Firm foundations for future success

Alison Cox, SEP alumna and Executive Director of Engineering & Technical Services at Sir Robert McAlpine, on leadership in challenging times

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Alison Cox was just 17-years-old when she first donned a hard hat and high-vis jacket and stepped onto a construction site in Holborn, London. It was the summer of 1989 and she was a fresh-faced, ambitious teenager studying maths, further maths, physics and economics at A-level, and hoping to study engineering science at Oxford. But first, she wanted a taste of the world of construction.  

Cox had a “standard British upbringing,” she says. “I played outside a lot, and I loved Lego and other construction toys.” Independence was actively encouraged. “I’m not sure if that had an impact on getting me into engineering, but I was always allowed to do the things I wanted to do, if I could demonstrate I was doing them carefully and responsibly.” 

As a teenager, Cox also recognised that engineering wasn’t a standard career choice for a woman – but after making her intentions clear to her parents and teachers, nobody offered even the slightest hint of discouragement. “I was incredibly fortunate not to have too much external pressure telling me that girls just don’t do engineering,” she says. “Nobody pointed out the negatives – they just said: ‘If that’s what you want to do, great, go for it.’” Cox’s school was supportive too, she adds. “I went to an all-girls school in Croydon, and they encouraged me to study STEM subjects and apply for an engineering degree at Oxford, which I did,” she says. 

It was while studying for her A-levels that Cox wrote to all the construction companies she could think of looking for work experience. Only one replied to invite her to interview: Sir Robert McAlpine – a distinguished British engineering and construction company, founded in 1869. Much to Cox’s delight, they offered her a job on site for the summer. “That was the opportunity, the first opening, to build my whole career. They took a chance on me. If I hadn’t written to McAlpine that summer or if they hadn’t written back… in a parallel universe, there’s another Alison with a completely different life out there. It shows how serendipitous some of those things can be – paths that you can take without you realising they’re choices – how they can have a really big impact on how your life turns out.”  

“In construction, there’s always something new to learn, an endless variety of problems to solve”

Despite the rubble and dust, the potential for danger and the male-dominated environment – “I wasn’t the only woman on site, so it didn’t feel like the wrong place for me” – Cox instantly felt at home at Sir Robert McAlpine. “I knew by the end of my first week this was what I wanted for my career. Being on site was endlessly fascinating – and still is,” she says. “That’s what I love about construction – there’s always something new to learn, an endless variety of problems to solve.”

Climbing the civil engineering ladder 

Cox is now one of the most senior engineers in the country – Director of Engineering and Technical Services – and the company she works for is the one that replied to her initial covering letter 30 years ago: Sir Robert McAlpine. “It was sheer luck that I ended up at McAlpine,” she says. “But they took a chance on me. At the end of that first summer, they offered me sponsorship and I went back to them each year during my degree at Oxford. I was then delighted when they offered me a job when I completed my studies in 1994.”  

Cox seized those early opportunities and has risen through the ranks – building upon the foundations laid as a student, she has constructed her career like she has the iconic buildings she can count among her most dazzling achievements. Since joining McAlpine, Cox has worked on projects including wind farms, Croydon Tramlink, the Jubilee Line Extension, and various new-build, refurbishment office and mixed-use schemes.  

One of Cox’s most impressive accomplishments is the highly complex Bloomberg London headquarters, built at an overall cost of £1 billion. “That building makes me proud every time I see it,” she says. “I’m also hugely proud of phase three of Battersea Power Station’s renovation, one of the last major symbols of London’s industrial past. I was part of the project leadership on Battersea – the team we built there was truly amazing.” 


A driving force in the workplace 

Cox still loves to get her hands dirty on construction sites and before the pandemic hit, she spent a huge amount of time visiting the 60 sites she’s responsible for around the UK. She prides herself on not only building exceptional structures that will stand the test of time, but also pulling together solid teams. “I see my strengths as listening to people, understanding their strengths and combining them to create a really effective team. The technical aspects of a build are hugely important,” she says, “but it’s great teams that make the technical achievements possible. Regardless of gender, the best leaders I’ve worked for have always been great communicators and have been really interested in the people working for them.” 

