As the building safety bill makes its way through Parliament, construction procurement needs to shake off its below-stairs image, argues Laing O’Rourke’s procurement chief, Carol Williams
A mix of innate curiosity and a keenness to leave full-time education prompted Carol Williams to land a job that she’d never even heard of with the Ministry of Defence at the age of 18. Despite her “huge learning curve”, she relished the role in MoD contracts and finance, which entailed buying warships, and spent the next three decades rising through the ranks of armaments and aerospace procurement.
Today, as Laing O’Rourke’s head of procurement, Williams wields a £1.8bn budget in the equally male-dominated construction sector. But she has never forgotten the early days of her career – “girlie calendars on every wall and lots of making coffee” – and continues to advocate for women in the workplace.
Moreover, in light of Grenfell, Brexit and Covid, she believes that the value of procurement itself needs to be championed.
“Anyone in this profession can keep prices down. But, in terms of its social value to communities and its commitment to sustainability, procurement needs to start meaning much more,” Williams says. “It’s up to all of us to be ambassadors for a job that brings immense value to organisations every single day, yet is still misunderstood and underestimated by our colleagues and the public.”
Declaring frustration at the preference of many millennials for careers in the hi-tech sector – “it’s Amazon, Google or nothing” – Williams notes that attracting next-gen digital skills to procurement, particularly in construction, is still a work in progress.
“We need data analysts, business analysts and digital engineers. But, as I can testify, young people often have a strange idea of what procurement is,” she says.
Williams was appointed by Laing O’Rourke in 2019 to represent her department to the firm’s stakeholders on issues such as safety, quality and digital transformation. She leads a team of more than 100 and oversees a supply chain of about 2,500 companies.
While others may envy her extensive brief and budget, Williams believes that all procurement leaders can and should seek to show their value. It’s about being brave, becoming an influencer and, above all, demonstrating competence, she argues.
Williams counts herself lucky to report directly to Ray O’Rourke, the company’s veteran founder, CEO and chairman, who is “personally committed to raising procurement standards”. This has given her a solid platform from which to influence both the organisation and the wider industry.
Williams’ expertise in health and safety – gained in several senior roles during her two decades with Lockheed Martin – underpins her considerable clout. Effective safety procedures are entrenched in the aviation industry, but this is not true of construction, where many workers are accustomed to using potentially dangerous equipment in suboptimal conditions.
“I was a complete outsider to the world of construction,” she says. “I don’t doubt that this was why I was approached, totally out of the blue, to help make safety part of this company’s DNA, both for our workers and for the public who use our buildings every day.”
Although improving construction’s safety record is a vital first step in improving the tarnished image, it also feeds into two other pressing issues: digital transformation and recruitment. In a bid to address the safety concerns of its clients, Laing O’Rourke – whose projects in progress include Hinkley Point C nuclear power station and the Elizabeth Line and HS2 railways – wants more than 90% of its projects to be factory-built by 2025. Achieving this target will require a considerable amount of technological upskilling.
While recruiting enough digital engineers and analysts to handle this transformation may not be her team’s responsibility, Williams is ready to get involved.
“I tend not to swim in my own lane,” she says. “I’ve always found that strict reporting lines are irrelevant when organisation-wide issues such as talent acquisition require cooperation between departments.”
A natural collaborator, Williams says that her colleagues have always welcomed her perspective as an outsider. Ever since she joined Laing O’Rourke, her team has “become known as the go-to function” for help in tackling a range of problems that wouldn’t normally be seen as a procurement concern.
Her approach was recognised last year by the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply, which gave Laing O’Rourke an award for excellence. It commended her department for being “core to the commercial aspects of the business”.
As the company aims to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, the next challenge for its procurement team is to align itself more closely with the interests and development of the supply chain.
“The social agenda and the requirement, particularly with government projects, to demonstrate social value is huge,” Williams says. “From employing ex-offenders to emitting less carbon, there are added complexities to factor into our buying decisions.”
Instead of simply ditching suppliers that fail to keep pace with changing attitudes, procurement should help all parts of the supply chain to attain new standards with training and accreditation, she says. “By walking in the shoes of suppliers and asking them how events such as Brexit are affecting them, procurement can – and must – be part of the sustainability dialogue that our supply chain is having every day.”
