· 7 min read · Features

Being bold to improve engineering at Costain


For Costain's group HRD Sally Austin playing to her strengths and being bold have paid off in the business

As a woman in a male-dominated industry and (as she puts it) an ‘F’ surrounded by ‘Ts’ on the Myer-Briggs thinking versus feeling spectrum, Sally Austin, group HR director at FTSE small cap engineering firm Costain, could feel out of place. But as someone who has spent her whole career working in HR in manufacturing and engineering firms, she feels her success has come from using a different perspective to her, and her businesses’, advantage.

“You choose your attitude,” she says. “I am a female [in a male-dominated organisation] and I have completely different skills to other people in the business. I am surrounded by engineers. They are super clever, but emotional intelligence is less on the radar. But that means I can make a really positive difference.”

Austin joined Costain, which is involved in large-scale engineering projects including the Channel Tunnel, the London Bridge upgrade and HS2, in 2005 as a regional HR officer, after holding HR roles at BAE Systems and Delta Electrical (acquired while she was there by US firm Eaton Corporation).

While she never originally planned to stay longer than “three or four years”, she steadily and swiftly moved up the ranks, and was appointed group HR director in 2014, aged 37. A year later she joined the executive board, the first HR director in the company to do so. It has, she jokingly agrees, been a rather meteoric rise.

While she admits – like many women – to having occasional feelings of imposter syndrome, most important is being a role model for others. “I’ve had two maternities working here and I’m still a career woman,” she says. “If I can’t set the tone in what I’m doing what on earth can we do for other women in this business? Like many other organisations the cliff-edge age for us is 30 to 35, when women leave on maternity and don’t come back. [Talking to women] the biggest message to come across is it being about confidence. How do we get rid of imposter syndrome and guilt? It’s learning to think: I’m a strong female, I can do both. You’ve got to be fairly robust to think like that. But if we can’t be role models who can?”

“Fairly robust” would be somewhat of an understatement when describing Austin, who evidently has the grit and energy to push through the required change in a rather traditional business (Costain was founded in 1865). She is, she says, playing “hardball” on diversity in an effort to improve the “woeful” diversity statistics of the construction and engineering sector at large. Internally much of this is through simple, yet effective, tweaks to process.

Take removing a tick-box that said managers had to nominate participants on the application form for Costain’s emerging leader programme. Now people can self-nominate, and anyone who does so is put through an assessment meaning it’s “a complete meritocracy”. This subtle change, along with some positive action through the HR team encouraging women to put themselves forward, has resulted in 49% of participants on the latest programme being female, up from 20% the year before. A similar change on the strategic leaders programme has led to six out 14 participants being women. “And that’s just from changing a form,” points out Austin. “So what else could we do to really shift the needle?”

Linked to this is a robust focus on talent management, to move away from what Austin calls the “good egg syndrome”. “If I had a pound for every time someone has come to my office and said: ‘I want to promote so and so because they are a really good egg’… It drives me up the wall.” While Costain’s new talent management framework is based on the traditional nine-box grid, the added extra is mechanisms to encourage people to move around the organisation and grow at an accelerated rate.

“We are incentivising people; at least 20% of the workforce needs to move every year,” Austin explains. “I want to see people moving – laterally, being promoted, across sectors. There needs to be that churn within the teams. For us, as a business that’s contract-based, it is a really tough ask. Take London Bridge: that’s an eight-year job. What a manager would love is for someone to work on it all the way through, but that’s career suicide as the individual only sees one project. They don’t grow.”

She points out that the average age a FTSE 100 CEO steps into the top job is about 42. Map that back and you can figure out at what point someone has to be doing bigger jobs in order to make the leap. “Mapping that to our organisation, it was projecting people to be at least 50 before they got there,” she says. “We’ve got to be the other side of the curve. And the only way to get there is by making some really radical shifts. We’ve got to give people really broad exposure – get our emerging talent, pull them out of the depths of being on a project, and stick them in something strategic reporting to the exec. You’ve got to be prepared to have really frank conversations and create opportunities for people to move.” As an example, “just yesterday” she put a project director into her open head of L&D role.

Like many organisations she admits that in the past Costain has been guilty of promoting engineers into management and leadership roles to pay them more, when in fact it’s “the last thing they want to do”. “They are not motivated by it, they don’t enjoy it, and you just end up with really poor managers,” she says bluntly.

