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Transcript: Making smarter & inclusive workplaces with Amanda McKay

Mamta: Hi everyone and welcome to The Future of Work in Construction podcast or how we like to call it ‘ConCast’.
I'm really delighted to say that our very first guest speaker is Amanda McKay who is the Quality Director for Balfour Beatty VINCI Joint Venture and HS2.  Her main area of work is around nuclear and highly regulated projects.

Amanda has worked with a construction and major project sector for over 35 years mainly with QHSC roles and corporate governance and Amanda has experience in nuclear rail renewables and oil and gas.  So, Amanda thanks ever so much for joining me today for a chat. It's an absolute pleasure to talk to you.

I was going to say that we were talking beforehand and I was honestly so engaged with our conversation, so I'm hoping that we can bring some of that into here as well, but it's been really lovely to speak to you already so thanks for joining us. 

So Amanda, tell me a bit about your role in and about Balfour Beauty and what you do.

Right, so about July last year I joined the H2 project. I've been working for Balfour Beauty for about just over six years, working as Quality Director, Nuclear Quality Director prior to that, so I joined the organization to work on our nuclear projects particularly Salafil and down at Hinkley.  I have been managing teams and developing teams that work within that sort of assurance and quality and information management as well because they're all linked together.   

I joined this project which is only it's the largest project that both Balfour Beauty and VINCI I've ever signed and particularly as a joint venture it was a unique opportunity to join with them what is literally a multinational team. I have 14 different nationalities in my team from across Europe, South America, Asia, Philippines, it's great opportunity to be in that diverse environment as well because it brings real benefits.

So, the sort of work that we do- we are custodians of the sort of governance model for the organization we build and maintain the management systems, we provide that sort of oversight and guidance on the work that we do so everything that we're building and everything that we designing as an element of my team's involvement to make sure it's built right first time – which is a little unusual in construction I have to say!

Mamta: How's it normally then? How does it differ? 

Amanda: It has a differ otherwise we don't build it right first time! 

Mamta: I can imagine!

Amanda: a lot of work's gone into the front end of this project. So to get that certainty of delivery, it's about that front end planning and assurance and making sure you've got the right people and the right materials, effectively to plan for success rather than inspect for failure which is my strap line. 

Mamta: Absolutely and how have you found the last year or so  working with these remote teams? How's life changed for you day to day?

Amanda:  It has been very difficult. I was used to being away from home five to six days a week traveling around my projects, face to face with teams. And you know throughout my working life in construction it's always been like that, we're always on site, if you’re  not on site you're not productive - you're not doing something.

This last year has been a real eye opener because we just moved over to using tools like Microsoft Teams and it was a good job that we had because some of the things that we were using prior to that would not have coped with the level of remote working that we've got now and suddenly you find that whilst we haven't been doing as much of the physical construction aspects, most of the work that we do from day to day, from developing things for bidding and tendering and the sort of planning meetings and the work that we do has all been able to happen over Microsoft Teams and remotely over the phone. So all of a sudden from having a team that was embedded on site, more than 70% of them are working from home. And still as productive. 

Mamta: And that's amazing right because no-one had thought you could be that productive being at home, because I think people are now given the freedom to actually, create their own schedules, which I think is empowering and when you empower people then you get them to work better and more efficiently.

Amanda:   You do. I think there's a temptation when you work from home to overdo it a bit because you feel that you're not as productive as in the office and one of the  things I've been doing with the team is trying to get them to think “no - I don't want to see emails on a weekend, I don't want to see emails at 2 o'clock in the morning” because somebody feels that they need to be sending out the information – no one’s going to act on it at 2 o’clock in the morning. It's about working smarter rather than working harder.

Mamta: Yeah absolutely. So how long have you been a leader for? When did you start managing teams?

 Amanda:  My first team was at the age of 21 in the military.

Mamta: Wow, that's a very young!

