turnover of over £150 million and 68 offices worldwide. Richard describes the company as ‘a business of team players who are all equally committed to building lasting relationships with people and clients.’

We sat down with Richard to what it takes to be a construction and property leader today and the challenges the industry is likely to face over the next few years.

What does it takes to be a good leader?

‘In my opinion and experience, there are four qualities that combine to make a truly exceptional leader. First, I think it’s vital to have vision. All exceptional leaders I have known constantly ask themselves: Where is our business going, and how do we get there? They are helming the ship, so have to be the force driving it forward. However, they must also be flexible, as things can change – often completely out of their control – and they need to be ready to be adaptable and agile.

Perhaps most importantly, a leader must have integrity. This is non-negotiable. Integrity engenders trust, and everyone you deal with – clients, colleagues, employees and vendors – have to able to trust you and by extension the business you manage.’

And how do you think that differs when it comes to being a leader in the construction and property industry?

‘The additional element that I think a good leader in our industry needs is to be able to deal with a huge variety of people. One hour you could be speaking to a CEO of a FTSE 100 organisation, the next a potential investor, and then the people working on the site. This is a diverse and broad industry, and you have to be able to understand the unique challenges that many different groups are facing, communicate effectively with them, and offer relevant advice when needed.’

In your opinion, what new challenges will industry leaders face over the next few years?

‘Perhaps the biggest challenge are the acute skills shortages we are set to face. Compounding this is the issue of how best to attract the next generation of construction and property leaders. There is something of a lingering, unglamorous public perception about our industry, which doesn’t help when trying to attract tech-savvy and forward-looking Millennials and Gen Z-ers.’

So what should organisations do to overcome skills shortages?

‘One of the solutions to this is to embrace new technology. Some organisations may see the increasing scope of technology in construction and property as yet another challenge, but I really believe it brings many opportunities. Whether it is carbon data collection or Building Information Modelling (BIM), embracing new technology has the potential to bring very positive changes to our industry, pushing it forward and making it thrive in the new Artificial Intelligence world. Modernising the industry and innovating in this way will also undoubtedly help attract a new generation of talent.

To further help with the skills shortages, organisations should look to engage with people at a young age by working with schools and colleges in their local communities and increase their support for apprenticeship schemes and other forms of internal or on the job training.

Finally, we need to redefine the image of British construction and property, changing it from one of ‘muddy boots’ to ‘the best in the world’, an industry of which we should all rightly be very proud. As I mentioned before, ours is a very diverse industry. In order to change public perceptions to accurately reflect how dynamic, modern and exciting it is, senior leaders should come together and speak with a single voice on the issues that matter the most to us.’

What three qualities do you look for when hiring someone at Gleeds?

‘We have many types of people working for us, and there isn’t a single mould for what makes a Gleeds employee. However, three attributes we do require, and which everyone at our organisation shares, are being energetic and positive about the work we do, being committed to do a good job, and always acting with integrity and honesty.’

Naturally in the course of everyone’s career there are highlights, but there are also challenges. What is the hardest professional challenge you have had to overcome?

‘Not long after I graduated from university, I moved to the Middle East. This was hugely challenging. Not only was I finding my feet professionally, but I was doing it in a culture I wasn’t familiar with. However, I would also say that this experience was hugely rewarding. Yes, there were challenges that I likely would not have faced if I hadn’t moved, but it also opened my eyes to the world, taught me to be very self-reliant and proactive, and nurtured my love of travelling and meeting new people, which has served me well throughout my career.’

What would you say is your personal business mantra?

‘Always stay authentic. I think that just being yourself and staying true to who you are is the best way to be both relatable and trustworthy.’

And finally, what does winning the Building Magazine Personality of the Year Award mean to you?

‘It goes without saying that I was delighted to win, and felt very honoured. However, I really do see this award as recognition of everyone at Gleeds’ achievements, and of all my colleagues’ hard work and success. Last year our organisation won the Consultancy of the Year award – so I’m hoping next year we win another to score a hat-trick.’


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