We met with Lucy Thomas, Group Chief Scientist and Managing Director Africa at RSK, for a free-wheeling fireside chat on a wide range of topics – from sustainability, quality & safety, leadership and more.
Could you tell us about your role and what makes you tick?
I’m responsible for leading our head of professions that encourages development of our engineers and scientists. I also oversee our sustainability route map and am establishing our Centre for Sustainability Excellence. I also manage our five African businesses in East and South Africa. So, yes, it’s quite a wide ranging and diverse role.
I always wanted to make a difference. Like a lot of people when they start out working I didn’t really know how. But ultimately, I really enjoy training and guiding people, developing them and seeing their skills grow. This helps us deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals so it’s certainly making a difference.
As a leader, what’s your secret to staying ahead of the curve?
I think the key for me is people because it’s never possible to keep abreast of everything, even within your own discipline, never mind across a diverse group of businesses like RSK. It’s really important to build a network. One of the things I did was volunteering to be in steering groups. So, I became chair of the Society of Brownfield Risk Assessment and the National Brownfield Forum. That gives me the opportunity to network with those outside your organisation and are influencing guidance. Through those I got to help write some of the UK guidance that advocates risk-based remediation, my area of technical specialism.
Could you share an example of how collaborative working has created a far-reaching impact?
In the last year we completed one of RSK Group’s largest collaborative working efforts; one of our clients asked us to clean up soil and groundwater at about 30 sites in East Africa. It required a huge collaborative effort, not just across RSK group, but also with partners in the country – the supply chains & the regulators. We had 13 RSK businesses working in East Africa helping us deliver the project.
To minimise the risks associated with importation, we manufactured remediation equipment in the country and imported some. We employed over 100 East Africans, including civil & structural engineers and introduced them to new technologies for cleaning up soil, as well as about groundwater pollution, with many more employed through the supply chains.
We also won an award for the Best International Project at the Brownfield Briefing Awards, so we were a very excited team last week and want to say huge congratulations to everyone involved.
You’ve touched upon three themes here: Innovation, finding the right people and collaboration. Which of these do you think is important?
I think probably all of them, depending on where you are working and what you are trying to achieve. We must engage with people because our industries and businesses are built on people. Yes, we rely on technology and innovation to help us move forward. But ultimately, people need to interact and work together to achieve a common goal.
So I’d say it’s a combination of all three for sure, but underpinned by people because without people, we haven’t really got a business.
You mentioned your role in leading sustainability initiatives in RSK, how have you effectively enabled key stakeholders to be more sustainable?
RSK Group is made up of over 130 businesses, many of which have been acquired. This means that many of our businesses and employees are at very different stages in their sustainability journey – this is a challenge for the Group. So we decided to have Sustainability Champions embedded into the business. They work together, whilst working in their respective departments, and can see how best to drive change. Bringing these individuals together helps us share and learn best practices.
At our Sustainability Focus event, we gave people the opportunity to engage in setting the targets going forward, allowing them to feel included in the process. We held this event virtually, which, as you might expect, was a challenge. But, it was a brilliant opportunity to have people from Iraq, Hungary, Hong Kong and Singapore all on the same virtual table. That just wouldn’t have happened three or four years ago.
What about people integral to the supply chain? How did you engage them in shifting their mindset towards sustainability?
This is an area we’re planning to do much more in over the coming months. We commenced this concurrent with our Sustainability Focus event. We had ‘Toolbox Talks’ to engage with field workers and our subcontractors focusing on carbon measurement, what that means, how they could save carbon in their projects on site and in social value and engaging with their own communities.
How do you identify people who have the potential to be a champion in a distributed organisation like yours?
That’s a good question, because you need to find people not only with the vision, but those with the right mindset and willing to be outspoken. By means of example, we’ve got a really good team of people called the Junior Business Development Forum, a self-starting group – people that take the initiative, want to learn and help shape the organisation for the future.
Your team in Tanzania has been using Vyn to remotely assure quality and safety compliance of vehicle checks. What changes have you seen in their mindset?
I think introducing Vyn into Tanzania has been quite interesting because the workforce there are very open to embrace new technology. For the drivers doing vehicle checks with Vyn rather than text based checklists, they love it as they see it as an investment in them.
We’re certainly seeing differences in terms of data on the vehicles, it helps get richer data and insights on coverage. We can visually inspect the vehicle condition remotely e.g., the quality of the tyres and if they need changing or not. And, I think Vyn encourages them to think a little bit more about whether their vehicle is really safe, rather than just historically ticking a box.
Are experts in the office able to do more, be more sustainable because you are giving them the right technology?
I think it certainly is – we’ve got a dashboard that measures the carbon saved from avoiding the site visits because we are using virtual inspection tools. So we’re using Vyn for the site staff to check for utilities underground and feeding that information back to the office teams. This is saving miles with management not going out to site. It’s also obviously saving on the time, which is essentially time spent driving where they can now be doing something else.
How has a video self-audit, rather than a checklist, impacted driver behaviour on being more proactive in daily operational activities?
Well, it clearly encourages them to be proactive because they have to be able to see the vehicle and inspect it properly in order to make a video report. In the daily inspections, I think it really does encourage them to think properly around ‘is this vehicle really safe for me to drive?’.
Vyn works well because our field workers are taking more ownership of the responsibility they have and I think that’s really good.
Lastly, what are some of the tips that you would share with women aspiring to be a leader like you?
I think flexible working gives a better balance and is definitely helpful for women in leadership or getting to that point. Also, it’s finding yourself a good mentor and being honest about what you’re not so good at, identifying people in the business that are, and starting to learn from them either formally, by talking to them, or informally by simply observing them in meetings.
Fantastic. Thanks for your time Lucy! Do you have any closing remarks?
Encouraging people to embrace change is so important. I think a lot of people worry about change or fear that it’s often associated with something bad. But actually, if we embrace it and look for the opportunities, it makes change less scary and helps us move forward.
As it should, sustainability is at the heart of everything that we do. We’re proud to be building a community motivated to drive better adoption of sustainable innovation, because we’ve seen the results.