When you hear of a strong-willed 16 year old girl, what image comes to mind? A stereotypical ‘difficult’ adolescent? My Page 1 Woman, Hilary Robson, might have been seen as such. But it was precisely her determination and refusal to accept the status quo that got her into a ‘male profession’, where she became a director at the age of 29. When asked by her career advisor, “Have you thought about a nice bank job, dear?” Hilary Robson wasn’t fazed by gender stereotypes. And when denied work experience in surveying and engineering, she got the ‘Yellow Pages’ and set up the work experience for herself. Even at that young age, my Page 1 Woman was a tenacious and fearless self-leader with a tendency to do what it takes to get what she wants regardless of the obstacles. Here she is in her own words.
Describe your work.
Hilary Robson: I’m a quantity surveyor by profession, but I’ve branched out into various niche services over the years. My company, Kinetica Consult Ltd, provides services to distressed and insolvent construction companies and support clients and contractors on construction projects. This encompasses, for instance, working on behalf of insolvency practitioners to recover outstanding debts for the benefit of the creditors of those companies by undertaking a thorough and accurate evaluation of any amount due and any counter-claims that may be set-off against those debts.
I could also be asked to undertake appraisals of contract assets of companies for reasons such as asset sales, or solvent liquidations. And I assist contractors with disputes, credit control, and funding reviews and help growing companies develop control processes and procedures.
What essential steps did you take to get to where you are today?
Hilary Robson: I don’t think I would have found quantity surveying if it wasn’t for my Mother. When I was 16, she took me to a firm called ‘Career Analysts’ who advised me to focus on surveying, engineering or financial management. I listened to what they said. Then the problems started, demonstrating how hard it was for women to gain access to those professions.
I decided that to look at these professions, the best thing was to select suitable A levels and get work experience. Unfortunately, my school couldn’t get me work experience. So I wrote 32 letters to engineering and quantity surveying companies and got 3 positive responses. One would only advise me. The second were shocked when I turned up – a girl. And the third, a quantity surveyor, took me on for 1 day a week at £10 per day whilst I did my A levels.
I’ve also made a point of working on my weaknesses. At one stage, I wasn’t offered a job on the basis that I didn’t have any large project experience – nothing over £10 million. So when the opportunity came to work on a project worth £450 million, I took the job to make sure that no one could ever say that to me again.
With my career, I have this constant need to learn and develop. The best managers I’ve had are those who’ve recognised that the minute I get comfortable I lose focus and giving me something more challenging is how to get the best out of me. This means that I’ve always tried to stay aware of potential weaknesses.
What has been the most significant thing you did as a woman?
Hilary Robson: As a woman in the construction industry, the more senior I became, the tougher it was to find allies within organisations I worked for. I never fitted into the boys’ club and I never wanted to. It absolutely does exist and it gets worse the more senior you become. You can either try to be part of that group to fit in or you take the route that I took, which was to work hard to do the best job that I could possibly do.
There have been times when avoiding the club hasn’t played in my favour. But I’d say in the vast majority of my career, staying focused on myself and doing the best job that I could do has directly led to my career progression.
I never set out to climb the career ladder or earn more money. If I didn’t understand what I was required to do, I would ask people until I understood. I believe that the promotions I’ve had, which have largely come from client recognition as much as recognition from my managers, have come because I’ve focused on doing the best job, rather than on the politics. It’s a distraction and the bigger the practice you are in, the worse the politics get.
It’s important to be working with a good team. For example, construction teams including surveyors architects and engineers, all fight for the things that are most important from their perspective. You get the right result by working together. An imbalance in the team often means less success.
What was the greatest challenge that you’ve faced?
Hilary Robson: Without a doubt, it was learning how to manage and communicate effectively, which made a massive difference in improving my management and leadership style.
I was naturally good at my job, but I found it incredibly tough to manage people. It took a lot of training and courage to overcome that particular weakness. I learned to adapt my communication to whomever I was talking to, whereas earlier in my career, I was working on the assumption that everyone was the same as me. I was lucky because my company at the time was prepared to support its managers and give them the training they needed. At one stage, when I was having particular problems with one individual, I attended a one to one training session and told the trainer that I didn’t want to learn what he wanted to tell me. Instead, I explained the problem. In 40 minutes, he gave me every piece of information I needed to unlock that individual.
Instead of being focused on what I wanted, I learned to understand what other people needed from me. I became different things to different people. The core of me was the same and ultimately, in terms of leading a group of people towards a goal, that never changed, but I now adapt and work with the individuals as well as the team as a whole. This is about managing diversity.
What was your most revelatory moment?
Hilary Robson: It was when I realised that feigning confidence eventually breeds confidence because when you see people reacting to that confidence, it self-perpetuates and you become more confident in yourself. Despite the fact that I was in the right job and I was very good at it, for a long time, I suffered from self-doubt, like a lot of women. People used to tell me what a good job I was doing and I’d be thinking, “How can they not see that I’m winging a lot of this?”
