One-on-One with Susan Hancock, Business Development Manager, Strata Republic and Alison Mirams, Chief Executive Officer, Roberts Co
Susan: On behalf of the UDIA NSW Diversity and Inclusion Committee I’d like to welcome Alison Mirams, CEO of Roberts Co to chat with me today. It’s wonderful to have you here as part of the UDIA NSW One Thing series which is an objective of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, designed to put a spotlight on those who champion diversity and inclusion in our sector.
Susan: Alison, you have over 20 years of experience in the construction sector and, no doubt, throughout your career you would have seen a lot of change. What do you think we could do today to really support diversity and inclusion in the construction and development workplace?
Alison: When I started on site there was porn in toolboxes, there was porn in lunch sheds, sexually explicit graffiti everywhere. We’ve gotten rid of most of that – you might still find the odd piece of graffiti, but there’s no porn on sites, no wolf whistles anymore, certainly not on large building sites, which is good because that was pretty common.
The thing that we have done at Roberts Co is treat D&I as a business initiative, so it’s not an HR initiative off to the side. It is absolutely core business and it’s owned by me as the CEO, and so it goes through everything we do. It’s not a ‘nice to have’, it’s not a tack on, it is absolutely core business.
There’s a lot of research that says that if you have, over 30% women in your organisation, you produce more profit. Now, if I went to an organisation and said I have the key for you on how to make more profit, everyone would want to know what it is. It’s pretty simple… have a diverse workforce. So, it really is a business initiative because everyone does want the best company and this is just about creating the best company we can.
Susan: How has diversity and inclusion impacted your career and your work life?
Alison: Early on I felt it, as I was the only girl on site. It was me and the site’s secretary by my side. Because I started my career on-site and spent eight years on construction sites, if I was in a meeting with subcontractors and I asked a question, they’d answer to the guy next to me. And I’d ask another question, and again they’d answer to the guy next to me, and eventually, if I asked enough questions they’d figure ‘well she’s not that dumb, she knows something’ and they’d start talking to me. So, it was that real challenge of I’m not just a little girl (as I am little in stature, I was always called the little girl).
Initially you felt like you had to prove what you knew. Once you got to that point and you became accepted, then it was a very different scenario.
So, I am acutely aware of what I went through to make sure other women don’t go through that, and to ensure we’ve got a good industry for them to come into.
Alison: It was probably five years ago that I attended a meeting when we had an incident on one of our projects and I was called down to present to a Brigadier in the Defence Forces. For half an hour during the meeting, when he asked me a question, he only looked at me for the answer, because I was the most senior person in the room and of course Defence is very hierarchical.
At the end of the meeting when I walked out, I said to the two guys with me “that was amazing, I’ve never ever experienced that in 20 years” and they looked at me and asked “Why? What happened?”. They hadn’t registered what was going on, but for me it was quite a refreshing situation to be in and it was very respectful of the people interviewing me.
Susan: You’ve obviously created a career for yourself and you’re in a position of seniority and leadership… and along the way you would have had leaders influencing you.
What is the single biggest lesson you have learnt about leadership itself?
Alison: For me, I have a very personal view on leadership and that is – you need to look after people. It’s not about being the aggressive alpha male, to coin a phrase. I genuinely care about my people. Some people say to me ‘what’s the thing that you’re most proud of in your career’, and it was when one of our apprentices had a tragic accident at home and became a quadriplegic and we got him back to work.
He clearly couldn’t be an apprentice anymore. I went to see him in the hospital, and the spinal unit in the hospital is the saddest place you will ever go to. I said to him “mate you’ve got a job, it doesn’t matter, you’ve got a job. You just get better and we’ll still employ you.” We raised a lot of money, we fixed his house, we created a trust for him and we got him back to work.
And, you know, I didn’t do it for the outcome of what our staff would think, I did it because I genuinely cared about this young man and his family, as I couldn’t imagine being 25 years old in that predicament.
What the staff saw, was that the company genuinely cared and they said, “Oh my gosh this is incredible, this company is amazing, they care so much.” So, I really care about and look after people, and I believe that if you can look after people, they’re really your only asset. They give it back to you in spades and they’re incredibly loyal and hardworking for you. So, for me, leadership is – just be genuine and care about your people.
Alison: You’ve also got to be game to be vulnerable and a lot of people think they can’t say that they don’t know something. I say to my staff all the time “I don’t know, I need to sleep on it”, or “I don’t know what I don’t know” … and they respect you for that and it makes it okay for them to say they don’t know.
You have to be comfortable to be vulnerable and once you’re comfortable in that space then you can really care for people.
Susan: In your career you would have received lots of advice. Some solicited, some not from people who no doubt claim to have given you the advice, which may not be accurate. But what is the best piece of advice that you have received?
Alison: I’ll give you two pieces. One I got very early in my career as I stepped into people management roles and my boss at the time said to me, “When someone comes to see you and you’re their manager, at that point in time you are the most important person in their life, so stop everything you’re doing, put your phone down, put your keyboard down and give them the time that they need.”
Now that might extend your working day, but that’s your issue as a manager. You need to work out how to manage that but solve the issue for the person at the time.
And that has been very, very good advice. You know what it feels like when you go to your manager and they’re still typing or they’re still on their phone and you think, “Oh, why do I bother?” Versus when they’re fully engaged on what it is that you have sought their advice.
