At Engineers Australia’s Climate Smart Engineering conference recently, Fiona Cousins, Director at Arup, discussed how engineers can become the leaders the world needs.
Addressing the crowd from New York, Cousins acknowledged that her advice did have an American slant. However, it was easy to see an overlap in the issues Australian and US engineers face.
“If we’re going to meet the targets necessary to pull us back from the brink of the climate crisis it will take corporations, individuals and governments alike,” she said.
What we need, Cousins said, is effective leaders who can bring together different stakeholders and leverage the knowledge of others.
As an industry leader herself, Cousins is well placed to explain how engineers can achieve this.
Want to lead the way
The first step to becoming an effective leader is to want to lead and to know what drives you to lead, Cousins said.
“You might want to leave a better planet for your kids or grandkids. It might be that you see nobody better and you either have a saviour complex or just a frustration that no one else seems to be doing anything,” she said.
“Another motivation that you might have, and what my kindergarten teacher saw in me, is an overdeveloped sense of duty. I suspect that made me quite a difficult five-year-old.”
The likely driver for many engineers is the recognition that they have unique and necessary technical skills that apply to many of the issues society is facing.
Once you understand your motivation for leading, it’s then about figuring out what kind of leader you want to be.
“For myself, I’ve always been far more successful as a leader when I truly believe in where I’m going,” Cousins said.
“When I both take responsibility for leading and being really clear with myself about the objective.”
Drawing on her own experiences, Cousins told attendees about how she struggled to explain to Arup stakeholders the drivers behind the organisation’s automation transformation.
“There was a lot of pressure to say it was all about productivity and efficiency. But that always felt to me like a race to the bottom,” she said.
“It started to make sense to both myself and others when I put together the argument that automation can lead to better outcomes. Automating the boring [tasks] leads to fewer mistakes and that leads to more time to think which leads to more time for creativity.”
Go beyond your limits
Once you understand why you want to lead and how you want to lead, you need to look inward to identify what Cousins calls your “arena” and how it shapes the way you approach a problem.
“For our arena, the engineering arena, the design of the built environment is really complex, and the crises are complex in the way that they impact that arena,” she said.
“My experience as a designer is that the first step is to understand the problem properly … It involves thinking about all the things you can’t change, and all the things you can’t do.”
To push past the boundaries of our arenas, we need to engage experts from other arenas who will bring their own knowledge and approaches to an issue.
For example, as Emilio Granados Franco from the World Economic Forum pointed out during a different conference session, climate change has spillover effects into other issues, such as health. So, engineers need to be prepared to engage medical experts and health scientists to create effective solutions.
This means acknowledging the limits of your knowledge, but also being open and curious to learning something new.
“We need to build our skills over our lifetimes and, while it may not always feel like it, we do have the time to do it,” Cousins said.
“If you subscribe to the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become confident in something then a full career of 40 years allows you to become confident in about eight somethings, and that’s just in your working hours.”
Effective leaders are bold
The final ingredient in Cousins’ recipe for an effective leader is bravery. However, finding out how to make ourselves brave is a personal journey.
“For me, it’s understanding where I have strengths, and that’s normally around knowledge and experience or about using my own particular perspective to see a problem in a different way,” Cousins said.
“It’s also about understanding where I don’t have strengths and that it’s okay to admit I don’t know, and I do need help.”
Brave leaders aren’t afraid to manoeuvre themselves into a position of maximum usefulness.
“Resolving [climate change] is not a question of finding the right lever and pulling on it, it’s a question of finding the points of maximum impact within our own arenas,” Cousins said.
“[It’s about] using the tool sets we built individually and bringing the courage to both lead and act and then building teams that can manage the overall risks together.”