Grab opportunities, even if you don’t know what’s going to happen
Louise Brooke-Smith’s belief in following her instincts and grasping opportunities, even when they’re a leap into the unknown has led her from bedroom to boardroom. From founding one of the UK’s first planning businesses, to becoming President of one of the world’s most respected professional bodies, to leading a new service for one of the world’s leading property businesses. Each of Louise’s steps into the unknown has provided a career moulding moment to learn something valuable and that has accumulated a set of experiences, now in demand.
2017 — Arcadis opportunity: improving quality of lives, at scale.
Our conversation takes place in a minimal glass meeting room at Arcadis sleek office, on the fringes of Kings Cross, one of London’s most dramatic regeneration districts. An industrial wasteland of disused buildings, railway sidings and contaminated land is being transformed into a new neighbourhood, attracting global brands such as Google, Louis Vuitton and Universal Music and creative institutions like University of the Arts. An appropriate place to hear Louise Brooke-Smith’s story.
It’s just seven months since Louise’s Birmingham-based consultancy Brooke-Smith Planning, was acquired by Arcadis — a 27,000 employee, 3.3billion euro property leader operating in 70 countries.
So, what lured Louise to Arcadis? “I’d achieved what I wanted to with my company, having built it up from very small beginnings and it was time for the next step. I had various options in front of me and then Arcadis came to me with a fabulous challenge. Firstly my team had the opportunity to grow the Arcadis planning proposition on a bigger stage. The team here has a fantastic offer and we enhance the Arcadis capability with a broad planning approach. Secondly I’ll be spearheading an innovative social value proposition that looks at how the business can add value over and above a superior consulting offer, to genuinely improve the quality of life for our clients, our people and the communities they serve. It’s an exciting mission.”
Both these agenda’s make total sense by the end of our conversation that is dominated by one word. Opportunity.
Why is this new opportunity so appealing? “Arcadis is totally committed to an ethical approach to business and we want to grow that from the inside out. This goal represents the culmination of everything I’ve been working towards throughout my career and launching an offer that improves lives at a global and local scale and embeds a responsible progressive planning mind-set across the whole construction industry — what’s not to like!”
And why you? “Arcadis is pioneering diversity in a male dominated sector and rapidly evolving its culture and I’m excited about accelerating that. The problem in this and other male-dominated industries is that sometimes there is a culture that’s hard to crack. If women criticise, they often get criticised and labelled which means that women who go out of their way to prove themselves are seen as hard-nosed, difficult and arrogant, that doesn’t always play well. Women need to demonstrate their real strengths, not false ones and have the confidence to be themselves.”
This sets the tone for a candid commentary on the industry Louise is committed to transforming.
Learning: Don’t stop challenging the status quo and be yourself.
1984 United Nations, Africa opportunity: Never take no for an answer.
The story starts when, as a graduate surveyor Louise took the chance to work for NGO’s on development and land use projects first in Zaire with a medical mission and then in India with The Quakers in Bhopar, 18 months after the Union Carbide explosion. She followed this with work with Mother Teresa’s team at one their missions in Varanasi (another story).
Having experienced some of the world’s most under-developed regions, Louise returned home to join Birmingham City Council’s planning department. In the late eighties, the second city was embarking on a renaissance and planning was a high priority, so it was an ideal moment to be in the public sector. However, the West Midlands didn’t hold Louise’s attention for long and her wanderlust opened the next door.
“I spotted the opportunity of a Commonwealth Scholarship in property planning and pitched a project about how land use had been affected by post-colonial, tribal and government regulation. They liked the sound of it and the next thing I knew I was at the British High Commission in Nairobi being told by a civil servant that it was far too dangerous for me to travel across the country and the project was a non-starter. He clearly didn’t want anything to do with a young female graduate from Birmingham going AWOL in the bush. So, I pitched an idea to study slum improvement programmes in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to the UN Habitat Centre for Human Settlement in Kampala, which they supported. It was ideal timing with a tipping point of a review of independence, returning Asian migrants and the AIDs epidemic.”
With the African experience under her belt, Louise spent a year on the road and headed to Asia with a provocative presentation entitled The British planning system and what it means for you. Her aim was to get support in interesting places off the back of the discussion and this naturally built a valuable international network and reputation for challenging the status quo.
