Reflections On Leadership by Andrew Davies

In a rare interview with Toby Turner, Wates ex Chief Executive Officer Andrew Davies reflects on leadership, and shares with us his advice for managers to consider before leaping into a leadership role.

An Introduction To Andrew Davies

After he graduated from Sheffield University in 1985, Andrew Davies joined the Civil Aircraft Division of British Aerospace and spent 15 years in the UK and Middle East financing and leasing commercial aircraft. Thereafter his roles in the newly formed BAE Systems included MD of the Land Systems Division, Group Strategy and M&A Director and latterly, MD of the Maritime business, a £2.2bn revenue business with 14,000 employees comprising Naval Ship and Submarine building and Maritime services. He was a member of the BAE Systems Executive Committee.

Andrew Davies joined Wates in January 2014 as CEO, where he oversaw a 48% growth in revenues and 57% growth in profits through to December 2018. He was voted by his peers as Building Magazine’s “CEOs’ CEO of the Year” in 2016. He left Wates in January 2018, and is today an Non-executive Director and Remco Chair at Chemring Plc.

What is the greatest lesson learnt in your time as CEO?

Quite simple; get absolute clarity from your shareholders as to their expectations for the organisation (Super-Ordinate Goals) and then devise a coherent, deliverable and communicable strategy around those goals. Put an organisation structure in place to deliver the strategy and then get the very best people to fill the organisation. Do not compromise on the people side; we all do and we all regret it later. Finally set challenging targets and performance manage the backside of the business. If you can’t do this, my advice would be to steer clear of the role.

What advice do you wish had been given as a first time leader?

I was told early in my career to learn from my mistakes, but not to become the most educated person in the poorhouse. Great advice, but how do you implement that one? Leadership is about providing not only the strategic narrative (although I’m sure great oratory helps) but also the tools and resources to implement it (the “doing” thing). In the case of my early career advice, the key would be the role of mentoring that a leader must provide to their sub-ordinates to help their learning from the mistake, but also to caution against repetition. Leadership is not soft and cuddly, it needs to have some sharp sticks in its’ tool kit.

As a leader brought in from aerospace to the built environment, what would you advise an executive team to consider when looking to hire a senior leader from the outside? 

Hiring from outside the sector requires a board to be bold. Bold is quite different from recklessness or bravado, they are more emotional responses. Bold is a calculated and positive decision where you back your judgement. It’s synonyms are Daring, Intrepid, Courageous, Brave and Fearless. I am indebted to James Wates who took the risk and appointed me, with no construction experience, to be CEO of his 140 year-old family company. He exhibited all those characteristics and went against the grain of Industry appointments – but he wasn’t foolhardy, he was calculated.

Construction is a long-term contracting industry (often with government) where relationships matter, operating in a safety critical environment, which are all characteristics it shares with Defence and Aerospace. So my advice is first to look at the calculated side of a bold appointment, there has to be relevant functional skills. Secondly look at leadership qualities and finally, if you must, look at domain skills.

What is the most important thing that leaders can learn from difficult times?

What it’s like to experience having to perform in difficult times. During my formative years in British Aerospace, the Civil Aircraft Division was effectively closed or sold, with the resultant loss of thousands of highly skilled jobs, following one of the industry’s habitual seven yearly recessions. The cash hemorrhaging from the business at the time was mind blowing. It left me indelibly marked with the view that Top Line is Vanity, Bottom Line is Sanity and Cash is King. Any leader in contracting who hasn’t been through a recession or does not focus on cash, its sources and uses – or has anything less than excellent risk management processes – should apply for that course asap.

How do you stay curious as a leader, and how did it feel when you were pushed out of your comfort zone?

You need a restless energy or curiosity to be an effective leader. Of course, you can be other types of leader, such as a “game show host” or “tyrant”, but they have a shelf life. For me, it is about never being satisfied over how something is done, and being implacable about implementing change, and of being highly challenging but never aggressive. I’m afraid that in construction change is slow, and bluntly resisted in some corners. All industries have to ‘change or die’ as they say, but I don’t know how many lives construction’s current construct has left?

I always feel awkward when I am out of my comfort zone – it would be odd if I weren’t. But this acts as a spur for me to get back into my comfort zone through wrestling whatever is pushing me there to the ground. I enjoyed my sectoral moves from Civil Aircraft to Defence and then to Construction, but it was uncomfortable. It was interesting who helped and who didn’t.

When looking for the ‘next big thing’, who do you tend to listen to first – the young or the experienced?

Both, why not? All good ideas travel upwards in an organisation, but you need experience to sift them and prioritise resources. There’s no need to kill an idea, as it just disenfranchises someone. But that doesn’t mean have to resource it immediately – put it in an incubator instead. One thing to say here though: if you are in a paternalistic environment then do not assume all organisations will offer up good ideas. It is not a given. As a leader you have to pump, prime and visibly acknowledge ideas through recognition, both formally – and more importantly – informally.

Which 3 pieces of advice would you give senior managers in real estate, looking to take the leap as leaders?

The first MIPIM I attended was two months after moving to the industry. I was told by an experienced developer that property was full of the younger siblings of lawyers, doctors and accountants, but who had way above average social skills. I think there’s real truth in the benefits of being sociable if you want to be a leader in this industry. I am the youngest of four siblings but wouldn’t claim I have above-average social skills.

Leadership is not just about the technicalities of the role, they should be a given. What leadership is about is the motivation of teams, providing of clarity to them, and rewarding or changing them as appropriate; it is not just about talking or platitudes. Social skills equal people skills in my lexicon. So if it is true that the industry has above average people skills, then what I think it should focus on are technical skills in leadership.

As a leader, if you are not prepared to get your long screwdriver out and get into the nitty gritty of an issue, or can’t take a decision which will either result in success or force you to deal with poor performance, then stay a senior manager. You’re not ready for leadership just yet.

This article is featured in our full report A Very Modern Leader: Contemporary Leadership In Real Estate & Construction which you can download by clicking the link.