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“If I had to start again, I’d be bolder from day one”: lessons in leadership from Roni Savage

·5-min read
Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Construction is one of the most male-dominated industries in the world: only 12 per cent of the UK workforce is female, and less than one per cent is both Black and female. Furthermore, there is a gender pay gap of 20 per cent, with one in five construction companies never having seen a woman take a senior role.

Such are the statistics faced by the geologist and environmental engineer Roni Savage, who founded the construction-services firm Jomas Associates in 2009. “It becomes an issue of what people are used to seeing and what the expectations are around what women can do,” says Savage. “Having a woman turn up in a white van on site isn’t something that people were used to when I started my career. So, you’re dealing with stereotypes and the comments that come with that, but you develop a really thick skin so that you can just get on with it.”

In 2017, Jomas Associates was named by Goldman Sachs as a high-growth company; the following year, Savage was heralded as the Black British Business Person of the Year. Most recently, she was shortlisted for this year’s Veuve Clicquot Bold Woman Award scheme, which celebrates female leadership and honours inspiring businesswomen.

Here, she shares the lessons she has learnt about leadership in the construction industry and beyond.

THE THREE MOST IMPORTANT QUALITIES FOR A GOOD LEADER ARE…

“First and foremost, compassion and empathy in how you work with people – both your team, but also your clients. Understanding what they’re looking to achieve and what their struggles are enables you to work together for the greater good.

“Secondly, integrity is important. I lead by example: I have strong principles around the quality that we deliver, but also around ethics. As a leader, you’re acting as a role model for those who work with you, to develop that high standard of work.

“Thirdly, the ability to listen to and respect other opinions. It’s important that we are all in a team and we work together.”

MY PERSONAL STRENGTH AS A LEADER IS…

“Staying calm under pressure. Construction is a highly pressured environment and I have clients who ring me up and say: ‘Can I have this yesterday?’ Being able to gather your thoughts and prioritise what you need to deliver is particularly important, and that’s something that I impress on my team. I don’t get flustered when there are issues – I switch into a solution-finding mindset.”

THE BIGGEST PRIORITY FOR MY BUSINESS RIGHT NOW IS…

“Scaling up the company. In the short term, this means simply making sure that everyone is taken care of after the last few difficult years, so we’re in a good position to continue our growth trajectory.”

I KEEP MY TEAM MOTIVATED BY…

“Sharing my vision with them. I remind them of where we are and how we’ve got here, but also the opportunities that we have in front of us and the direction that we’re going in.”

THE WORST MISTAKE I’VE EVER MADE AS A LEADER

“In the first seven years of running Jomas Associates, I decided not to put my face to the business. I go by the name Roni Savage, and nobody knew whether I was a man or a woman, or whether I was white or Black – they had no idea. I let them make an assumption of who Roni Savage was, and I let my work do the talking. I’ve got my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree; I’m a chartered geologist and a chartered engineer; I’m a specialist in land condition; I’m a fellow of the Institute of Civil Engineers; and I’ve picked up a couple of honorary fellowships as well. But for seven years, I had no photographs online. Then, I took part in the Goldman Sachs high-growth business programme in 2017, and they ended up tweeting a video of me. It suddenly dawned on me that my face was going to be out there. I was nervous, but I realised that the reason I didn’t do it before – or didn’t have the courage – was because I couldn’t see anybody else out there who looked anything like me. At that point, I discovered I had this opportunity to be that person people saw. If I had to start again, I would be bolder from day one.”

AN EFFECTIVE LEADER WILL ALWAYS…

“Listen to others and encourage them to be the best they can be.”

AN EFFECTIVE LEADER WILL NEVER…

“Apportion blame. You should instead give constructive feedback, as we are all learning. I have seen situations where people have been very critical when someone has got something wrong, saying: ‘It’s your fault.’ That’s the wrong approach. I say to my team: ‘We are in this together. So, if I get it wrong, we all do, and if you get it wrong, we all do.’ I really work hard to see those moments as opportunities to teach them to do better next time.”

MY ROLE MODEL FOR LEADERSHIP IS…

“My mother. She built her career and has five children, and demonstrated how you can do both really well. I myself have three children now, and I hope that I lead like my mother does in the sense of having compassion while being a force for success. I’m driven and motivated to do well, but I’m not going to do that at the detriment of other people.

“I also look up to [the technology entrepreneur] Steve Shirley. Her name is Stephanie Shirley, but she went by the male name ‘Steve’ because she felt she had to. She resonates with me in terms of what she’s been able to achieve in a man’s world, and she has ended up influencing lots of great women.”

THE ONE PIECE OF ADVICE I’D GIVE TO A NEW LEADER IS…

“Understand your purpose. It’s wrong when you do it the other way around, when your priority is making money. The focus should be: ‘What do I bring to the table? What am I looking to change? What value am I bringing to my industry?’ It’s crucial, because then you can pass that on in every conversation you have, and everybody you speak to is able to pick up on that.”

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