Roberta Downey is a partner and co-head of the international construction group at Vinson & Elkins LLP in London
As people around the world celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) today, it provides a welcome opportunity to focus on the importance of authentic leadership. Leadership isn’t easy, and it’s not a position you can achieve on your own.
Successful leadership starts from within – from knowing yourself, understanding your own strengths and weaknesses and remaining true to yourself while leading by example. Crucial elements to becoming a strong leader are understanding that you have a purpose and knowing your “why” before trying to bring others on board.
For me, I’m driven by winning – and not just construction cases. I win when I’m working with the best people on the best jobs and loving every minute of it, which then leads to winning the client pitch, winning the case, winning the awards. Within that, I focus on learning, building relationships, asking for help when I need it and following four simple rules.
1. Think of leadership like a high school dance. Someone has to be first on the dance floor
It’s not easy to be the first person to speak up in a meeting or to propose new ideas in a room full of strangers, especially when few in that room look or sound like you. But someone has to go first. When you can motivate yourself and inspire others, you’re not afraid to be the first one on the dance floor.
For many, this can be intuitive. I don’t ever ask “How am I going to motivate myself today?” or “What can I do to inspire my team today?” That’s partly because you don’t choose to become or appoint yourself a leader. Others do. When your colleagues see you on the dance floor – and believe you will deliver on what you say – they’ll want to get up and dance with you.
I’m driven because I absolutely love what I do. Having passion for my job means that even when I work incredibly long hours, it doesn’t feel like work. I never wake up thinking that I don’t want to go into the office. And if I did, I’d have to make a change. If you have that passionate mindset as a leader, it becomes infectious. The people around you get the passion for their jobs as well. They’re motivated, and everyone enjoys the dance.
2. The best idea prevails – and can come from anyone at any experience level
Successful leaders understand that good ideas are not a top-down concept. When my team gathers to brainstorm, the best idea prevails – no matter who it came from. We don’t think about title, position or years of experience. The best idea can come from anyone in the room.
It’s so important to encourage confidence and create a safe environment where everyone feels like they have a voice. Doing so doesn’t come easily. In fact, some of the most successful leaders suffer from imposter syndrome. Certainly, I do.
Many years ago, I attended a talk by the first female fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force, and I’ll always remember how she put it. “When you start out in your career,” she said, “you begin thinking you know absolutely nothing, and soon everyone will figure out soon that you shouldn’t really be here. Then you get comfortable and start thinking you know everything, and that’s the most dangerous time. Later, after you’ve gone through that cycle, you get to the end where, once again, you realise that people are going to find out that you never really knew anything.”
I’ve told my team that, when I did my first seat as a trainee in construction, my first-seat assessment said: “Construction law isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But Roberta could have tried to look interested.”
My team always looks shocked when I share this story, because anyone who knows me knows that I absolutely love construction law. But I share it to help them realise that, in the beginning, we’re all a bit intimidated. Then, as experience, passion and motivation come in to play, you become more comfortable – and everything gets easier.
3. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, use it and improve it. And always give credit where it’s due.
We hear the word “innovation” quite a lot these days, but it’s rarely well-defined. This can be scary. It can make us fear that, if we’re not doing the equivalent of inventing the internet (or the wheel), we’re not innovating. But the reality is, nothing is completely new. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and we all take someone else’s idea and build on it.
So for me, innovation begins with imagination. You don’t have to develop the next great technology to be innovative. You can imagine a new way of doing things, take a new approach to an old process or expand on an existing concept. All of that is innovation.
Another thing that’s incredibly important – and something I don’t see happen often enough – is giving others credit for their work. I work on big construction cases with massive teams, and if I’ve asked someone else to do something or implemented someone’s idea, I always let the client know who should get the credit. When your team does great work, a good leader credits the team. And when your team’s work is not its best, a good leader takes responsibility.
4. Make ‘yes’ your default answer
As a leader or aspiring leader, you must always be prepared to take on things outside of your comfort zone. You may not know the answer, but after some research or a discussion with someone, you will find a way in, and soon you’ll be doing what you once thought impossible. In turn, that will give you more confidence the next time you are asked to do something you have never done before, and people will begin taking inspiration from you.
That’s when you truly become a successful leader — when others do something that you ask of them not because you’re their boss, but because they want to do it, and they can see the mutual benefit created by an alignment of interests. When I look at my team or my clients, that is my measure of success.
Every leader needs to remember that there is no such thing as not having an impact. You always have an impact – whether it’s positive or negative. Even doing nothing is a proactive choice. So the question you must always ask yourself is, “Are you having the impact you want to have?”
This article was published on 8 March to mark International Women’s Day (IWD) 2023.
This year Construction News and New Civil Engineer are once again joining forces to champion the role of women in construction and engineering. The Inspiring Women in Construction Awards and conference will take place in London in October.
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