Canadian Consulting Engineer

The Path to Leadership: Chris Newcomb on Core Values

September 3, 2015
By Chris Newcomb, P.Eng.

The chair of a large consulting engineering company based in Vancouver shares some of his personal history and has advice for aspiring young professionals.

From the August-September 2015 print and digital issue, page 32.

This article is adapted from a presentation originally given to an ACEC/AFIC Young Professionals Group. The author is chair of the board at McElhanney in Vancouver, former chair of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies-Canada (ACEC) and former chair of ACEC-BC. He is on the executive committee of the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC). He is also an editorial advisor to this magazine.

Chris Newcomb, P.Eng., chair of McElhanney, Vancouver.

Chris Newcomb, P.Eng., chair of McElhanney, Vancouver.

To provide some context to my remarks, here’s my personal background in brief.  I never dreamt I would become CEO of a company, let alone an awesome one like McElhanney. My rise was far from meteoric. I was the tortoise that won the race.
I never had a career plan, and I never asked for a promotion or a raise. I simply did my best every day to learn from my mistakes, to serve those who were paying me, and to be a team player to my colleagues. I never turned down an opportunity, and whenever I was tapped on the shoulder for an assignment or a promotion, I was the guy who was too dumb to say no.
I was raised in England and France, and graduated from Manchester University in 1969. My first job was as a summer student in France, then I emigrated to Canada, and started work for Associated Engineering in Vancouver. There I learnt to design municipal engineering projects, and I got my first taste of responsibility because I was willing to take on projects in small towns up north, and to stay there for weeks at a time. I thought I was enjoying myself, because I didn’t know any better.
After five years I left Associated to join Canron on a pipeline project in Tanzania, East Africa for three years. At the tender age of 26 I was the only engineer on the construction of a pipeline worth about $300 million in today’s dollars, so I had to grow up pretty quickly and be resourceful. This experience reinforced the lesson that by going places most people won’t go, you’ll get opportunities for increased responsibility that others don’t.
When I returned to Vancouver I joined McElhanney for the first time, where I spent two years learning to manage projects and write proposals. But the lure of international work was too great, and I took another overseas job, this time in Ecuador in South America. It was another pipeline, and again I was rewarded with more responsibility than if I had I stayed in Vancouver.
Finally, at age 33, I returned to McElhanney for good. I started as a project manager: developing client relationships, writing proposals, managing projects, and hiring people to populate those projects. Eventually the tap on the shoulder came for assistant branch manager, branch manager, vicepresident, and finally president in 1997 at the age of 49. Along the way I said yes to managing McElhanney’s international operations, yes to joining the board and becoming president of Consulting Engineers of BC (now ACEC-BC), yes to joining the ACEC board, and yes to becoming chair of ACEC.
I survived as president of McElhanney because during my leadership McElhanney tripled in size to 500 people, diversified into new geographic markets, developed new practice areas, maintained profitability in the top 10 percentile for our industry, and, most important of all, became a fun and rewarding place to work. If ever I can’t continue to provide that level of leadership to McElhanney I expect another tap on the shoulder, telling me my time is up.
Now, some thoughts on leadership.

Leadership comes in many forms. Corporate leadership is only one of them. Leadership is an attitude that you bring to work every day, regardless of your seniority or your role in the organization. Here are some examples of what I mean:
Leaders share their knowledge. You might have only one year of experience, but when that new graduate joins your company you can show leadership by extending the hand of friendship, showing them around, and offering to help them if they encounter a problem.
Leaders volunteer. We have a young engineer at McElhanney who’s not at the top of any organizational pyramid, but she has volunteered a lot of her time to work for ACEC, ACEC-BC, and the international organization, FIDIC. She’s been given responsibility in all three organizations, with the result that she has gained great leadership experience.
Leaders aren’t afraid of a challenge. At McElhanney a few years ago we needed a corporate safety officer. One of our CAD operators decided to take on the challenge, and has done an outstanding job, demonstrating leadership skills he, and we, didn’t know he had.
Leaders show initiative. They look for better ways to do the work, even if it’s simple stuff. When they complete the work assigned to them they look for more. They aren’t too proud to take on menial tasks.
Leaders reach out. At a conference, natural leaders don’t just hang out with their friends. Leaders seek out the person standing on their own.
Project managers are leaders. It’s a different kind of leadership than corporate leadership. Project managers have to be task oriented, gathering information and making decisions rapidly under deadline pressure. Corporate leadership is more about building relationships, consensus and morale. It’s something you do over the longer term.
Specialists are leaders. They show leadership through their confidence to solve the problem, and often through their ability to break new ground with innovative solutions.
Leaders don’t wait to be given a title. The person who says “I think I’d make a great leader if only I was promoted” probably doesn’t understand the meaning of leadership.

