In 2017, SNC-Lavalin acquired Atkins, one of the world’s leading design, engineering and project management consultancies, creating a global fully integrated professional services and project management company with over 50,000 employees and annual revenues of approximately £7 billion. After several years as the CEO of Atkins’ Energy business, Martin is now EVP of Engineering & Consulting, in SNC-Lavalin’s Oil and Gas business.
In this interview, Martin shares his reflections on what is really important in leading a large, successful business in the professional services sector, and the role that trust plays in this.
On the importance of trust:
‘It’s very important in our marketplace. We are in professional services. We don’t have a physical thing that people buy from us. Our clients enter into a contract with us and commit to buying what we describe to them, but actually what they get they can’t touch until they’ve received it, so trust is hugely important. Our clients have to trust us and engage with us, and what we deliver very much depends on our people. If they don’t trust the organisation and they don’t stay, then we have nothing if they leave. So, for a number of reasons, when you’re in professional services, trust is very important.’
On building a high trust culture:
‘Two things I would bring out here. The primary one is that trust is about what you do rather than what you say. You’re given a bit of space by people if you say what you’re going to deliver. People want to believe that, but the reality is that trust is based on what you say you are going to do and then whether you deliver on it. So, it’s about translating words into actions. In our business we’re facing two ways: we’re facing towards our staff and we’re facing towards our clients. We make a proposal to our clients, we say what we are going to do for them, and then it’s all about the quality of what we deliver to meet the specification that they gave us. Over-delivering, even if it’s only by a little bit, goes a long way to build trust.’
On the challenges of building trust:
‘How you deal with bad news is fundamental to building trust. Getting that out early when we explain things to our clients is vitally important. The trust journey is through good times and bad times, and how you deal with the bad times is as important as anything else. When times are good you can perhaps build trust with people more easily. However, when times are bad, the measure is “Are you treating people better in a given set of circumstances than your competitors?” During such times, often difficult decisions have to be made, and if you’re open about those decisions and people see that you are doing everything that you possibly can, that actually builds trust, although at the time it might not feel like it. It’s more about reflecting about it afterwards and thinking, “Given everything that was going on, we did a good job there.” At the time, nobody is going to say “you’re doing a good job here”, because that’s not how it is when things are going badly. You have to have faith that, in retrospect, people will see that you have done a good job. In fact, the bonds of trust that are built in the difficult times are more powerful than anything else.’
‘Fairness is massively important, it crops up a lot when building trust. People don’t like to see one person being treated better than another for no good reason. Communication and openness are massively important too. Social media gives us lots of opportunities to communicate in all sorts of different ways, but unless you physically spend time in the same room as people I think you’re missing something. People trust people rather than the organisation. They might characterise it as having trust in the organisation but in order to trust the leadership of the company, you need to know who the leaders are. If you give up trying to be with people then you won’t build trust. It’s a huge part of creating trust.’
On the challenge of measuring trust:
‘I don’t think you measure trust. You measure some things that are an outcome of trust, and in our line of business this can be seen by our retention of staff and clients. We carry out staff surveys, and client surveys. In both cases, we would be asking questions that are related to trust, for example, questions about your confidence in the abilities of your line manager. It’s a proxy for measuring trust. However, the main point of measurement is humanity, and about how you connect. You get the message about trust by spending time with people; looking at how they react to you when you ask them questions, etc – reactions you won’t necessarily get when you give someone a survey. We carry out regular face-to-face roadshows and briefings with our teams to make sure that they feel they can approach and trust us with issues, and we can gauge their reactions, and react and listen.
‘Trust is a very personal thing. I try to get our people to use the word “love” in our business. Trust is like love. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to measure and to earn, but actually it’s the key to what makes relationships work. Is “trust” the business version of “love”? It might be. If you had talked to me ten years ago I wouldn’t have been talking about love, but it has become a significant part of my reflection over the last few years of things that I think are truly important to being a successful business.’
The Nine Habits of Trust:
What comes across from the interview with Martin is that SNC-Lavalin is strong on Habit No.1, choosing to deliver. In support of this strength it was inspiring to hear Martin talk openly about his realisation over recent years that the things that are truly important in building a successful organisation are love and trust.
It was also inspiring to hear about the huge wave of gratitude that came back to Martin for raising the question about how the organisation should handle mental health awareness. This really brought home to Martin how fortunate he is to be leading what he described as a “kind organisation” with great people choosing to be kind to each other (Habit No. 9).
As a further development of the power of kindness it was interesting to listen to Martin talk about kindness and fairness, and to ask the question “do people value fairness more?” It’s a good question to ask. Random acts of kindness that connect to the human side of the organisation creates incredible loyalty and trust, but will be undermined by lack of fairness.
Our thanks to Martin for his time and for allowing us to share his insights from the interview.