The industry works better if we plan ahead – with Van Tang

Van Tang is GHD's general manager, New Zealand and Pacific. We caught up with her to look at how the New Zealand consulting sector is performing and what we can learn from Australia. 

Van Tang

What inspired you to take up engineering as a career? 

I love the design process, and thoughtfully designed public spaces. From a young age, I enjoyed using creativity and imagination to understand project requirements and then translating that into something special.  

Engineering and consultancy allow you to continually explore new ideas that help you to find better ways of doing things. Every situation, project context and the environment is different, and I thrive from being in that learning space. 

The COVID lockdown period confirmed how much I enjoy engaging with people. As consultants, we need to develop our ability to discuss and listen to our colleagues and clients. 

Where did you do your engineering training? 

At the University of Adelaide. I came to Australia when I was three years old with my family as refugees from Vietnam. Once I completed my studies, I worked with a small engineering firm that had a great CV of significant projects. I was with them for about seven years before joining GHD, and I've been fortunate to have so many opportunities with the company.  

During my working life, I have undertaken a wide variety of project roles, including as an engineer, manager and director. I also held the position of global service line leader for aviation in GHD. In that role, I was part of the team that developed and delivered the strategy that deepened the technical capability of aviation across all of GHD 

Before my move to New Zealand in February this year, I was the general manager for GHD in South Australia. 

What is your role with GHD in New Zealand? 

I am the General Manager for New Zealand and the Pacific. This role requires me to challenge our business teams to do things differently, and that has become more critical as the coronavirus pandemic continues to batter the business environment both here and across the world. As individuals, we must always strive to learn, and that requires organisations to learn as well. I've been told many times that I am a leader of culture, and I love creating a business environment that is creative, supportive, accountable and fun.  

Another crucial part of my role is developing the next generation of leaders. Succession planning is such a vital part of my position, and I will focus on creating a pool of candidates who can take over from me when it's time to move on; developing the next generation of design managers, project directors and technical people.   

What do you remember of your first six months in your new role?   

This little quote perfectly describes my first six months with GHD in New Zealand. 

"In some decades, it feels like weeks happened, and in some weeks it feels like decades happen."  

I got to New Zealand shortly before the COVID-19 lockdown, and it was a hectic time. Early on, I didn't know the business or the people that well, but I had to develop an environment of trust from day one. The manoeuvring, conversations and assessments that we have worked through in the first six months of 2020 were made entirely through trust with the management and people. The people at GHD made me feel incredibly welcome, while the communities that my family have interacted with have also welcomed us with open arms. I have two girls, and the school community has been fabulous and helpful. During lockdown in March, we were able to get to know our neighbours which was a small bonus at a challenging time.  

What things are the New Zealand consulting and engineering sectors doing well?  

It may be because I am a newcomer to the industry in New Zealand, but I am really surprised and energised by the level of collaboration and connectivity here. We had industry and client virtual meetings during the lockdown, which were very helpful.  

I think, as an industry, we're becoming more united due to the use of one voice and the development of clear messaging. The industry organisations here are more active than they are in Australia with ACE New Zealand, Engineering New Zealand and Infrastructure New Zealand working well in the collaboration and communication space.  

Are there things we can learn from Australia?  

Again, I need to caveat my thoughts with the fact that I'm new to the industry in New Zealand. In Australia, the industry has a very clear view of the contract pipeline, and while COVID has undoubtedly affected the development of work opportunities in New Zealand, I haven't seen that clarity quite as much here. There is a large amount of transparency between industry and clients in Australia, which goes a long way towards helping businesses clarify their one to three-year outlook. I think the sector in New Zealand still requires improvement in the amount of information that is shared between organisations and clients to avoid surprises. The industry works better if we can plan ahead to satisfy our client's requirements and position ourselves to move quickly as new opportunities present themselves.  

How are we doing with procurement? 

Procurement may have been affected by COVID, but it has become vital that we have the right systems in place, especially with the current fragility of the business environment. We need to test procurement and see if we can work through how we approach this in a more streamlined way. As examples, I am aware of government agencies in Australia that have adjusted their procurement practices to suit the COVID environment, by shortlisting much quicker and changing what would have previously been in the tender phase to post-award. It has allowed them to speed up the process of getting to market, whilst giving industry greater certainty. 

What are the major industry issues at a societal level? 

One of the significant issues facing New Zealand is the re-development of our water, energy and transport infrastructure in a meaningful, thoughtful and coordinated manner. We can't continue to design and deliver infrastructure, the way we have before. There will need to be a collaboration between central and local government if we are going to deliver those services more efficiently and sustainably for the whole country. I'm not saying anything that others haven't said already, but they are significant issues for the country. I've got to say; I'm surprised at the lack of public transport in some of the larger cities in New Zealand. I believe one of the signs of a mature city or community is how simple it is for everyone to access public transport. In cities like Sydney, New York and London, you see wealthy people using public transport alongside workers, and for me, that is a sign the authorities have struck the right balance for the community. 

What are the key issues the consulting and engineering sectors will face over the next few years? 

Communities right around the country are telling us there are things we are currently doing that we can't continue to do, and this was happening pre-COVID. We should always challenge ourselves to understand what this means on a whole range of levels. As an example, I don't think we can continue to procure, deliver and operationally manage infrastructure assets as we have done in the past. We need to think smarter. How do communities use infrastructure, how can we better deliver for our communities, how do you shift our focus to the whole of life costs of infrastructure and take advantage of technology? We should also recognise that there are some work functions that we can't replicate going forward. One of those issues is creating the right balance between working from home and in the office. We need to develop flexibility but also put the right networks in place, which will allow people to learn and grow in the right way.  

What is GHD doing in the area of digital transformation?  

Technology needs to be at the core of everything we do. Two years ago, we set up GHD Digital, which has been instrumental in transforming our business and how we use technology. We don't have that on our own of course, as other companies have also embraced technology. GHD Digital creates opportunities to work in partnership with our clients developing a whole new way of thinking. We all still have a lot to learn in the digital space, and I believe there is enormous potential and opportunity to work together with our clients to expand this area further, for the benefit of the company and the clients. 

Connect with Van Tang on LinkedIn