Management starts with people - with Simon Fenton

Construction Phase Services Lead on the Auckland City Rail Link, Simon Fenton won the 2020 ACE New Zealand Emerging Leader Award. We sat down and chatted to him about the award and found out a bit more about the man.

Simon Fenton

Simon Fenton accepting his Emerging Leader Award

What did it mean to win the ACE Emerging Leader award? 

It meant a wide range of things. Firstly, it was great to represent WSP, and it showed me the value I have accrued from working alongside some fantastic people within the company. The win also allowed me to become a board member of ACE, which is an excellent opportunity for me to contribute to the consulting sector on a bigger scale. The achievement also allowed me to reflect on what I've achieved at this point in my career. I believe that anyone who quickly rises through the ranks is continually called on to punch above their weight, and it's possible to develop an imposter syndrome. You regularly put your hand up to tackle new opportunities and keep striving for more, but this means that you never actually feel entirely comfortable in your role. From time to time, I developed that imposter syndrome which led me to question "what value am I adding here" and "how I am leading these successful teams". I came up against some fantastic emerging leaders at this year's awards, including my very talented colleague Kesia Lloyd who is the Head of Specialist Services at WSP. Coming away with the win has given me a huge confidence boost and helped me realise how progressed to this position in my career. 

What did you take away from the awards process? 

My transport director called during the first lockdown of 2020 and told me the company would like to put my name forward for the ACE Emerging Leader award. It was quite a daunting entry process as you have to try and understand what your leadership style is, how you manage your day to day responsibilities and what you've achieved during your career. Although daunting, the process allowed me to sit back and reflect on the projects I've worked on and the people I've worked with and learnt from. I have been fortunate to have many fantastic mentors during my career, and they have all had an incredible influence on not only my technical knowledge but also the leader that I have become today. I discovered that many of the people I worked with have some very different but powerful leadership qualities, and some of those things have become part of my leadership style. The awards process certainly allowed me to reflect on where I am today in my career and where I would like to head in the future. 

What prompted you to take on engineering?  

From when I was a small kid, I enjoyed construction. It was all lego blocks, diggers, machinery and digging holes, and I guess that pushed me towards an engineering career. In my eyes, I never thought there were any other career options, and I am fortunate enough to have had an excellent education that has allowed me to take on a career in civil engineering. 

What was your first engineering job?  

My first job was as a site engineer in the UK working on a project at London's Kings Cross Station. I was involved in a significant upgrade of the Railway Station which included laying new tracks, the construction of two new platforms and a new large office block. It was quite a complex project because we were dealing with a heritage building which created a large number of problems that had to be worked through daily. After that project, I worked all over the UK on developments that ranged from the construction of energy from waste plants to upgrades of water treatment plants. I then decided to travel to New Zealand to do an OE for six to 12 months. I thought it would be great to get an insight into the engineering and consulting world here, do some sightseeing and experience a different culture. Eight years later and I'm still here.   

What's your philosophy on management? 

You've got to be engaged with, and understand the needs of your people.  

Some managers just look at the supervision of staff from a process point of view. I am not convinced that those managers are fully engaged with their people. There are all sorts of different drivers that you can use to justify your decision making, like sorting out inefficiencies and creating a greater profit margin. Those drivers can be critical to the success of the business, but unless you're delivering a quality performance from your people, you're never going to meet those end goals fully. I believe management starts with people, and I have found the best results are gained from using a compassionate approach when dealing with my teams. 

What's your role with Auckland's CRL? 

I run the Construction Phase Services Team, which is the interface between design and construction. My team is based at Aotea, and we're here to ensure that the construction team can build what has been designed and to provide advice to help improve the construction process and also to try and make savings in time and cost. An essential part of our role is to undertake site checks to ensure the construction team have understood the philosophy behind the design and that the quality of the end product is acceptable. 

What's the major challenge you've had to overcome on the project? 

I think the biggest challenge in a lot of construction projects is around relationships. The CRL project is an alliance of different companies coming together to design and construct multiple projects around Auckland. Within each of the project teams, there is a design team, a construction team, construction phase services team, quality team and an engineering team, amongst others. Since joining the project this year, my main focus has been driving the alliance model and principals, ensuring that as a team, we work together and remain focused on the same end goal. It's also essential that each of us understands and appreciates what the challenges of the different teams are. Creating individual personal and professional relationships is always a challenge amongst intelligent, driven and passionate people but the team at Aotea are working fantastically with a single purpose to deliver the project to the people of Auckland to a high standard, on programme, within budget and in the safest way.  

Tell us about your work experience in Fiji? 

I worked in Fiji for about 18 months, which was a very different experience to anything I have done in my career so far. I was involved in an upgrade of Queens Road in Nadi, which is a significant section of the transport link between the international airport and the resorts on Denarau Island. This project was not just the construction of a new road but a total infrastructure upgrade. Along with the client, the Fiji Roads Authority, we worked with the Fiji Water Authority, the Fiji Electrical Authority and Telecom Fiji. We had to build the new road, lay new water mains, and underground the electricity and communications lines to make them cyclone proof. One of our main aims during this project was to not only complete a high-quality infrastructure upgrade but also leave Fiji with the ability to undertake these types of projects on their own. We didn't want to leave Fiji, knowing they would still have to rely on engineering services from Australia and New Zealand for these types of infrastructure projects. We partnered with several local engineering firms and brought their young graduate engineers into the project so they could upskill. 

Was that a success? 

Of the four young engineers that we introduced to the project, three are now working in New Zealand. That's not what we originally intended, but it is a fantastic opportunity for those guys who will now be able to take their skills to a new level. The amount of high-level engineering work available in Fiji is limited, but those three engineers who have come to New Zealand now have an incredible opportunity to put into practice what they learnt on the Queens Road project, develop themselves further and hopefully take these skills back home to Fiji in the future. 

What advice would you give to people considering entering the Emerging Leader award? 

Firstly, I would remind all candidates to believe in your ability and not to question your potential to win the award. In order to give yourself the best chance of success and derive the most significant benefit from the awards process, I would start by gaining a precise understanding of what the judges are looking for. You should be very clear about how you have developed as a person, a leader and as a consultant. You need to demonstrate your business leadership qualities and show what you offer to your local community. If there are areas that you see as lacking, then use it as a driver to identify how you can contribute to new things for your business and your community. 

What do you like to do for fun? 

I'm a big outdoors person which was a big driver for me coming to New Zealand and is one of the reasons that I am still here and not back with my family in the UK. I like to play soccer, run, surf and hike but I am also involved in some charity work. I am part of an organisation that was formally called Brothers in Arms but is now known as Upside. We mentor young people who come from challenging circumstances, with an aim to make positive changes in their lives and be a good influence on them. I also volunteer for beach cleanups and tree planting, and any other projects that I have time to fit into my life.  

Connect with Simon Fenton on LinkedIn