Amanda: It is.  I mean, I started a bit before that, so I was in the Territorial Army, which was for the current army reserves back in the 80s in the Cold War, and at that time that was going to be my career. I wanted to join the military and that was what I wanted to do. I joined a local territorial unit at 17, so I was still in the sixth form. I was one of these ‘Army Barmy’ 17 year olds and there was loads of us in the unit, but because I was good at certain things particularly around technical stuff from signals and intelligence gathering, I got promoted quite quickly but I had my first team as a Corporal at the age of 18 and a half and I’d just started at university then, and they put me on the commissioning course, so I was an Officer Cadet. My first real team was at the age of 21 I had an armoured reconnaissance troupe. 

Mamta: Wonderful.  I was struggling to manage when I was 30 let alone 18 years old!  Do you think your experience really helped you define your leadership style, as you've got older.

Amanda: I think it does, because one of the things that the military teaches is that there are two aspects around leadership. One is about the people that you’ve got, so the term that I’ve used is servant leadership – so I’m there to make sure my team perform. I can’t achieve my goals without them.

Therefore I just make sure they're in the best condition to be able to deliver, so that's something that the military taught me early on - the higher the rank you are - the further down the dinner queue you become. So you don't eat till they’ve eaten,  you don't sleep till they’re asleep, you don't go home until they've all gone home. It's about making sure that the people that you work with and the people who work for you are in the best place to deliver. I found that works for me - that suits my style.

I can be quite a shy person. Before transition,  my self-confidence wasn't brilliant, even though I'd led some quite large teams, but I had coping strategies for that. And one of which was that managing my people by making sure that they were the best team, that they were the best looked after, making sure I had the right people because if you do the servant leadership style, it doesn't work if you've got people who abuse it.

So you've got to have that right team around you, and for me that's the important thing and it still is today, you know, I’m the one that comes last not first - just because you're the boss doesn't make you the best. 

Mamta: I think that type of leadership works really well and I think that people need a role model, you know that way of leading but I hope you do go to bed because you've got remote teams so they must be working around the clock!

Amanda: no it is certainly something that I think over, you know, this period that's been more time talking with them than I would normally in some cases, you know, because you bump into them in the office, you know that quick five minute two minute conversation at a desk or in the kitchen is now replaced with more formal meetings, and I think when COVIDS over we will go back to a more blended approach with people working remotely and working in the office. 

Mamta: Absolutely that makes sense. You mentioned about transitioning and I always love speaking to incredibly inspiring people and you are one of those because you’re putting yourself out there, you're showing who you are and you're not ashamed of it and we spoke previously about you know me coming out when I was working in tech, but it took me a very long time to do that. Also my team stood up for that as well, having the courage to have conversations with them.  So when you transitioned - how did you manage that with your team and how did that how did they react to you?

Amanda: I transitioned with a previous employer, which is why we decide moved up to Glasgow and so I had a much smaller team there but I was part of a bigger team and it was you know, I transitioned at the age of 49 which was not uncommon and a lot of people of my age group come out was trans at that age now that the family have grown up and moved on or they’ve been working and not been able to transition.

I came out and managing that with the team was interesting because they didn't really know, it came as a bit of a shock.  I was always out there doing, well I wouldn’t call them macho things but, all my hobbies, my outlook and like was very male orientated, and to come out as trans was a bit of a shock for some of them.

I mean, we did arrange some proper trans awareness training, you know, I went away for a month while I sorted lots of things out and when I came back, the last thing I said to them before I went away was “this break will do me a great deal of good and I'll come back a changed person” And it wasn't until I came back that they realized what I’d meant!

Mamta: literally, ha ha! That is brilliant.

Amanda: And my boss at the time, he knew this was going on because he was obviously part of that conversation, it was so funny,  watching him almost fall off his bar stool, spilling his beer all over the floor as he tried best to not burst out laughing! But it was what I came back, they'd obviously been told when I went away. I wrote them all the letter and delayed sending the email so it arrived at 10 o'clock on Monday morning, and they'd all been told at 9 o'clock Monday morning in a meeting.

It was received really well and I think that's because of the way that I worked with the team. It wasn't something that was going to harm them.  There were one or two who are a little worried about what others would think and become a little protective towards me, but actually the rest of the organization that I was with were very good as well.

