Roma Agrawal, Associate Director (Structural Engineering) at AECOM, cut her teeth on London icon The Shard. Now, she’s working to change hearts and minds on behalf of the engineering profession.
What makes for a great leader? Why should engineers be evangelicals for their profession? How can more engineers make the leap from technical roles to leadership positions?
Engineer Roma Agrawal spoke with create after her session at the recent Australian Engineering Conference, where she shared her experiences during a panel discussion on the leadership journey. We picked her brain for tips on leadership, how to build a personal brand and ways to be an advocate for the engineering profession.
create: During the discussion you mentioned growing up professionally with The Shard. How have you developed your client-facing skills in that time?
Roma Agrawal: Spending six years with The Shard was an amazing part of my career. I started off as a graduate when I was just one year into my career, and I finished about four years ago.
For engineers that want to go from a technical role to a more client-facing role, I definitely encourage them to practise their communication skills. You can do that in many different ways. The way that I learned was by going to schools and telling students and kids about engineering. So you really learn how to communicate a technical subject in a non-technical way.
create: You mentioned it’s important for those in the engineering profession to be authentic and vulnerable. Can you elaborate?
RA: The best leaders that I’ve seen have those qualities, and I think what that shows is they’re human beings just like the rest of us. I think not only does it create a really positive culture in the business itself, so they become role models for their employees, but I think it’s also really good for their shareholders or whoever their stakeholders might be. They feel they’re getting this honest view of how the business is doing and how they can move forward from there.
create: You also mentioned you didn’t ask for a pay raise for the first eight years. I’m sure that many engineers have been in your position. What advice would you give them?
RA: My advice would definitely be to ask, and the way you do that is to know what you’re worth is. You can do that research either within your organisation to understand the different pay bands that might exist, and also by phoning up recruiters or understanding from different organisations what they would pay an engineer at your grade. If you have that information you can then go and ask for a reasonable amount of money.
create: You spoke about joining a company without a job description. That was a huge leap of faith. What made you do that and how did you survive?
RA: Yes, that was absolutely a leap of faith. But we’ve been talking about culture, we’ve been talking about leadership, and I basically had the faith in the people that interviewed me, the people that I met, that I would be able to find a great role for me. And luckily that has been the case.
create: You also advised female engineers to be assertive and to push back. Tell us about that.
RA: I have been advised as a female engineer to make my stance known. I find that a very interesting piece of advice, because I wonder how many male engineers have been given the same advice.
I think what’s important for me is that people from all different backgrounds – whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, whether you speak English as your first language or not, depending on your gender and so on – that everyone’s given good opportunities in places that they work.
All of us are different as humans, and I think it’s important for management and for leaders to acknowledge those differences and make sure that people from all those different backgrounds can thrive.
create: You mentioned that leadership is something that can be learned. How can engineers learn leadership?
RA: I didn’t know myself that leadership was something I wanted to do. And how can you learn it? I think by observing your leaders. Learn the good things from the best leaders. Observe the leaders that you think aren’t as good or doing things you don’t like and make sure you don’t do those things. So I think learning by example is the best way to do it.
create: How did you go about building your brand, ‘Roma the Engineer’?
RA: I have a website, I’ve got Twitter, Instagram and so on. I’ve written a book. I’m involved in the media. I spent that time and effort building up that brand because I do have these parallel careers as a technical engineer as working in the industry but also as someone in the media that tries to promote our profession to attract a more diverse range of skills.
create: Tell us about the transgender engineer that you mentioned.
RA: I gave an example of an amazing role model named Christina Riley, who’s a transgender woman in the UK, because there was a question about bringing cultural change using a bottom-up approach. I can imagine that construction is not a very comfortable or welcoming place for transgender people – just off the bat – if you think about our industry.
But she’s someone that has really created initiatives and visibility for herself and I’m absolutely sure that she will inspire a lot more people from different backgrounds to come into the industry.
(Conversation has been edited for clarity.)