The full interview with new Society President Adam Fraser-Hitchen.
How has the Army equipped you for this leadership role with the Society?
I would start with the premise that most people will not be well exposed to how today’s modern Army operates. Many will base their opinions on television programmes of the past such as Soldier Soldier in the ’80s, or more recent media headlines. Or they may rely on stories from older family members who may have previously served. It can be a challenge for those not well-sighted to understand how you can take a serving soldier and throw that individual into industry with some hope of success. People may ask how shouting orders and operating in a hierarchal organisation can be of use in business. The reality is that the modern Army is far from that view.
I’ve been a serving soldier for 35 years now; my leadership training started on day one of those 35 years. So, in terms of the level of investment I’ve had placed in me, and the level of exposure to experiences and opportunities to lead both small teams and big teams, I’m in a very fortunate position. My journey started ‘on the tools’. I began in a technical trade, repairing, manufacturing parts, and test firing weapons as an armourer. Relatively early on I was selected to move down a different path and was sent to Sandhurst to become a commissioned officer. In all my roles, I’ve been lucky to have been exposed to a diverse group of people, from all four corners of the UK. English, Scots, Welsh, and those from Northern Ireland – all into a single pot, all doing a similar thing and all trying to deliver value. And, it’s even wider than that. Over my time I’ve also been fortunate enough to have a great many international personnel work with me and for me. I’ve filled three NATO posts – with 19 different nations working in the headquarters I was in. All nations and individuals, male and female, operating in slightly different ways. So, I don’t think there’s very many people who would surprise me with differing approaches. I’ve seen many approaches, and often in the harsh environments I’ve worked in over the years. Environments that were high in risk to myself and to the soldiers, sailors and aviators that I worked with. Extreme weather and aggressive armed action adds a level of stress and strain to life. If you can lead successfully in those conditions, with those great people whom I’ve been fortunate enough to command, actually, when you come back to business, life doesn’t feel quite as dangerous or exciting or even as pressured as it was elsewhere.
The underlying headline is that the Army is a people organisation - it’s all about the people. I always say that if you genuinely don’t like people, then the Army is probably not for you and certainly if you’re in a leadership role. All of these things have equipped me, I think, particularly well for my forthcoming leadership role in the SOE.
Throughout your career you have always been involved in programmes that assist in your personal development; how will that help with the Presidential role at the Society?
As I noted previously, I have been fortunate to have a lot of investment in me from others. And when you receive that level of personal investment you feel like you want to give something back. Throughout my career, I have been fortunately enough to have had individuals who have spotted me, helped me, guided me, and told me off at the right time so I would learn in the right way. All of those things have got me to where I am now, so I genuinely wouldn’t be on this path without the help of others. And so, once in a position of responsibility, with an opportunity to help an organisation and its members, then it’s sort of a duty to do so. At the individual level, I see the Society being supportive to our members in seeing them reach their maximum potential. From an engineering perspective, I would want to see our young engineers given every opportunity to excel across all sectors, so that their employed skills have a larger benefit to their lives, including earning potential.
What made you decide to pursue Chartered Engineer status and what advice would you give to engineers at the Society who are interested in doing the same?
It is a good question because so many people ask this type of question: what is the benefit of me being a Chartered Engineer, Incorporated Engineer or an Engineering Technician? It is, of course, all about recognition. Many of those who have worked for me have asked the same question. In the early days, I struggled to answer them. I struggled to say more than ‘Well, it’s a great path into a professional institute and it’s what everyone else does so it must be a good idea!’. But I couldn’t put my finger on the reason why, and it bothered me. When I became a Chartered Engineer, I had served two tours in Northern Ireland and two tours in Bosnia none of which were in engineering roles. I knew that as I became more senior, I was highly likely to be selected for senior engineering roles, on military operations and in liaison with Industry. I sought to be recognised for my engineering competencies in preparation for ever more senior roles.
This has allowed me to stand alone as a professionally recognised, professionally qualified engineer. As an Army Major at the time I gained my Chartership, I was working with many others of the same rank, the majority of whom were great people – all highly capable, quality individuals pursuing their role in the Army. I asked myself how I could make a difference? What would allow me to add more value to this organisation than they can? And, of course, from the engineering perspective, it was my knowledge, skills and experience to take engineering decisions that could have a life-or-death effect. I needed the background and gravitas to take significant decisions and, if need be, stand in a court of law and defend my decision. As a national and internationally recognised award, Chartership allows me to make the difference.
What have you learnt over the years from leading successful teams?
We could all walk into libraries full of books only on leadership, so I won’t attempt to paraphrase what many great people have said on the subject of leadership. Equally, leadership is a very personal thing. We all lead and deliver the skills of leadership in slightly different ways, because we would want it to resonate with our characters.
There are probably three main approaches that I’ve tried to take or found myself taking having realised their centrality to success. The first is example: you cannot talk the talk without being willing to walk the course yourself. This could be physical in terms of having to do a difficult task – why would you ask others to do it if you wouldn’t do it yourself? It could involve an aspect of moral courageousness, of standing your ground when others disagree or in the face of significant opposition.
The second is honesty; be honest and transparent. Don’t play political games, give people as much information as you can to help them to understand the situation and to help them make rational decisions themselves. Allow people to get into your head so that when you’re not there as the leader, your people can hear your voice in their minds. Especially in difficult situations, the team should be able to make the right decision because you’ve been honest and transparent with them in laying out your vision and your modus operandi?
The third is trust. Leadership is based on trust. If you have no trust, you have no team. I’ve seen the most junior of people in years and experience do the most incredible things with a bit of trust. Empowering them rather than acting as a dictator provides far greater benefit in most circumstances. Mutual trust borne out of respect, selfless commitment, loyalty, integrity and professionalism.
Underpinning all of this is the need to expect excellence. If you expect excellence in both yourself and your team, you will self-police and deliver. Your team will deliver. People don’t set out to do a bad job. Almost everybody enjoys adding value. Why would I expect anything else?
What is your vision for the Society in your time as President?
My single overarching aim is to increase the attractiveness of the Society to our existing members and our potential members. I don’t want our members to be members because their line manager told them to be. I want them to see and feel the benefits of membership. That’s the headline for me. We genuinely add value as a Society. If we achieve that then we end up appealing to a wider audience; we end up engaging a younger group of engineers – that’s important. I’m worried that 20 years hence there will be no one to backfill the organisation. If we capture the youth, then we probably capture a more diverse audience as well. I want to see an increase in female engineers; I want to see engineering open and available to all people, irrespective of gender, culture, religion or social background. None of those things matter if you want to be an engineer. All that matters is how much you want to invest in being an engineer.
How do you view the role of the Professional Engineering Organisation in the modern world?
There’s a reality that says, ‘we’re not going to compete with the larger institutes’. We’re in a different part of the market. Our ambitions for growth are contained within more of a niche, targeted market. Our offering is strong because we’re made up of component parts. Each of the professional sectors have their own strengths. Arguably, by implication, they have their own weaknesses as well. If we can harness the strength of those sectors into one, then the Society becomes attractive to many different people. We have five offerings with our professional sectors so it doesn’t matter if I’m dealing with heavy vehicles in my day-to-day job or if I have a background in the ubiquitous nature of plant engineering, or even aeronautical, I have an extensively wide engineering network within the SOE that I can make use of. As a society, we have the ability to provide comment on a wide spectrum of engineering functions. If parliamentarians ask for our view on engineering issues, we’ve got a really broad frontage to make use of. Other institutions are quite narrow. We should be seen as a relatively wide, generalist society but one with areas of deep subject matter knowledge borne out of years of professional practice.