During the UK’s first Covid lockdown, when the construction sector was still required to deliver new hospitals and other vital infrastructure, the know-how of procurement professionals proved crucial, Williams says.
She cites the example of the Grange University Hospital in Cwmbran, which opened four months early, below budget and with no significant defects last November. This was just in time for it to help treat the second wave of Covid-19 infections in south-east Wales. With procurement teams helping suppliers to understand the pipeline better and giving stakeholders information about capacity, risks and opportunities, business-continuity plans could be managed far more effectively than they might otherwise have been.
Now that procurement must look beyond immediate price concerns to the long-term environmental effects of its decisions, the whole profession needs to form a new mindset, according to Williams, who says: “Balancing all the different sustainability factors requires something new. We need robust ways of working, as well as skilled procurement professionals who can engage with designers, clients, suppliers and other key decision-makers to influence the best outcomes.”
‘Grey beard’ women
Williams believes that the construction industry urgently needs to provide sustainable, inclusive and flexible employment for less traditional employees. With female representation in the UK construction workforce at only 13%, Laing O’Rourke’s target of 50% by 2033 is, she believes, ambitious yet achievable.
While the figure is 39% in the procurement profession, research by Gartner suggests that the proportion of women in senior roles fell from 28% in 2019 to 21% last year.
Williams believes that women’s extra caring responsibilities during the Covid crisis may have contributed to this decline, but she notes that older women are being left behind in the profession’s recruitment drive.
“They may not have the ‘grey beard’ status that’s accorded to men, but many older women in our industry have a wealth of knowledge that can be hidden under the weight of caring responsibilities,” she says. “The reality is that too many experienced female professionals find that their careers are stalling at a time when men of a similar age are gaining more promotions. I want to tackle the root causes of this.”
Having served on more diversity committees than she can remember over the years, Williams continues to campaign for a fairer deal for women in the workplace. She believes that, by focusing first on inclusion and “valuing the contributions that anyone, of any background, can bring to an organisation”, a more diverse workforce will ensue.
It’s often the deeds of influential individuals in an organisation that create momentum, she says, citing one especially memorable intervention of her own. “Some years ago, I hired a female engineer for a commercial role, based on her talent and potential. At the time, that was widely seen as highly irregular and even risky. I firmly believe that actions create beliefs in opportunities and possibilities. In that case, a single appointment made a discernible difference to an entire organisation’s attitudes to transferable talent.”
Elon Musk and autism
Williams is the executive sponsor of a Laing O’Rourke subcommittee addressing the under-employment of disabled people, particularly the 80% whose impairments are hidden. A fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, she is fascinated by what Elon Musk – who has Asperger syndrome – has achieved “without any help from NASA”. She believes that celebrating neurodiversity is the next big challenge.
“It shocks me that, more than a quarter of a century on from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, only 16% of autistic people are employed, even though so many more of them are very capable and long to be accepted into the workplace,” she says.
Williams argues that new ways of thinking about business problems should be sought by all organisations, particularly those with skills shortages, although she adds that the stereotypical view of autistic men in particular as maths-loving geeks is unhelpful.
“Neurodiverse candidates are just as varied and as individual as neurotypical ones. Neither group will benefit from a one-size-fits-all recruitment strategy,” she says.
Other inclusivity subcommittees at Laing O’Rourke include those devoted to carers, single parents, and women dealing with menopause.
Williams is accustomed to being the only woman in a room, especially in “meetings full of more junior men who all play golf”. She says that, while male clubbiness can be irritating and even offensive at times, the situation has improved over the years.
“People often point out that I’m the sole woman in a gathering, but now I’m so engrossed in how other peoples’ jobs relate to my own that I rarely notice,” she says. “When I joined the workforce in the 1980s, ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ sexual innuendo was the norm. If a few men today want to stay rooted in the past, that’s their problem, not mine. But, for the most part, I’m encouraged by how many people have a fresher outlook.”
Having kept a low profile for many years – something that was encouraged in her previous sectors – Williams is happy to be more visible in her current role.
“I’ve picked up a lot of knowledge since those early days at the MoD. If I can use it to influence my industry across several fronts, I’ll be glad,” she says. “After all the recent disruption, procurement is taking a more strategic direction. As far as I’m concerned, this is long overdue.”