I wasn’t winging it, I just felt like I was. So I faked confidence and no one who came into contact with me in my professional career would have ever said that I wasn’t confident. There have been some scary moments where I’ve had to stand in front of large groups of very senior, experienced people and say, “You’re wrong, and I can tell you why”. But the more you do it, the more confident you get. The trick is to be absolutely sure of your facts.
What vital tools or resources have been crucial for your success?
Hilary Robson: Without a doubt, the best resource that I’ve had throughout my career has been other strong and capable, professional women who understand my chosen work environment. More often than not, they have been clients who became my champions, friends and mentors. I’ve found that when I’ve come into contact with similarly driven women and done a good job for them, they’ve recognised the same qualities in me that they have in themselves and together we become a support network.
What do you understand by leadership?
Hilary Robson: For me, leadership is about getting the best out of a team, by communicating your goal effectively, and then enabling your team to deliver it. A leader can identify who should be in a team, have the strength to act when someone shouldn’t be there and ensure that there is a balance of the strengths needed for a successful team. It’s about knowing when to explain, encourage or persuade, when to be strict and when to end discussions so that the team can actually get on and deliver.
I set a high standard for myself and the people I lead. But then I help them to achieve that standard by supporting and elevating them, often beyond the point that they think they can achieve. I then reward that achievement. I know when to be strict and when to be compassionate and when people need support and mentoring.
I’m still in contact with many of the people who’ve worked with me and I know that I gained their respect by being able to have hard but honest conversations with them. I’m able to understand everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. I try to promote their strengths and sometimes guard them against their weaknesses. For example, I worked with one colleague who was the best analytical quantity surveyor I’ve ever known, but if you asked him to do a rough estimated cost for something, he would hesitate and take a long time. So whenever we needed detailed, bullet proof work, he did it. If we needed a quick rough estimate on something I gave it to someone else. There’s no point giving someone something they’re not equipped to do.
It’s about knowing your team members. I like to think I’ve always taken time to get to know people and a little about their personal lives, if they want me to. Understanding how people’s personal issues might be impacting on work helps in knowing when to put pressure on them and when not to. However, keeping the relationship professional at all times when you’re working is paramount.
What difference did it make being a woman leader in your field?
Hilary Robson: About 20% of quantity surveyors are women, but women in construction at a senior level are a tiny minority. I’ve often been the only senior woman in a large company – an anomaly for those who work for me. There have been people who haven’t reacted well to working for me. There’s nothing you can do about that, but you then need the strength to move them on in an effective way, whilst creating a win-win situation.
Where there have been complicated women to manage, my male counterparts have always chosen to put them under my leadership. I’ve got a theory that men, particularly in my industry, are very good at arguing with men and know how to win, but a lot of men can’t do that with women. So when there’s a female employee that’s difficult to manage, men genuinely don’t know how to deal with her.
One woman was sent into my team because every time they asked her to do something new, she resisted being out of her comfort zone, although she was good at her work. I took a different tactic and wouldn’t take no for an answer no matter how argumentative she got. I then pre-warned the people she would be interacting with that she would be nervous and got them to interact positively with her, so that she had a positive experience. She’s a friend now. She’s one of the best quantity surveyors I’ve ever worked with.
What are your top tips for women who want to be leaders in their field?
Hilary Robson: When it comes to the promotion of women in construction my biggest advice is that they shouldn’t be seduced by the rhetoric – that, in order to be an inspirational female leader you have to be superwoman who has it all.
I was nominated for an inspirational leader award for an organisation promoting women in construction. The winner was from a large construction practice and they categorically said that she won because she had a senior role, 5 children and she cycled 14 miles to and from work every day. I don’t believe a man would be celebrated in the same terms. I never want to give women the impression that that’s what they need to aspire to, to be successful. Being an inspirational leader is about developing a cohesive team that wants to deliver good results. It’s not about having it all and never about making sacrifices. No doubt the winner was very good at what she was doing. But for me it sends the wrong message.
Set your own standards and aim to be the best that you can be. Find people to work with you who’ll be as good as you or better. Don’t be frightened of people who are better than you at any particular thing. You gain respect by always understanding the task that you’re asking others to do and being prepared to muck in when there’s something that needs doing urgently.
Set clear objectives and make sure people understand. Have patience. I always say to people, “I prefer you to ask me the same thing 6 times if you haven’t understood rather than sit there for four hours trying to work it out. If you still don’t understand what I’m asking you to do, that’s my fault for not communicating properly.”
Help people to understand their mistakes and ensure they don’t make them again. And learn how to adapt your management style depending on the person that you’re working with because once you work for them, they will work for you.
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