What do you attribute your professional success to?
Years ago, people would say you were “born a leader, always a leader”. In terms of whether leaders are born or made, however, I think it’s a bit of both, but it helps if you have the opportunity to begin developing leadership skills from a young age.
Certainly, sport can help to develop these skills as can a good education. My own leadership style is, I think, down to liking both processes and people.
I’ve always questioned processes and I’ve always questioned what people do. Put both together and you can make a lot of profit.
I try to mix up teams, so you have thinkers, doers, listeners and also people who are energetic on the team. A lot of managers will select the mirror of themselves.
My view is that a nice mix is better and that has always worked for me. I like to have women in senior positions and people from different ethnic backgrounds. The result is a very different decision-making process.
Never be afraid to appoint someone who is better than you. If someone is better than me at something, I want them on my team.
If they become a threat – if they are good enough to take my job – that’s fine. I’ve never been worried about that and make decisions for the company, not for myself.
Fundamentally, I introduce change – and a lot of it – quickly, and then I let it settle. We have had a lot of change at Sisk over the last few years and the business is now in great shape. We have no debt and more than €120 million in the bank. We have great profitability and no bonds outstanding.
There are very few companies in the construction sector in Ireland or the UK in this position. Our team now has a great backbone to build on.
What does your average day look like - what do you do to maximise productivity and effectiveness in your role?
Work-life balance is a priority for us at Sisk right now. We have introduced a 3.30pm finishing time for everyone on Friday afternoons and the shift patterns we operate are designed to ensure that no one works more than 50 hours a week.
That applies to everyone (except for me.) Generally, I arrive in the office at 7.45am and I leave at 6pm.
I put in a 10-hour day in the office, but I was out of the house at 4.15am this morning and I will finish up at about 6.30pm this evening. That’s because I travelled today and I don’t class travel as work.
It is vital in any construction company to keep your eye on the detail. If you lose that, you lose the company.
Within any given month, I will spend 25 per cent of my time on risk management. That means looking at what we are bidding on, why and who with.
The biggest drain on balance sheets and strategy success in construction are loss-making projects. You have to kick them out the door.
We have not had one loss-making project in the past three years and that has transformed our balance sheet.
A quarter of my time in any given month is spent networking with customers, suppliers, government and facilitators.
Another quarter goes on talking to, and meeting with, people in the organisation and the remainder of my time goes on all the “stuff” I don’t necessarily want to be doing but have to do.
Who were the biggest influences in your early career and what did they teach you?
My mum has been the biggest influence in my life. I grew up in a poor family in The Valleys in Wales. My father was a miner and my mother was incredibly quiet, but she was always fair and decisive.
My parents didn’t give me money and they couldn’t help me with my homework, because they both left school themselves at a very early age. Mum read a bit and dad wrote a bit and, between them, they got on well.
What they did teach me was the importance of good behaviour. I cannot stand bad behaviour and I hate injustice. If a decision is made that I feel is unjust, I have to intervene. My parents instilled that in me.
At 13 I had plans to become a professional soccer player, but I was deselected from the Welsh camp at about the age of 16. I then had to pass my exams very quickly. I got 10 O Levels and three A Levels, but my parents couldn’t afford to send me to university.
Instead, I wrote to 27 companies with the help of one of my early mentors, David Kelly, a teacher. He did Technical Drawing, which I loved. I was offered three scholarships to sponsor me through university and I accepted one from George Wimpey.
David Kelly saw something in me and said: “You’re great at Maths, Physics and Technical Drawing. I think you should go into engineering.”
He was the one who introduced me to the Careers Research Advice Council and that is why I went on to apply to all those companies. I wrote the letters, but he put me on my first step of the ladder.
When I was appointed Managing Director at John Mowlem by the Chairman David Evans, I would meet him each week at 11am on Monday for sherry and biscuits. He was really old-fashioned. At every board meeting, we would have a hot meal and red or white wine, but he knew people inside out.
He said to me: “Just remember, you can’t have “100% ‘100 percent-ers’. You have to accept that you will have some people who give just 50%, but as long as they’re on your side, keep them on the team.”
That was great advice and he was the person for me who really stabilised my position and allowed me to learn quickly.