So I never encountered any problems and for me that was fantastic. I was absolutely petrified the first day I walked back in the office and they gave me a new ID card with my new photograph on, and when I logged into the system it was my new name and not the old name, you know, it was like the world had just changed and it was as if Amanda had always been there, and the team were really good. I did a lot of traveling in my last job - a lot of overseas travel to our supply chain and maybe because I worked for a very big client who spent a lot of money with them, but I had absolutely no issues traveling around the world – China, mainland Europe, the United States, you know to our supply chain and it was a real confidence boost for me. I’ve done quite a bit of work with the trans community up here in Glasgow and I find people have had really terrible experiences, and I struggle a bit to empathise because I haven't had that bad experience myself.

Mamta: It’s true isn’t it, even though you’ve been through a similar thing it’s sometimes hard to empathise when you haven’t had the same experiences that they’ve had as well which I think is super interesting. Its about educating yourself about what they went through and how they coped with stuff as well.  

Amanda: I think that whenever you come out or transition, a level of confidence helps greatly, you know I've had the odd few things said to me when I've been in shops or out in public – you can either just brush it off or give a smart comment back, which makes them look small but not everybody can do that, not everyone’s got the confidence to do that, and I find that that's one of the things that you know, it's very difficult to be able to talk to someone and say “well just put them down”, you know, just tell them to “go away” or just walk away from it, that's really hard for some people because they don't always have the level of confidence or the ability to do that. 

Mamta: Absolutely, and it's amazing that your team reacted so well as well, and when you joined Balfour Beatty were you 100% transitioned by then?

Amanda: Yes, well, I haven’t had any surgery by that point but I'd been living as Amanda for well over 18 months, two years by then and there was a great opportunity coming across because it gave me the opportunity to go back into nuclear which is what I wanted to do,  and all the way through the process, the interview process,  nobody ever questioned.  

You know, there’s a term used in the trans community about ‘passing in public’ -  I never really considered myself that I did, and all the speech therapy I had you know, I get constantly battered over there by my speech therapist, she works literally 300 yards from where I live and the new Victoria hospital - every time she sees me she will say “go on then, speak”. All the things she taught me I forget to use or I don’t use.  I always consider myself to be obviously out - I'm trans. I have no problem with that, and it wasn't until I met my new line manager about a month before I started with a company and I was suddenly panicking about “do we have to do something, do we have to tell everybody” well no, let's see what happens.

And I turned up on the first day and I no problems.  The only problem in fact I did find is that I was overdressed. Because most of the women in the office were in jeans and flat shoes and t-shirts. I mean in the office I'm a senior manager and I’m expected to be well presented and it was only after a month when I was presented with a list and I was told that I could only wear certain dresses on certain days of work. Why? Well, we've got the same ones and we don't want the same people wearing the same dress!

Mamta: So Just a matter of fashion statement basically!

Amanda: Yeah it's completely new the politics of that for me!

Mamta: That’s brilliant, I love that. I experienced the same thing in tech as well, like I just rocked up in my jeans and trainers but as you get into a more senior position, you have to be well presented, but that’s a good problem to have I think.

Amanda: Moving across to the company, they had their own LGBTQ network within Balfour Beatty and at the time when I joined there were five other trans women in the organization in different parts of the organization and at different stages of their transition, so it wasn't something that was new to the company and I think that did help because they, you know, there were aware of some of the issues and they were quite happy to you know, adapt and change things as necessary and I've not had to have anything changed and I think working within this current joint venture I think there are some parts of the World that are less diverse than others and I don't mean that in that you know, it's not necessarily a negative thing, it's just that they don't deal with diversity the same way we do. They more or less just expect it to be there.

Mamta: Yes exactly and I’ve been working with companies on equity and inclusion initiatives and that's really like inspiring to me that there are representations of different communities in your organization, what kind of things are Balfour Beatty doing in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion?

