[Part 3] Interview: ACE's Chief Executive Hannah Vickers

Posted by ananya-kripalani on October 29, 2019

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Hannah Vickers was appointed chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) in June last year. A civil engineer by profession, Hannah joined from the Institution of Civil Engineers where she led the policy and public affairs team, and prior to that she acted as an adviser to Ministers at HM Treasury on infrastructure delivery policy. I recently caught up with Hannah to get her take on the current challenges and opportunities facing the industry - below is the final part of the unofficial transcript of our conversation. If you missed part one or two, you can catch-up here.

Q7. What does it take to run a successful association like the ACE? Is it ruthless prioritisation? And what’s your personal approach to leadership?

"I’m not sure about ruthless prioritisation, it makes me sound like a dictator, but I think yes our members quite rightly expect a lot from us. 

We are actually a micro business, we are tiny and employ less than 15 staff. So what we really need to focus on is the impact that we have. We don’t have big resources so it’s important to make the most of what we’ve got. So it’s very much impact focused

Something I’ve been reflecting on over my last year at the ACE is what’s our USP, what is it that ACE can do, as we are the only business representative body for Consulting and Engineering firms. So it’s all about business and that’s great actually. And within that you’ve then got things I referred to such as business leadership, setting strategy and businesses coming together to see the apprenticeships. Being absolutely clear on what it is you can do (is essential) and I find that actually helps collaboration with other firms. 

 

"We need to be selective about where we’ll have the most impact."

 

We’ve been working lots with the Civil Engineering Contractors Association because we know where they’ve got strengths and we can start to join up the effort between some of the business associations - we are all so small that it’s only going to enhance our impact, and that’s been quite successful. 

We’ve had a recent success where we all collectively lobbied on the changes to the VAT policy because now’s not the right time to disrupt the cash flow in our industry. It’s an important change but not perhaps right now, where we’ve got uncertainty around major projects and around future pipeline of work. So actually collectively deploying our expertise as a group we had success and that’s been moved back by a year. So I think actually it’s that piece around knowing what you are good at. 

We are fantastic at commercial advice at ACE, we’ve got brilliant members that we can bring in and advice the likes of Heathrow expansion on their future commercial strategy. So I think it’s almost - I wouldn’t say picking your battles- but we’re too small to do everything. We need to be selective about where we’ll have the most impact."

Hannah Vickers Profile photo

Q8. You’ve had an amazing career as adviser at the Treasury and now CEO of the ACE, how do you suggest we make equality a priority, what could women bring to the table that you think this industry and the world needs most now?

"It’s interesting, I think to my mind it’s broader than just women. I think what we suffer from is a lack of diversity of thought actually. 

I’ve already referred to the kind of rigorous qualifications and accreditation process that we have in the industry and that almost breeds out diversity of thought. You end up with a lot of very similar individuals working across the industry, even in the client side. To my mind what we should be aiming for is people from different backgrounds, genders - just different mindsets. 

 

"To my mind what we should be aiming for is people from different backgrounds, genders - just different mindsets."

 

As an example I am profoundly dyslexic so I don’t read and write very well which makes you wonder why I was an adviser in the Treasury but that’s all verbal advice, that’s fine. Never write anything down in the Treasury. So I think that to my mind that really helped my career because I find I think about things in quite a different way. So I am very, very good at lateral thinking, seeing connections between different ideas, patterns. So when you’re advising clients or trying to co-ordinate with other industry associations I can just bring a different perspective and that’s what we should be aiming to get to, with having people who come from very different backgrounds and bring that diversity of thought. And not breeding them out by some sort of selection process that we (currently) have, to make your way into the profession."

Q9. You recently led a full female panel of speakers at this year’s ACE conference, and it feels like rather than just discussing the issues you are stepping into the solution by promoting diversity so openly. Can you explain how you are changing the ACE with regards to equality? What would you like to see firms do more of to make it possible for women to become leaders in this industry and corporate spheres?

"There’s a big culture change in this and as you refer to, it’s not just specific to us - I think it’s to do with business in general, industry in general. It’s been a certain type of culture, there’s definitely more that we can do to challenge that. There needs to be better flexibility (for example) and actually I think that’s not just about gender, that would help everybody. It would help where we are at, with work-life balance and people just sort of having a more rewarding career and perhaps better physical health - mental health certainly. I think it’s probably what we should be doing, it’s very much a culture change. 

 

"There needs to be better flexibility, and actually I think that’s not just about gender. It would help where we are at, with work-life balance and people just sort of having a more rewarding career and perhaps better physical health - mental health certainly."

 

There was something in the news quite recently, I found it very interesting. It was an open letter written by one of the Chief Executives of the NHS who’d resigned. And she was very honest about the impact it had. She was resigning not because she didn’t love the job but it was really sort of that she couldn’t reconcile that with her family and the impact it was having on her personal life. We shouldn’t be in a situation where that’s the case but I think the culture has evolved and the expectations are such that it’s going to take some brave interventions to address that. But perhaps some of the thoughts of our emerging professionals will lead us into that space. If we can be more productive, we can think about how we might change our governance structures and the sorts of things people are involved in with firms of the future."

Future of consultancy - Hannah Vickers

Q10. And back to you leading this conference of female speakers was that something that was a calculated move on your part? How did that come about?

"So we did the conference and the awards in the evening, which I think was more powerful. Yes it was to prove a point. 

I think if we are looking at change in that culture there is a responsibility for businesses to look at how they use every opportunity, just to help people develop. The evening was about, rather then get ourselves a celebrity speaker, we got our apprentice of the year (from last year) and we’d given her a buddy on stage in case she was nervous. But actually all that was about, (was) saying we’ve got this pot of funding, we could have used it to buy a z list celebrity to come present our awards, but actually we’re committed to this.

 

"I think if we are looking at change in that culture there is a responsibility for businesses to look at how they use every opportunity, just to help people develop."

 

We are committed to helping people develop and show-casing what they can do and we should be using that in a different way. I think there’s an opportunity to do something different again next year. That’s the sort of thing, actually doing it, not taking the easier - and certainly from my part - less nervous route of just going with the tried and tested. I didn’t want (to proceed with) it's fine we’ll get a celebrity, they’ll be able to handle the room, instead I put our apprentice up, bless her and you know I thought fingers crossed she’ll be fine. 

I think it does take some brave leadership to make those sorts of decisions because it won’t always pay off, but that’s part of the learning process and we need to be a bit more forgiving actually. Because it’s about giving people the chance and the opportunity to do that sort of thing.

Missed the rest of the interview? Read it here:

Hannah Vickers Interview: Part One

Hannah Vickers Interview: Part Two



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