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Leadership fit for the infrastructure boom

Nation-building projects worth hundreds of billions of dollars are critical for our future: we must cultivate leadership fit for the infrastructure boom.

As Australia works to catch up with its exploding population curve, we are in the midst of an infrastructure boom, estimated to be worth A$175 billion for NSW and Victoria alone.

These investments are critical to our future global competitiveness and quality of life. But they are complex projects, with enormous scope, budgets and multiple stakeholders.

How can we align leaders and influencers across industry, government and academia, to have a clearer collective aspiration? We need to be cultivating leadership fit for the infrastructure boom.

Leaders working within infrastructure are in a challenging environment, making long-term choices in a world that’s in transition, and amid fierce competition. There’s an expectation for them to deliver on innovation, digitisation, sustainability – to undertake an overhaul for the long haul.

Amid that pressing impetus for innovation, we’ve seen some quite public fails at the senior levels of leadership within some of these organisations.

I put it down to one factor: leaders who are showing up the way they’ve always done – merely managing for status quo.

There is no way that old-fashioned leadership can succeed in those environments, so we’re seeing a number of organisations turning over their top teams, recognising the need to cultivate leadership fit for the infrastructure boom.

Smart leaders are reframing and reshaping their proposition around innovation for growth, bringing a sharper, smarter investment mindset, and building more agility and innovation into the culture of their organisations.

There is a real movement towards more responsible business, and I see that across all the infrastructure companies. They are talking about the importance of long-term sustainability – for multiple parties, for the environment and for the economy.

This change of leadership style isn’t all that different to what we see in other industries, it’s just heightened because of the crucible nature of the infrastructure industry.

Businesses have to focus on how to do more with less, to realise efficiencies through digitisation and automation and to be more creative and innovative together.

This is a market characterised by big relationship plays and institutional partnering needs to focus on a new aim: joint success and accountability. It’s a big shift and getting it right is perhaps the biggest challenge for successful leaders in this sector.

I asked Tim Blythe, managing partner at leading planning consultancy Urbis – a Maximus client – to share his thoughts on leadership in the infrastructure boom, in particular partnering.

Tim Blythe, Urbis

“We are a purpose-led organisation; it is not just about managing what we do: We want to develop leaders. And as well as applying their passion and skill, we want our leaders to be creative, innovative problem solvers, and also at times generalists. Most of us are leaders because we are technical experts in our chosen fields. What we need to do now is to elevate ourselves to think about the broader complexity of the issues in front of us and our ability to work across disciplines, across a range of issues, not all of which will be our own personal expertise. So, we need the ability to bring different people and skills together to solve problems.”

“Partnering is critical on two dimensions. One is about the relationship that you have with your client – government or private – which is about trust and being honest and open with people, and sometimes giving them hard advice. Ultimately, it’s also about taking a broad, long-term, strategic approach. When working with government, the best outcomes are when the private sector takes a long-term view about outcomes, and is prepared to work with governments to achieve those. That’s where Australia could mature more. The culture of win or lose pervades still, but the more sophisticated institutional owners and developers in Australia now take a longer-term view and are prepared to work with government to achieve change and better outcomes. It’s critical that we get smarter and better at doing that.”

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