Amanda: We have certainly within Balfour Beatty set up a number of infinity networks and have put in place a better structure around the equality diversity and inclusion for everybody, but the networks tend to drive a lot of change so simple things like reverse mentoring with us senior leaders, you know, and that's been very effective because it's brought to the attention of what is a very ‘male pale and stale’ group of people, and I use that, it’s not meant as an insult but they are you know, they're all white, heterosexual, middle-aged men, and for them to suddenly realize that a young person of colour has a different work experience for them or a young woman joining, you know and being based on a project and she's the only woman in a project team of 30 or 40 men, you know, her experiences are very different to ours and you can't understand that until you can empathize with it.

So having that reverse mentoring and being able to pass on what it's really like to be at the sharp end of the organization, I think it's done really powerful things. 

Mamta: I love that you're doing this because I had a conversation with a company that I'm working with and they were hesitant to employ an older women in their marketing team because she didn’t have the emerging technologies experience and so I suggested that the younger members of their team reverse mentor her on that so she can learn about it because it shouldn't stop someone from being employed because our generation we don't have that knowledge on social media necessarily.

Amanda There's a lot of things which I think it gives a, it opens people's eyes, not just to the diversity and inclusion aspects of things but other areas where they can work and collaborate together, you know, and as a project HS2 has got a very strong diversity driver, you know, they've got a really powerful individual who HS2's D&I lead in Mark and I've heard him speak a number of times and he really is ED&I all the way through but he puts it over in a realistic way and the project is not just about building a railway, it’s about building communities and building skills and other things so the skills, employment and education agenda is really strong, you know from just employing unemployed graduates and giving them work experience at 19, to being able to work with local schools on STEM activities and other things, I think you know, my first days in work, well it was on the coal face because I joined the mining industry in 1984 and you were at the coal face 12 hours a day 6 days a week- you weren't working. 

Whereas now it's about that broader aspect of work and it's not just people like me, you know, I'm privileged I can manage my own time and do my own things in my time but right the way down to my quality engineers and apprentices they've got time built into their objectives to go and work with the community or go back to the school that they came from and talk about their experiences in the engineering field so that people are seeing people like themselves working in this sector because that's the image construction has, of being white male heterosexual, you know, sun reader, drinking lots of beer and tea and it's not like that, you know, we're a very technology-based industry, you know, I mean, most of my teams work is with data.

 Mamta: Yes exactly that goes across every industry at the moment and I think it's that brand awareness isn't it of construction because when I hear it, the first thing is that ‘Sun, beer and tea’ But talking to you it's a different image to what I had, and thank you for that as well, you know for kind of correcting me.

Amanda: I mean we've got nearly as many drones as the RAF! you know, we use drone technology for all sorts of things, for laser scanning, for photogrammetry and for survey work and all sorts of stuff, you know, we've got some professional drone pilots  within our information and GIS teams. There’s none of this sort of, days gone by when they used to be out there with the old light or a digital camera nowadays everybody's got a digital camera because we've all got one of these. 
Mamta: Exactly , we’ve all got our phone! 

Amanda: I can access all my systems on my phone, I don’t need to go back in the office.  As an industry we've moved so much further which helps us with how we want to work in the future and about agile working.

 Mamta: Yeah exactly and that's one thing I wanted to pick up with you actually because I know that there's a new policy that the company's working on being introduced by the end of the year, so tell me a bit more about that.

Amanda: I think there was a realisation on the project that you've got to with so many people and you know we have a massive workforce, not just our own but sub contractors and other parts of our supply chain,  that you have to build in an agile way of working.  We haven't got enough office accommodation for every single person who needs a desk.  We have some professions that may never even come in the office because they don’t need to - they can work like this at home, work remotely, they can work in other countries. Our old policies would never have allowed that. It was about being in the office five days a week and you being at your desk regardless of whether you needed to or not.

And we've recently introduced a policy around smart working. We’ve built in things like core time when people if they are in the office, they work in these core times. Trying not to send the email outside of seven till seven. 

