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The Hoggett Bowers 2 Minute Interview: Graham Harle

Graham Harle Interview
Graham Harle is Global Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Gleeds, overseeing a worldwide business with a turnover of £200 million and 74 offices.  Having been on the Executive Board for 12 years, Graham moved into his new role in January 2019. Graham’s aspiration for Gleeds is that it increasingly leverages its in-house expertise and client networks to create new opportunities and exceed the demands of the sector globally. 
Graham has worked for Gleeds since 1995 and was formerly the UK’s Head of Programme and Project Management as well as key contact for several global clients.  Instrumental in the growth of Gleeds’ commercial business into one of the strongest teams in London, Graham believes in setting the highest standards of service for clients.  With over 30 years’ industry experience, Graham has built successful and long-term relationships with developers and funders and has significant experience in the private sector, providing strategic advice on a number of major developments in the UK, Europe, US and Middle East. 

What challenge did you tackle and overcome in your business this week?

This week we finally approved our 2021 budget, and this comes at the end of a long consultation process which has had to take account of many moving parts influenced by both market expectations and internal considerations. The main challenge is calibrating the implementation and roll out as well as revitalising our existing 3-year plan. We’re not changing the goal just changing the plan of how we get there. 

Which ongoing business challenge is occupying your thoughts this week/month?

For consultants like Gleeds, we have remained open for business all the way through the crisis and for that ability to deliver on behalf of our clients we are immensely grateful. It has brought pressures however and our main priorities have been and still are, ensuring that we can keep staff safe whilst fulfilling appointments on site. This has been an ongoing pre-occupation and challenge throughout 2020. Another all absorbing role for me is around managing and controlling the budget process, taking account of any likely recessionary pressures, forecasting and anticipating the shape of any recovery and preparing for the possibility of a no deal Brexit. Now it’s all about next year and beyond, you can forecast but you’ve got to have a very agile plan to quickly react and respond.

In retrospect what would you have done differently in lockdown and therefore, how may this shape your thinking for any future lockdown (local or national)?

We are fortunate in that we have five offices in China and through regular contact with the teams there, we started to see the impact of the pandemic and therefore tracked its progress. This allowed us to plan and react quite quickly and move to remote, flexible working across our global network. Looking back, I am immensely proud at the way all our stakeholders, responded at a frightening time and what they’ve achieved. Not just for themselves but also on behalf of clients like the NHS who were really up against it. Retrospectively, looking back had I known how long the pandemic would last I would have prioritised mental health awareness more quickly and I am pleased we have now put in place services like; online yoga and fitness classes, a weekly coffee morning called ‘coffee roulette’ and have even held a 24-hour long music festival across the global offices. 

I am glad we did respond in this manner as you can see ‘Covid fatigue’ affecting some people and the impact of a lack of human interaction showing through.

Given the reliance on technology during lockdown, do you now envisage an acceleration in digital/ workforce transformation in the short-medium term?

Fortunately, we had strong IT systems and solid online infrastructure already in place and it’s proven incredibly robust, far more than we would have hoped. The IT teams have been brilliant. We will however invest more in digital technology going forward. The construction industry is traditionally the sector that hasn’t embraced digital platforms with the enthusiasm shown by other businesses. We are larger than Aerospace and the car industry combined here in the UK and construction is still very labour intensive. Now there’s been a massive escalation in the use of digital technology with adoption of modular construction techniques and modern methods of construction. We are now regularly using off site manufacture to assist the speedy building of large projects. With many teams working remotely and effectively via techno platforms. 

What are the new working norms starting to look like for your organisation?

The challenge for some in our sector is the requirement of having to physically attend meetings on construction sites. Social distancing and health and safety protocols are vital here to safeguard people and they have now become the norm by necessity. For those of our staff that are office based, employee surveys now show that people want flexibility and agility in their working week. Interestingly, there’s been a shift since July in the home / office balance, which has now moved from stakeholders at all levels wanting to work from home more, to now embracing coming into the office. This is a shift in attitude from the start of the pandemic. What’s important to them now is seeing how safe the offices are, and what measures are in place to ensure Covid compliancy.

There is only so much time you want to be perched at home on a kitchen worktop fighting for space with the pet cat. We are now seeing ‘Covid fatigue’ and people do want that social interaction of being in an office and chatting to colleagues. This has been especially so in India and China, whereas the Europeans want more flexibility and the US are still in the first wave. What I have learnt is that every location is unique, so we keep surveying the staff and working with them. We built a really strong trust-contract with staff in April / May and empowered them to self-manage working remotely and flexibly. We don’t want to break that bond of mutual respect and instruct people to go back to the office. It would be counter-productive and foolish to revert back to where we were. 

There was a dramatic reduction in our carbon footprint during lockdown, what is your business planning to do to help continue this going forward?

Our Global Head of Environmental and Social Governance has signed up to the UN backed Advocacy Agreement, around adhering to zero net carbon targets and I have personally signed up as one of 100 CEOs committed to science-based targets and we are working towards achieving those aims. All offices moved from brown to green energy at the beginning of this year and we are now looking at reduction of use of cars and not travelling as much by air.  

What changes personally will you keep from the lockdown period going forward?

Through force of circumstance, I found myself travelling less and used that time to adopt a more pro-active fitness regime. If you’re physically fit, you’re more mentally agile and this is important for your overall health. Having been with the family every evening for meals we have been engaging in some interesting debates over the dinner table and I’ve loved that. Having children aged from 15 to 22 there’s no shortage of opinions and there have been some interesting and challenging topics discussed.

Who or what has inspired you this week? (They don’t need to be famous) 

The main charity we supported this year was Mind and with lots of things happening for that cause during Movember we have managed to massively exceed the fund-raising target which is really gratifying. We also made donations to care homes and the NHS. It’s inspirational seeing people, many of whom have faced considerable hardship during lockdown, still willing to raise money for charity and no matter how small the donation is, it all counts.

Did you manage a holiday this summer and if so where / how did you spend it?

I managed to get away for one week this year, as we very fortunately booked a short break in Cornwall at the end of August and the weather was brilliant. Looking back only taking this short amount of time off was probably an error and it is important to get away from the coalface, no matter how busy you may be, just to be able to re-charge. This year has taught us the importance of taking holidays and that for everyone, holidays are important. I hope people take some quality time at Christmas.   

Any words of wisdom?

I think positivity in adversity are the watchwords for this year. In some ways 2020 was disastrous and there will be many empty chairs around the Christmas table which is tremendously sad. But we also achieved some remarkable things and there has been co-operation and a new sense of realism that we achieve more working together than pulling apart which has delivered a form of business evolution that has shaped our sector for the better. There are also aspects to the year which we will need to carry forward. People have started walking, running, as well as cycling more and those things need to continue but as well as the physical there are the spiritual and emotional things that make us all human. I hope people will remember the quality time they spent with colleagues and families and maintain those important values as we move out of the pandemic and life returns to normal.  

Gleeds is an independent global Real Estate and Construction consultancy, specialising in Cost Management, Project Management, Building Surveying and Strategic Advisory.