This International Women’s Day, create sat down with Arup’s Australasian Co-Chairs to talk about diversity in leadership, and the wide-ranging benefits of a joint model.
What began as a throwaway comment about two senior leaders co-heading the Australasian region of engineering consultancy Arup has become a fruitful working relationship.
Kerryn Coker, who joined the London office of Arup in 2004 as a façade engineer, and Kate West, who began her career as an engineering graduate with Arup in 2000, have been co-chairing the region for two years.
While both worked across Europe in design management roles, followed by operational roles in Australia, they only crossed paths as region Board appointees in 2019.
“In 2021, the previous region Chair was retiring, [and] reached out to some Board members, including Kate and me, to test our interest in applying for the role,” says Coker.
That’s when West put forward the idea: “Imagine if we could do this role together”.
Transforming an idea into reality
Both women deeply understood Arup’s aspirations via its sustainable development strategy. They also share similarities in their personal life, with Coker and West both having primary school-aged children.
As a Co-Chair role wasn’t what Arup was looking for, Coker and West made sure they were ready with an air-tight pitch.
“We did our research,” says Coker. “We read articles and looked into different ways of leading together.”
The pair then mapped out what a Co-Chair role would look like according to their expertise, experience, and the agendas they were each strategically leading.
“We also mapped it out geographically,” says Coker. “Because Southeast Asia is part of our region – Kate being based in Western Australia works really well, whereas I lean into the East Coast and New Zealand.”
Part of the offer’s appeal is that the company gets double the capacity.
Leading a region of a large organisation such as Arup, with its 3,000 strong employee base, is a full time job operationally, in and of itself.
Factor in the current complexity of business, the broad range of services Arup delivers and the number of markets it operates in – it can be an overwhelming role for one person.
“We both work full-time, so we have the capacity to look beyond internal operations [towards] a strong external market presence, so we can lift the Arup brand and have influence in areas such as sustainable development,” says Coker.
Tackling an ambitious sustainable strategy
Arup’s global strategy – “shape a better world” – is to both diversify and grow geographically while developing services to meet sustainable development.
“Everything is now stitched together around this common purpose across all 19,000 of our members globally,” says West.
“It’s redefining everything we do – in buildings and infrastructure, and how we look at whole-of-life carbon assessments.”
This entails transitioning and evolving all of Arup’s services to deliver a sustainable future – environmentally, socially and economically.
“We’re looking at not just a transport project, for example, but ensuring that project delivers social value and shapes cities for better outcomes,” says West.
To rise up to the challenge, the Co-Chairs took this strategic plan and mapped it against their individual strengths and expertise.
“I’ve been internal operations focused, and I’ve been leading on the sustainable development agenda region Board for the last few years,” says Coker. “Whereas Kate has been leading the external brand and influence, ensuring we have a voice through and beyond our projects.”
It has been immensely beneficial for the business to have the speed of decision making and validation you get from two minds, says Coker.
“There are confidential matters that continuously come at pace for consideration,” she says.
“In your own mind, these things can swirl around, whereas being able to test it with somebody else to get a different perspective, you get a better outcome for the business at pace.”
This sounding board, inbuilt check and balance, and diversity of thought has allowed the pair to lift and shift the organisation strategically, a notion that was recently reaffirmed for Coker when speaking at Engineers Australia’s International Women’s Day lunch this week.
“So many people came up to talk about the voice Arup now has in sustainable development, beyond energy and water, into social equity into nature,” she says.
“Because there’s two of us, we’ve been able to share our knowledge and expertise to help to lift the whole industry so we can make the rapid change and positive impact we need to.”
Role modelling diversity
In a role that can be lonely, immensely stressful and time consuming, it’s no surprise that CEOs burn out, says West.
“People often do these roles at a time in life where they don’t have young children or are unable to give time to their children if they do,” she says.
“For us, it’s a balance of making sure our families know us, which means turning up for school concerts and swimming carnivals.”
The traditional model of all powerful single CEOs is hugely unappealing to many people, agrees Coker, particularly those from diverse backgrounds and skill sets. By reshaping how we look at leadership, organisations can attract diverse talent into these most senior roles.
“If you really want to get the best talent into senior roles, being open to approaching those roles differently is critical,” she says.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” adds West, which is why senior leaders need to champion diversity from the top.
“We have never had women lead Arup in Australasia. So seeing how people of different ages, genders and constructs can lead – both in terms of style and personality – is really important as well,” she says.
Since West and Coker took the helm, they have seen others come through with co-leadership models.
“It allows people who may be at that point in their life that they wouldn’t have done the role alone to put themselves forward,” says West.
For those considering following suit, there are two principles that form the foundation of West and Coker’s relationship.
“If you’re looking for a partner to work with in a co-relationship, trust and respect for each other is key,” says West.
It’s also crucial to leave any egos at the door. “It’s not just about me or Kate as leaders of Australasia, it’s about Co-Chairs leading the region together.”
The overwhelming key to their success, however, is a commitment to shared accountability and responsibility for the region’s performance.
“Each of us goes off representing Arup as Co-Chairs, having full confidence in the other to do so,” says Coker.