Mamta: It those core hours, isn't it? I know some companies are working with, you know, we're not allowed to do meetings between 12 and 2 for example, so it's one of those things where you know, you have to have those boundaries in place as well with this kind of working because as we mentioned before sometimes you overwork and the sun goes down and you carry on working which isn't great for your mental health either.

Amanda: No, it's not and they talk about mandating a lunch hour. You know, it's a long time since I worked anywhere where we had a mandated lunch hour where everything stops.

Mamta: Exactly, which is so needed isn't it because you need time to have a sandwich and put your feet up and watch the news – which is pretty depressing at the moment but it’s okay!

Amanda: It's about being able to within the boundaries of this policy is allowing people to work in a different way which actually helps the company because you know, if we were to put a desk on the project for every single person, it would cost us hundreds of million pounds more over the lifetime the project just for someone to have a desk. So a hot desking policy across our estate, making sure that people have that flexibility and that if they've got childcare issues, they can come in later in the day and work till a bit later or they can come in early and pick the kids up from school earlier in the day, giving them that ability to work remotely so if you do not have a role that requires you to be on site physically then why be on site?

Mamta: Yeah exactly and I think that you know, whatever sex you're in everyone's really realizing that now as well. I mean, obviously there's you know, the remote working, there's the agile way of working and one thing that has come up over the last year, especially during the pandemic is talking about mental health and emotional well-being. Are there other ways that you're supporting your team and is there more that could be done around this area. 

Amanda: As an organisation we really bought into mental health and construction a long time ago. Young males in construction have one of the highest suicide rates in the UK and we have had on some of our projects I know in my earlier years with Balfour Beatty we had somebody who was working on the Olympic stadium - we did the transformation work on the Olympic stadium and turned it into the football stadium - who went to work one Saturday morning, walked up onto the roof because you know he worked up on there, and he jumped off.

And that had a massive impact obviously on the team that he worked with and on the people around and we then started as a company to look at the wider aspects of this from finding that he wasn't the only one. He may of done it at work whereas many others don't they do, you know outside of the work environment but looking at the causes of this and where does that mental health issue come from and some of it's you know that macho image that comes from construction and people trying to live up to that, some of it there are many external factors around it as well.

So we introduced a lot of mental health and our own mental health work program and program of education, having people in every office who people can talk to confidentially building that into our staff surveys and everything else and that's very much a part of the way that we work now, you know recognizing that if we have a healthy happier workforce, well, it does a number of things for us – one: they’re more productive, two: more people will want to come and work for us because we're seen as a better employer and now this sector has a massive skills shortage. By having people doing the right things and telling the world that actually this is a great industry to work in you know, we do some fantastic things - the projects that we build and the things that we do - the technology that we use and the changes which are coming with that.

I think there's a lot of people think that we still just turn up on site getting muddy and lay bricks. 

Mamta: Yeah exactly it's addressing the core issues that you know, not just during the pandemic but the core issues that occurred around mental health many years ago as well, you know male suicide, you know, the high rates in male suicide is quite and how its performed you know jumping off buildings or a construction or jumping in front of the tube and it's it's very very sad and it's just heart-breaking to hear that that happened.

Amanda: It is and I think the more and more that we can do to help people and you know, having that ability to have a real work-life balance as well, you know, we do support people working and volunteering in the community, we give people days to go and do that. I think that's really important as well because you're not just at the coal face day in day out, you know you might go out and do two days of hard labour, you know building a footpath or building a shed for a school or something like that, but it's a different environment you're doing it in a different way it's a break from the norm and you can see a benefit that you're giving back to somebody that needs that, you know that level of work doing for them.  We do a lot with the armed forces as well, we're an Armed Forces employer and we’ve brought lots of people into our industry from the Armed Forces because they've got a skill set, a culture, an attitude that's what we're looking for. So that ‘can do’ attitude, that level of discipline where they can be taught to get onto something and understanding that you need to be trained and you need the right skills to do the job.

We're not looking for anybody to act. I'm going to put it rationally -  what we're looking for is that discipline, that culture that comes from the Armed Forces and you see that these people make really good employees and they have no construction knowledge whatsoever. We can give them the knowledge on how to do things - it's the attitude and the culture that we don't always have the time or have the ability to give them. 