So that’s the first piece of advice for when you’re stepping into people manager roles and it obviously continues throughout your career.
The second one is, choose your attitude. I have talked about this forever, that early on in my career I got into a builder’s lift and it said in the graffiti ‘who’s got bigger balls than Alison’.
Now I could have chosen to take offence to that, or I could take it as a compliment, and I took it as a compliment. They were respecting me, they were saying she’s tough, but it was written in a complimentary tone.
I went home and I said to my dad, “I’ve made it, I’ve been accepted”. So, when you’re in a position where you’re in the minority or as a minority group as I have been, sometimes people say things that they don’t actually mean. They say it and they don’t understand the consequences of what they’ve said to you. So, you need to decide, did they mean to say it as a criticism or did they say something as a joke, and perhaps they didn’t really understand the impact of what they were saying, so I’m not going to take it as a criticism…and that’s when you choose your attitude.
Susan: The UDIA Diversity and Inclusion Committee has this slogan – ‘What’s your One Thing?’ It’s something that we ask everyone we interview and it’s something that we ask ourselves as well. It’s really about understanding what impact we choose to make, or that we, through our companies, choose to make to really create change and diversity and inclusion in our workspace.
So, Alison, what’s your One Thing?
Alison: I probably don’t have a One Thing. I do a lot, but what I am trying to do is change process and procedure so that it’s enduring change.
When the GBCA brought out the Green Star standard recently, the new tool, I wrote to them and I said that while the GBCA tool, both at the time and the previous version, cared about the planet, it really rated the building for the benefit of the building occupants on completion, but it didn’t look at how we built it and how we treated people through the build process.
So, I asked “Can you start rating when we start building, not when we handover?”
I also asked them to put in female PPE and female toilets because that’s one of the big things that make women feel they are not included, when they have to wear male clothes or they don’t have a toilet – and they looked at me like I had two heads.
We wrote a submission and I got a lot of contractors to sign it. As a result, they put it into consultation and a couple of contractors said “oh, that’s too hard”, “that’ll make building too expensive”, “you can’t get female PPE”.
However, they came back to me and said you’re right, we need to do this. Now it’s in the new tool as a mandatory criteria.
No matter how green your building is, if you don’t treat women appropriately during the build process, you will not get a green star rating for that building.
Another time we wanted to effect change was with Project 5 where we worked at Concord Hospital five days a week. We did that to try and combat mental health issues that are in the industry and we engaged the University of New South Wales to study the outcome.
The research revealed that we got better work-life balance and while that was expected, what I didn’t expect was what came out when we interviewed the next of kin. They said, “by your working hours and your working patterns, women are leaving the workforce to do all the caring responsibilities.”
So, if you think about that, women are turning down full-time employment, they’re not taking promotions, because they know they have to do pick up and drop off. We are the third-largest industry in the country and by our working patterns, not only are we poor at bringing women into the industry, but we are also stopping women from working in society in all roles. So, what we’re trying to do, is change the industry to be five days a week. It wasn’t always six days a week and it certainly wasn’t seven.
If we can change that and I can get systemic change… and I have been on the Cultural Taskforce with government for the past two years… and the culture standard has come out into consultation, so I encourage you to look at www.cultureinconstruction.com.au where you can read about the tool.
We’re pushing five days a week, we’re pushing diversity, we’re pushing putting the ‘health’ back in WHS. All of that will bring systemic change for diversity and inclusion and that’s what I’m pushing for.
So when we are looking at employees in the company, I’ll say “go and find a female”, and they’ll say to me very proudly “I’ll get the best person for the job” and I’ll say “in the female gene pool …and when you’ve exhausted the female gene pool you can go to the male gene pool but try first.” And every time they come back with an outstanding female.
Where I can, I am trying to push real systemic change, so that at the end of the day when I retire, it’s there, it’s forever and no one will have to fight again. I don’t mean you’ll never have to fight for anything (of course you will) but where I can, it’s not about me here and now, it’s about the generations that come behind. So that’s what we are trying to do.
Susan: Your foresight is absolutely incredible Alison and the depth of thinking that you have is very refreshing and inspiring. So, thank you so much for everything that you do, not just for women, but for every person in the industry, in so many different ways as you have outlined.
Alison: And I think that’s a really good point to say that what we have discovered in Project 5 is that it’s not a female issue, it’s a people issue. We need to actually get dads home so that women can have a career. We actually need to fix the industry for men, to get more women into it. As I said, it’s a people issue, it’s not a female issue.
Susan: We will absolutely share your story and we are very grateful for everything that you do, so thank you.
Alison: It’s an absolute pleasure. Thank you.
This interview forms part of a UDIA D&I Committee initiative series to encourage and highlight more diversity in UDIA and the property industry. It is intended to highlight diversity by profiling our members through industry publications on a regular basis throughout the year. Thank you to Stephanie Partridge, Senior Development Manager, Goodman.
Since 2018, the Diversity & Inclusion Committee has been one of the key Business Advisory Committees for the UDIA NSW, focussed on improving and promoting diversity and inclusion in the UDIA and our industry. This year, we launched the ‘One Thing’ campaign – celebrating and sharing the ‘one thing’ that we’re doing to empower people by respecting, supporting and appreciating what makes them different, in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, beliefs, disability, sexual orientation, and education. What’s your One Thing?