Leaders of Influence

With Lara Poloni, Chief Executive, AECOM Australia & New Zealand

The 'Leaders of Influence' Series engages high calibre industry leaders to present to our alumni and community on current and critical issues that impact Australian and global engineering, architecture and IT companies.

Speakers have included Elizabeth Bryan (Chairman, Caltex and Virgin Australia), Ken Boal (Vice President, Cisco Australia/New Zealand) and David Rohrsheim (GM, Uber Australia & New Zealand).

The Series, hosted by UQ's Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology, are held in capital cities around Australia.



"Thanks for your presentation. You were talking about the contractors that you now use to get projects done.

How does that affect the business' culture?

You have a lot more people coming through the business, that I imagine would make it more challenging to keep those business values existing in that group of people."


"We expect that if you are working for us, whether that's for six months or 12 months, you are buying into the AECOM way of work and the way that we do things around here.

We have induction programs, during which you can't really communicate the day to day cultural aspect, you can learn about systems and processes- again this is where communication is key. Whether someone is coming in as contractor or permanent staff member, they are immediately part of the communication cascade that we have in our organisation, so I think that they learn pretty quickly.

Staff can go to a town hall meeting in the Brisbane office with Todd Battley and they hear, pretty candidly, what journey we're on, what we're doing well, and where we need to focus as a business.

The other thing that we're doing, through this whole period of market uncertainty, is looking at different ways of delivering projects.

We're very conscious that there is an increasingly large number of our staff out on project sites in remote office locations delivering projects, sometimes for a year, sometimes for two years, so it's really important that the leaders all spend the time to go out and visit these sites,over and above the day to day connections.

It's one thing to receive emails, but they want to see leaders face-to-face, first hand. I'll say to you, we're not perfect with that,but it's certainly a big part of what we're striving to achieve. We had a discussion yesterday about what we can do better with respect to communication within our organisation, and that was one of the areas that we need to keep working on.

Leaders need to go out to those offices; the leaders need to check in to make sure that careers aren't forgotten about. They're trying new ways of keeping staff connected and engaged. I think it's a work in progress,but something that is very front-of-mind for us."


Thank you Lara - very commendable in the flexibility of employment options.

The only question I need to ask is there must be change then with financial institutions, because if people go for loans, a lot of the banks prefer you, or want you, as part of their checklist, to have a permanent job.

So I just wondered if there are any problems [being experienced with your employment arrangements] with people not being able to get loans for personal loans, or housing, and how do you think that might be addressed?


"I must admit, no one has spoken to me as specifically as that, so there's no individual circumstances that I am aware of with respect to people's financial conversations. I can imagine that would be an issue for people.

The flexibility discussion is an interesting one for us at the moment.

The concept there for us is that people are still paid the same amount of money, but we're talking about a fundamental shift with how people do their job. I'm getting asked about this a lot, because we're still early in the journey to a culture of genuine flexibility. We did some simple,symbolic things earlier this year.

We abolished standard start and finish times. For as long as I had worked there, it was always 8:30am – 5:00pm, and of course everyone worked around that. But, we changed that in terms of the jobs that we advertise.The other change that we made was that we very clearly said on those job descriptions that this role could be performed flexibly, full-time or part-time.So that's a big cultural shift in our organisation.

I'll be honest with you. Some managers are very nervous about what this means. We have a couple of very simple principles and I keep saying to people, we're not going to go and produce a voluminous handbook about how to work flexibly. This is about a conversation between an employee and their manager, and we have some simple ground rules that we talk about. If it works for you, if it works for your team, and if it works for your client, then I'm pretty confident that we can navigate a path forward. That's working well so far.

The important part for us is what have we got to do to enable that, and for us the priority areas are around equipping managers with the leadership tools, communication skills and some tips about how to facilitate and encourage more of those conversations. It is all about removing the blockers to those conversations happening, and enabling our people to feel confident about having that conversation in the first place.

It's a journey, but I take your initial question on board. I haven't heard anything there, but I can imagine that's something that potentially managers can help with. When we' talk about flexibility, it's important to communicate that no one's pay grade is changing; it's about where and when they work.


"You mentioned ethical dilemmas, and I wanted to get your perspective on how, why and when you go about making decisions on which projects are ethical to work on and which ones are not.

For example, very few of us now would work on a new cigarette factory. Where do you draw the line as an organisation? You mentioned defence, is there something in defence where you will and won't work?"


"I started to smile a bit with the cigarette factory example, because 20 years ago there was an ethical conversation in our organisation around us contributing to the design of a tobacco factory in the Philippines.

It had leaders in our organisation up in arms about whether we were going to work on a project like that. There was another decision making process in the past that I remember I wasn’t driving, but involved with at a local level, when one of the two global tobacco companies approached us to do some work with them, but it was actually to demolish a manufacturing facility and to create a public open space area.

So, in the case of the earlier tobacco factory, I know that the Australian part of the organisation declined that opportunity. But the second was an interesting dilemma, and we decided that it was noteworthy to talk about what the nature of the services that we would be performing for this company.

Yes they were a tobacco company, but what was the impact of our work going to have? And the reality of it was, our work was going to end the production of cigarettes and result in a great lasting outcome for the community. So in that case, we did decide to perform that work.

Defence is an interesting one. The reality is the work that we often get involved in has a lot of impacts, and there are diverse opinions about what the long term impacts of that are, and what the cumulative impacts are. We will have some divergence of opinion."


"My next question is about what future leaders in our industry need to be doing now to prepare for their career. This can be a very competitive environment for them as a graduate from university. There are a number of students here.

There's quite a move towards people taking up dual degrees or other skills. Do you see the engineering world changing over time? It was interesting hearing you saying about the arts coming into engineering. Do you have any ideas for people to stand out among the crowd?"


"I think we want the best of both worlds, and that's a simple way of explaining it. We are evolving as an organisation to go beyond design and go into the construction and maintenance phases of the projects that we get involved with. That's quite a deliberate strategy at a global level.

One thing we communicate to our staff is that the foundation and core of our business is design and consulting services, so whether that's the work that engineers or planners do that's in support of those engineering decisions, that will remain the core part of our business.

When I started in the organisation 22 years ago, it was a purely engineering organisation —and we weren't the only ones looking at ways of evolving and diversifying. If I look at our graduate recruitment campaign in particular, we absolutely want to continue to have diversity of engineering disciplines in our organisation.

We know that it's much easier to recruit from the civil engineering disciplines, but we find it hard to get gender diversity in the less popular disciplines like electrical and mechanical. So, we are going to continue to recruit in core engineering disciplines. But, at the same time, we will also recruit and grow our business in some of the allied disciplines.

I've seen that really change enormously, not just with planning and environmental science related disciplines. Over time we have grown the number of people in our organisation who have an economics or commerce background, because, as many of you know, there is a lot of business casework and economic evaluation that happens before the designers get involved.

We have statisticians and mathematicians who do a lot of modelling and scenario planning work in consultation with the engineers. So I think that diversification of disciplines is something that we absolutely want to keep doing. And now we're seeing that evolve in the construction sector, so we've recruited more people who have had construction and delivery experience.At the heart of all of that is a very strong focus on diversity of engineering disciplines."

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