Great leaders are able to implement different styles to suit different situations, and are able to transition easily from one style to another. For example:
The consensus-builder: seeking out the best ideas from staff, then encouraging the whole team to get behind the idea and implement it together.
The team-builder: surrounding themselves with great team players that put the success of the group ahead of their own personal goals. I might hire a star as a specialist, as long as I’m prepared to manage them carefully, but most of the time I would prefer to hire a team player over a star.
The mentor: helping others to learn, supporting them and taking pleasure from their successes. Good leaders are the biggest fans of their staff.
The inspirational leader: cheerleading others to achieve their best.
The command and control leader: only needed during a crisis, to take calm, quick, decisive action. Hopefully this style is rarely needed, but great leaders must possess this skill because, when it’s needed, it has to be implemented urgently.
The tough leader: who makes the difficult decisions and accepts responsibility to implement them, such as terminating poor performers, or announcing that there’s no money for bonuses this year.
The hard-working leader: willing to lead by example and put in long hours doing unglamorous work.
The gregarious leader: making everyone in the firm feel that they matter, and that they have a personal relationship with the boss, and
The servant leader: the leader who asks people “What can I do to help you?” rather than telling people “Here’s what you have to do to help me.”

There are some leadership styles that have no place in today’s world:
The wind-bag: self-important, pompous buffoons who think they can bluff their way through anything.
The ambitious cut-throat: always scheming to enrich themselves and make themselves look better than others.
The lazy leader: who figures leadership is some kind of reward and enjoys the privileges while shirking the hard work, and
The mean-spirited leader: who uses their power to make themselves feel better by putting other people down.

Great leaders are very different from each other, but share many of the same core values. For example:
Humility. They realize leadership is a privilege. They don’t kid themselves that their position makes them better than others. They know they owe their success to their team. If you feel the need to keep proving how smart you are, then you probably aren’t.
Empathy and caring. Great leaders are genuinely interested in other people and care sincerely about their well-being and self-esteem. They sincerely want to see others succeed and derive more satisfaction from that than from their own success.
Team ethic. They see their colleagues as allies and collaborators, not competitors. They love working with other people, and seeing the magic that happens when the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Intolerance of mediocrity. The great performers on your team know who the poor performers are. If you don’t weed out the poor performers, the great performers will become demoralized.
Compassion. Great leaders don’t hesitate to terminate employees when necessary, but they do it in a respectful way.
Self-sacrifice.  They accept responsibility for problems, and direct praise to others when things go right.
Role modelling. Great leaders must continuously earn the respect of their staff. This doesn’t mean you can’t relax and have fun, but it does mean behaving with self-discipline at all times.
Honesty. They are scrupulously honest. Employees need to know they can place absolute trust in their leader. One act of deception or betrayal will undo years of effort in team-building.
Consistency. It’s important to be able to change styles to suit different circumstances, but there must be a current of consistency running through everything. Priorities must be consistent.
Fun-loving. Most great corporate leaders have a great sense of humour. They love their work, they look forward to seeing their colleagues each day, and they want their colleagues to enjoy their work too.
Generous. Great leaders are generous in praising others, but the praise must be sincere. And they are sparing in criticizing others, so that when they are obliged to offer criticism it is taken seriously. This comes from Dale Carnegie’s Winning Friends and Influencing People, which is the source of many of my core values.
Passion. Some great leaders have fire-in-the-belly passion, others have a quieter, more reflective approach. Either way, their passion motivates others to share their vision.
Commitment. Every day great leaders go to work thinking, How can I make my company a little better by the time I go home?
Personal growth. Great leaders never stop wanting to learn. They know that the more time you spend outside your comfort zone, the bigger your comfort zone becomes.
Patience. Great leaders take the time to build consensus within their organization. If you implement quickly without consensus, it might be a great idea, but it will probably fail if everyone is not on board.

Leading is easy in good times. But there will be bad times — financial difficulties, lost proposals, loss of good staff, betrayals and disappointments. That’s when employees look to the leader for inspiration and strength. They need to hear that everything will be okay, and what we’re going to do to make things better. As a leader you have no time to feel sorry for yourself, you have an audience watching you every day — your staff.
Finally, your most important job as leader, starting the day you take the position, is to find, groom and appoint your successor. Corporate leadership should not be about you. It should be about the corporation. And the corporation’s best interests are served when there is a strong succession pipeline.     cce

Suggested Reading
Winning Friends and Influencing People, by Dale Carnegie. My all-time favourite, written in the 1930s, and just as true today as it was then. Teaches you about relationships, and successful  leadership is based on relationships.
Small Giants, by Bo Burlingham. Case studies of the leaders of firms that chose to be great rather than big. You’ll see what I mean when I say great leaders can be completely different, but equally great.
The Leader Who Had No Title, by Robin Sharma. The writing style is really corny, but there are some great home truths in there, such as the more time you spend outside your comfort zone, etc.


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