Mamta: Yeah, exactly. And I think just having that self-awareness is making such a change which I think is amazing. So you’re already very senior in the industry and been there for a long time. So what are the personal aspirations for you over the coming years? What would you like to achieve do you think? 

Amanda: There are still a number of things.  Someone said this to me the other day “so you're in a senior position, you're coasting to retirement” I said “retirements at least 10 years away!”

And by the time I get there the government will have moved it up to 70 anyway! So that's more than a third of your working life. So I'd like to think that in that time I would still have things I want to do.  I look at my parents' generation which is slightly different, my dad retired early because he’d got his 40 years into his final salary pension and he was going to make no more money out of it so he retired at 60 - well he's one of the busiest people I've ever met because the day that he retired was the day he started getting bored and he went back out doing work.

And I’m of that same nature - I want to do things. So, what do I want to do? I would like to do some more, I think eventually go back into the nuclear sector, which is what I really enjoy. The job I've got now is great, but I like the rigor that goes with nuclear and the technology with it -  it's slightly different, it's not on the same scale as this in terms of the project but it brings some great difficulties, which is the area that I like and I like interacting with that.

I'd certainly like to do some more around how we change the industry as well, because I think that's something that I really am passionate about.  Whether it constructional engineering, it's an area where I think there's a lot of change to be made and change to bring more people to this sector as well because you know, my niece, my brothers in the constructional engineering sector as well, he's a designer within the roads and highways business and my niece, the school she went to a lot of kids are looking at media things and you know, I would call them non-engineering type of careers, which is if you’re from the non-engineering side you tend to think that's a bit wishy washy, but there's a place in the world for everybody's career aspirations but I'd like to think we could attract more people to the sector.

Mamta: It’s to make it more appealing isn’t it, to more diverse communities.  And that’s the problem that comes with getting women into STEM, you know, it's not sometimes sexy enough but the other areas might be because there are so many things you can do nowadays in terms of aspirations but basically these sectors are really important for the country, for us, for you to carry forwards and I think that all we can do is bring in those diverse communities and make that better.  

Amanda: We've been working right the way through (COVID) and it might not be at the same pace that we normally do but we've been working right the way through and I think it's a sector where many people can thrive.

There are so many different roles within constructional engineering people get the opportunity to genuinely thrive, and what I would like to see is that we have more diverse Boards. I get construction news on tap through the app on a regular basis and one of the things for me is that being able to look at all these promotions that are going on.

And the promotions tend to be you know, more ‘male pale and stale’, we need those Boards to change. A lot companies said they wanted a 50-50 workforce of male and female – but it's not just male and female, we could all recruit to that extent and have 50-50 work force but would that reflect society? Would that reflect the way that we work? No, it probably wouldn't so it's about having the right people in the right place and making our Boards and our organisations diverse and reflect society in general. 

Mamta: I think that's an amazing goal to have actually you know, because I think it will take time and if you can see that change that'll be so incredible - I think for everyone and a role model as well, that's always the way forward. Before I let you crack on with your day, one more question if you don’t mind – If you had one uncomfortable question to ask your industry, what would it be? 

Amanda: It would probably be around the last point I raised of why don't we have more women and minorities in the leadership of our organisations when it's a proven fact that diverse organizations are more innovative and more profitable. We are an industry that relies on profit margins of one or two percent -  why are we not tapping into what could potentially be a very quick win and actually make our industry more attractive because if you see a role model who's a person of colour or LGBTQ leader on top of an organization you say well if they can do it I can do it - I can thrive in that sector. I want to join that sector. 

Mamta: Absolutely. I think that's a great question to ask. Amanda, thank you so much for your time. I could speak to you for hours to be fair. You are so engaging and you're inspiring and, I really love the way that you manage, you lead and the other things that you want to achieve so I really appreciate that and you know all the listeners out there, please do get in touch with Amanda if you want to ask any questions and get more information but thank you so much Amanda for joining us today.

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