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Leadership Lessons
Construction lays firm foundations
Chris Davis
update on Saturday, November 20, 2010
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A 25-year veteran of the Leighton group, Hamish Tyrwhitt, managing director of Leighton Asia is responsible for one of the fastest-growing segments of the company. A graduate of the University of Western Australia in Perth, where he studied civil engineering, Tyrwhitt moved to Asia in 1989.

Through his different roles with the company, including project manager he has worked on a range of construction projects in different geographical areas such as New Zealand, Malaysia, Laos, and Thailand before moving to Hong Kong and taking up his current role as managing director in 2007. Married with five sons, Tyrwhitt is passionate about his work and a strong advocate of employee recognition and teamwork. He attributes the one-day notice he was given to leave Australia to take over a construction project in Borneo as a significant factor in defining his career. He talks to Chris Davis.

Please tell me more about your daily duties
I wake up each morning to the beep, beep of my BlackBerry. I travel extensively spending about 20 hours a week on an airplane, so the first thing I need to do each morning is recalibrate where I am. A typical day is all about hectic schedules and full of change. I can go from happy, angry, motivating, problem solving, to hiring mode all in one day.

I am responsible for the management, strategic direction and leadership, and of the company involving more than 20 major projects across Asia, ranging from Mongolia, to Guam. In addition to the physical infrastructure we create, we are also directly and indirectly responsible for employment opportunities. We have a regional team of 8,000 staff, but taking into account family dependants and subcontractors, we help feed and support about 40,000 people.

Why did you originally decide to go into the construction sector?
Raised as an expatriate child I have always enjoyed the outdoors and particularly the building and construction industry so I did not want a job that was desk-bound. I also wanted to have the ability to work in different locations. I considered a couple of options but my career took the direction it has when I won a scholarship to study civil engineering degree at the University of Western Australia in Perth. I joined the company as a graduate and have been with the Group ever since.

What in particular are you aiming to achieve there?
Our unique combination of local knowledge and international experience sets us apart because we are the only construction firm with a true footprint across Asia. I like to say our strength lies in our ability to develop competitive, innovative, practical solutions for our clients throughout the region. I am also very keen to strengthen the sustainability of the company through making sure the right people are in place to take the business forward.

Up to now, what have you found the most difficult aspects?
In the construction industry challenges of different types occur all the time. The key is to select the right people that can overcome challenges. If you find a person does not fit in a particular position, it is vital to deal with the situation promptly.

In general, how have you been able to deal with them?
To win and overcome challenges a good team manager should never be afraid to employee people as good or better than you are.

Which professional achievements have given you most satisfaction?
There is a great satisfaction in being involved with social infrastructure. For example, bringing water to an entire city and seeing the benefits it achieves. Being involved with constructing the first Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge opened in 1994 and funded by the Australian government as development aid for Laos, was also tremendously rewarding. The project I worked on to build 10,000 homes for teachers in Malaysia, which took 25 million man-hours without any safety issues was also extremely rewarding. Wynn Macau and James Packer’s City of Dreams are also special.

Which principles are most important for your employees to follow?
Foremost, our people need to be team players and have the drive to succeed both personally and professionally. Our strong values-based corporate culture is very important and a significant factor in our growing success.

What qualities have allowed you to be an effective leader?
Senior management like Wal King, Dieter Adamsas and Tony Jacobs, have been amazing mentors and close friends who have taught me a great deal. As a leader you must have trust in your people. In addition, because Asia has so many different cultures you have to know how business works in each location. You must also learn when to listen and when to advise.

How can a big multinational encourage independent thinking and creativity?
The key is employing the right people and empowering and supporting them. We do not have a matrix system therefore people have the power and autonomy to perform against pre-agreed key performance indicators and expectations. We closely review these processes to make sure we stay on the right track.

What do you hope to achieve in the next five years?
I really enjoy my work and I am not working towards retirement. I hope to continue with the Group and ensure sustainability by investing in people who are going to be the future of the company, while growing the business and creating opportunities.

How do you unwind and deal with day-to-day pressures?   
Work and my social life tend to be a bit of a blur because many of my work colleagues are also my close friends. I enjoy cycling and when I can I like to spend time in the gym, but most of all I like spending time with my family. If I could rebalance anything it would be to spend more time with my family, however, the commitments of work mean that I do have to spend a lot of time travelling.

What specifically did you learn from your time in Asia?
You must respect the diversity and culture and appreciate that doing business varies in different parts of Asia. Learning and listening makes you a more tolerant person.

Nowadays, what should young people focus on if they want to succeed in this profession?
Seize opportunities. If you have an aspiration, follow that target but also be prepared to take side paths to achieve your goal. At the same time, be confident but do not allow yourself to be over promoted. Also, take responsibility for your own career. For instance, Leighton will provide plenty of opportunities but be prepared to make sacrifices. 


Free spirit  

  • Tyrwhitt matches career aspirations, leadership and civil engineering skills to work on projects that make a difference to communities
  • Links love of travel and adventurous spirit to long-term career development
  • Believes that being confident and willing to take responsibility are key to achieving career goals

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