“Looking back, these were stepping stones where I had to take risks to make things happen, particularly in a male dominated industry. In this kind of environment, women have to work hard to be heard, stand out for the right reasons but don’t want to be intimidating. I learnt early on that when you speak your mind — and you must speak your mind — you need to do it with a degree of humility, to gain respect.”
Learning: To follow your passion, don’t be diverted by blockers.
1994 Brookes Smith Planning opportunity: Foresight and hindsight.
At the peak of the recession, Louise decided she needed to found her own business. “I’d got to know my way around the public sector and consultancies, and believed that if I made this move it would lead to other things.”
I’m getting the gist that Louise likes to make bold moves without necessarily knowing what will happen next.
“Our doors opened on June 6th 1994 with an idea and one client. I could see a gap in the market for specialist planning agencies. There weren’t many businesses like mine at the time and I sensed that developers would rather outsource planning when they needed it, rather than build their own capability. There was a risk nobody would need it, but I wanted to prove to myself and the market, that it could be done.”
Foresight indeed. Creating a new category in an industry is challenging, when customers don’t realise the services are available and so don’t look for them. “Our first break was an advisory project for an industrialist. We were on our way. I still have the cheque for that first job, framed — I spent the money on something special — a cello, which I still play. We were pioneering and never looked back”
The next two decades of leading and growing her business followed a well-trodden path overcoming predictable growth pains.
“I knew the business would make me go further, quicker. But of course I was doing all the things I wasn’t trained for. I knew the practice and market inside out but I was now managing sales, finance and people. We won work, hired, expanded, merged and demerged. It was all consuming and in hindsight I’d do it all it again — even the merger — you learn a lot when things go wrong! I discovered the hard way that culture and a challenging economy fuels success.”
Learning: No matter how honed their professional skills, leaders shape their business culture. Culture can motivate rapid growth and kill it just as fast. And it can’t be tried before you buy.
2014: President of RICS opportunity: Diversify or die.
In 2014 Louise was elected as the first female President of the 150 year old Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the world’s leading professional body enforcing professional standards with a reputation for being a male dominated old boys’ network.
Years on the West Midlands Regional Board from 1992 served Louise well in deciding how to tackle the challenges of the profession. Her platform? Diversity.
A schooling in public sector planning, insight from developing-world challenges and experience of founding her business gave Louise ammunition to tackle the diversity problem, at a time when women and people from diverse backgrounds are not considering the construction profession.
“This is an incredibly exciting industry with a big skills shortage, and we are not always appealing to these target groups. The white, male profile stems from the culture of land ownership and agency and to be frank, the property sector has not always sold itself at all well. The demographics have to change and I’m really pleased that things are moving in the right direction. It’s been slow but we are seeing a change in perceptions and culture. We need to appeal to the best talent for these skilled jobs and we need a professional profile that reflects the diverse communities we serve.”
Louise led an ambitious programme to address these challenges which have made a big impact, not least the appointment of a second female President, vindicating the smashing of any perceived glass ceiling once and for all. “I am still extremely proud of launching the industry’s Inclusive Employers Quality Mark, putting property high on the political agenda in the 2015 UK elections and supporting the creation of three RICS hubs in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
“Those of us who are in it, know what a fabulous industry this is and the RICS work was the culmination of seven years of change. Good women have previously reached the top — but now they are doing it more visibly and in greater numbers. With more women in businesses and on those important executive boards, you create a different and improved culture and if those women are supported and speak up, you get more things done and increase turnover and productivity — it’s a win-win.”
Learning: Take on an opportunity with a clear goal. If you’re single-minded you’ll achieve it.
The last word
We round up. Louise mentions that when she was growing up she wanted to be a mining engineer — not that easy in the 1970’s before the equal opportunity legislation and when the idea of a woman down a mine was akin to having female Pope or Prime Minister. That says everything about a leader on a mission to change perceptions of an industry. And when Louise sees an opportunity, things have a habit of happening.
Louise’s desire to improve lives is a golden thread that began with an opportunistic pitch to study Africa’s shanty towns and today is shaping the mind-set of the developers and planners of the world’s mega-cities. I sense Louise has put her backpack down for now, but the roaming isn’t over yet.
Her next big challenge?“An appetite for culture change resulting in a better mix at the top. A fantastic ethical approach for business to open doors and the doors need to be wide open to choose the best people for the job. The ‘don’t know’ doesn’t frighten me. After all, if you know what’s next, then someone else has probably done it already.”
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