The future of our industry is inextricably tied to the development of the next group of leaders

The ACE New Zealand Emerging Leader Award winner will be announced at the ACE Awards, on Wednesday 25 November. We caught up with Doug Johnson, MD of Tonkin + Taylor who sponsors the award to get his views on leadership in the future.

Doug Johnson

Doug, what motivated Tonkin + Taylor to sponsor the Emerging Leader Award? 

We began our journey with the ACE Awards when made the decision to support the Student Award category and in 2012 moved our sponsorship to the Emerging Leader Award. Developing our next group of leaders is an ethos that is passionately supported by T + T management and Board. The future of our industry is inextricably tied to the development of the next group of leaders. 

What are the benefits for award applicants? 

The Emerging Leader Award recognises people in the 25 – 35-year-old age bracket who we hope are going to push on and lead the industry into the future.  

We've seen an increase in the number of submissions in recent years, which I believe is an indication that the award is delivering real value to our emerging leaders.  

When you create your submission into the award, it's a real opportunity to reflect on your leadership. You can start to draw a map of where you've achieved growth and what avenues exist for future growth.  

The feedback I receive from award applicants is that they've enjoyed the journey, and those who made it to the interview stage have received even greater rewards.  

No matter whether applicants are successful or not, the process is a chance to reflect on how to further their leadership aspirations, which is precisely what we want for the industry.  

The future of the sector is reliant on all people asking 'where to next' and 'how do I grow'. 

What qualities are you looking for in a future leader? 

I think one of the challenges we have is that leadership means different things to different people, and there are many unique contexts. There is no one-stop-shop for the development of leadership qualities, and this makes judging the award entries particularly challenging.  

We're looking for people who're aware of the effect they're having on the industry and starting to learn that they could be more effective by being strategic and deliberately different. 

Successful leaders seek answers to questions like:

  • what does leadership mean to me? 

  • what's the impact of my leadership? 

  • I'd like to do this in the future 

  • I think this is important for the industry 

  • I'm doing stuff that will lead me into that 

I think a lot of people come into the awards entry process on a project level, but we're looking for answers to 'how does that apply at an industry level.'  

It's all very well being a technical expert. Still, how you are extending yourself in the areas of thought-leadership or bringing different thought and development into conversations on GIS, structural engineering in New Zealand or business development is more critical in the context of the award. 

How has the award process changed since T + T became involved? 

The interview process and the feedback loops have matured over the last few years. The award is bi-partisan and a tremendous challenge for emerging leaders across the whole industry.  

I'd challenge and encourage smaller companies to support their emerging leaders. Medium or large businesses tend to have more money in their training budget, and therefore can work a little harder in the emerging leader area. There is some excellent raw talent in our SMEs, who don't necessarily get the opportunity to be part of these types of initiatives. We need to address how we create more opportunities for that cohort to gain greater exposure to the leadership journey. I hope that in 20 years, we'll look back and say 'wow', we're such a different industry than we were due to the development of new leaders.  

If we don't promote our emerging leaders and encourage them to greater heights, then everything stays the same and the journey flatlines. 

How critical is it for the industry to develop talented leaders from within its ranks? 

I believe one of the areas where we're organisationally-challenged as an industry is how do you get to experience as a leader.  

Generally, you only get experience by doing and learning from your mistakes. If you don't introduce the role of continuous improvement in the early part of people's careers, then you end up with a big gap and careers begin to stall. There are examples in our industry of individuals who have only focused on a technical career and ultimately want a bit more, but they haven't developed the foundations at people or change management level. Those attributes are integral to creating a sustainable industry.  

Some companies in New Zealand are succeeding in making leadership opportunities available to people early in their careers; however, some continue to hold onto leadership roles in a bit of a binary fashion for their more mature staff. Getting people learning leadership skills early in their careers will help the industry by creating growth opportunities for our more mature leaders, which in turn will allow them to learn to lead differently.  

Collectively, New Zealand needs robust professional services and science sectors to support civil engineering infrastructure growth capacity that will help promote emergent leadership. Otherwise, you end up doing the same thing over and over again, and that doesn't stimulate any refresh thinking or encourage solutions to new challenges. 

How do you stimulate teams to continue reaching for the stars? 

When you put together a fresh, new team, it generally exceeds all expectations on the first project. The same team moves on to a second challenge, and they do OK, but by the time they get to the third project, they have grown accustomed to each other's way of thinking, and may not be as effective as they were at the start. You've got to keep mixing it up, and that's what emerging leaders tend to do for our industry. They are motivated to challenge the status quo and drive teams on to reach higher goals. 

In the age of COVID-19, how can we support and nurture leadership talent? 

Our future leaders must be involved in solving today's problems. As with many other industry leaders, I hadn't led an organisation through a pandemic. I think it's essential that we create an environment that will allow the people who are on the front line to develop solutions to work issues. I don't know what it's like to work from home while dealing with the challenges of dealing with a young family, and many senior leaders will be in a similar position - we must look to our emerging leaders who have young families to determine what the challenges are when working remotely and how we can overcome them. Our more mature staff didn't have any idea of what it would be like to work in this environment either so that they will have developed some valuable insights into the future shape of our business models. I believe emergent leadership is not confined to younger age groups but is scattered through all generations because everybody should continue to grow throughout their career. The opportunities that exist for emergent leadership are now more significant than ever. I hope everyone who has made an effort to place an entry into the Emerging Leader Award will grow to become the leaders of our industry in five, 10, 15 years and beyond.   

Connect with Doug Johnson on LinkedIn