Now Costain has two graduate recruitment streams. One is the leadership route, the other the technical route. “We are recruiting our next technical directors versus recruiting the next CEO, and the behaviours and competencies for each are completely different,” she explains. “If I had 4,500 engineers all wanting to be CEOs it would be carnage. Equally if I had lots of technical people, but no-one wanting to lead, it would be as big a problem. It’s about getting people to realise it’s OK not to want to be a leader. If you want to create widgets, great – the world needs widgets! Success is different for everyone. One size fits one, and that’s OK.”

Austin imagines the company will roll out a similar approach to its apprenticeship intake – although she adds that this month’s apprenticeship levy is complicating things somewhat in this area. While Costain is used to the levy principal (in the construction industry a skills levy already exists via the Construction Industry Training Board), Austin describes preparing for the apprenticeship levy as “like walking through treacle”.

“I get the concept – to bring more apprentices through UK industry – I just don’t feel like it’s been thought through,” she says, adding that the unintended result of the levy’s introduction has been to force Costain to pause its apprenticeship programme (it usually takes on about 30 a year) as it works out what needs to change, effectively holding back until the levy. “It’s a £1 million bill for us,” she adds. “While we are used to maximising [levy spend] and will do our absolute best to recover it, we will be rebadging stuff. Our graduate [scheme] and PhDs may become some sort of apprenticeship, which feels crazy.”

Interestingly, although statistics about skills shortages in construction and engineering are not hard to find Austin says she “genuinely” hasn’t felt it, although there is still plenty of work to be done on encouraging more women into the sector, showing them engineering “isn’t just digging holes and pouring concrete”. Brexit is also not having a direct impact (yet at any rate), as Costain is a purely British organisation – although Austin admits it will be “interesting to see” what effect it has on the company’s supply chain. “People continue to want to join us, so let’s focus on our brand, our reputation and continue to do what we do really well,” she says.

The focus also needs to shift slightly to “starting with why”, she adds, quoting the influential Simon Sinek book of the same name. The why works on two levels: business and personal. Personal is all about “the emotional connection”. “I always challenge managers on how well they know their employees,” she says. “What is their ‘why’? Why do they come to work? What do they do at the weekends?”

The business ‘why’ is Costain’s wider purpose, something the executive team has been doing considerable work on. “We’ve got to be able to articulate it so that everyone understands it and so it’s simple,” Austin says, citing the famous story of the man sweeping the floors at NASA, answering when asked what is he doing: ‘I am putting a man on the moon’. “We’ve got to get to the why from the what, as that’s what drives the right culture; when people get the emotional connection and buy into it,” she continues. “Our purpose isn’t to create engineering solutions; it’s to make people’s lives easier, and we do that through brilliant engineering. Customers buy beliefs and values not products. If we can’t articulate [our why], why would they work with us over our competitors?”

A mindset shift is also needed away from construction to more technology-led innovation: “Getting more passengers through London Bridge isn’t about laying more track, it’s about using digital railways. Highways [will be about] driverless cars.” But innovation requires freedom to fail, a culture change that isn’t the easiest to embed. “The nature of being engineers is that we like process and are less good at giving people the space to go and be creative,” Austin says. “Are we really happy as an exec to say: ‘Take this £200,000 of shareholder money and play with it?’ If we are serious about being a technology business we have to be. That’s what the likes of Apple and Dyson do all the time.”

To help develop this culture she is working with Henley Business School on what such an environment would look like for Costain. “Let’s talk about failure, and use the word failure,” she adds. “What does it mean to us? This is all behaviourally led. We have to be brave.”

Being brave is something she tries to embody, being a fan of the maxim “seek forgiveness, not permission”. Within her HR team she believes in “keeping things simple” and “bringing things back to the basics”. “Let’s not talk about strategy if we can’t pay people,” she explains, of her philosophy to HR. “I would much rather we did two or three things really well and exceeded the expectations of the business than tried to do a million things.” She judges people purely on output, and wants her team to “have fun – then you get the performance from it”.

Being asked to join the executive board aged 38 was a sign of how well-respected HR has become within the business, thanks in no small part to her leadership. On the board she feels she has to be “quite bold, bringing really strong emotional intelligence”. “I will challenge, and I think I add that executive coaching lens,” she says. Something is obviously working for the business: its share price recently reached a record high.

Austin says she tells CEO Andrew Wyllie: “My role is to care about people even more than him and to tell him things he doesn’t want to hear, but to come with a solution at the same time. If we don’t crack engagement and drive people’s beliefs and culture through everything we do then I’m not doing my job or adding value.” So far though, it seems pretty clear to an outsider that the one thing Austin could never be accused of is not adding value.