Today, Cox’s colleagues describe her as “professional, driven and reliable”, as someone who takes time to understand people, and who sets high standards with her behaviour. “I’m an optimist, a glass-half-full kind of person,” she says. “I always try to find the good in whatever situation we’re in.” For that reason, she admits, she tries to consciously solicit opinions from people she knows are more inclined to be negative. “Otherwise, I may miss things.”  

"The best leaders I’ve worked for have always been great communicators and have been really interested in the people working for them"

Positivity, she adds, is often under-valued by those in leadership roles. “A can-do attitude gets you a long way and I like hiring these kinds of people to my teams. Even having one person who’s a bit of a doom-monger can drag a whole team down.” 

The most significant pivot in Cox’s career happened when she took maternity leave to have her three children. After a break of almost a decade, she wanted to return to work in 2012 and was on the cusp of retraining as a teacher, having assumed she’d been away for too long to return to McAlpine. But the words of Cox’s boss rang in her ears. “I’d gone off on maternity leave, saying, ‘I’ll see you in a year,’ and my boss said, ‘Whenever you want to come back, it doesn’t matter how long it’s been, just pick up the phone.’” So she did. “The reception I got was amazing. I’d recommend it to any organisation that wants to keep women in the workforce. They basically said, ‘Tell us the hours you want to do and we’ll find a job to accommodate you.’ If it hadn’t been for that approach, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”  

Cox ended up back in an industry she loved. “I’m aware not everyone has that experience, but it’s something I’ve been trying to replicate for others – being as flexible as I can be, as the line manager, because I know first-hand how hard I worked when I went part-time and how loyal it made me to the organisation.” 


COVID-19: a spanner in the works 

Fast forward to 2020, and the global pandemic certainly upended everyone’s plans. A year on and Cox is able to reflect on how she weathered the most challenging period in living memory, a period when construction came to a grinding halt, workers were furloughed and supply chains were disrupted.  

Cox had only recently completed LBS’s Senior Executive Programme (SEP) and been promoted into a more senior position in McAlpine, which focused on business leadership. “I’d just stepped into my new role, and my CEO, who’s an SEP alumnus from an earlier cohort, had just gone on holiday. Because of my previous project management experience, I found myself in charge.”  

It was at that point she had to put all the knowledge acquired at LBS into practice. It was a steep learning curve, she admits, but one she had the self-assurance to handle as a result of her newly developed skillset. Part of it was self-confidence, she says. “I’d been in a group of high-performing business people from around the world, and they seemed to think I had interesting things to say, which made me value my own opinions more.”  

Another revelation was that the programme showed Cox that her instincts in the workplace had been correct: “I’d had instinctive reactions to what motivates people at work. When I built a team, I set out certain criteria, and I was really pleased during SEP to discover that there was science behind [my instincts].”  

Despite being no stranger to operating effectively under pressure, Cox credits the SEP with giving her the confidence to navigate the tumultuous grounds of the pandemic more fluidly. “The programme gave me that boost, that springboard, to really accelerate. And when you’re transitioning from SEP into a pandemic, that acceleration was only heightened, because I was thrown in at the deep end and had to do things quickly – things I’d have got around to in time, but now had to implement straightaway.” 

“I loved every second of SEP,” Cox says, and she didn’t miss a single session, including the extracurricular activities, fitness elements or evening sessions. “It was full-on and I gave it everything. For others embarking on the SEP, I’d recommend they fully immerse themselves: you’ll get so much more out of it that way.” Meeting so many bright and dynamic people from around the world was a huge bonus, too – people she is still in touch with. “In the construction industry in the UK, people tend to look at things in one way, and the international perspective SEP gave me was really valuable.” 

“Previously, I might have thought people weren’t going to take notice of me as a leader. I’ve had to accept that they are looking and they are going to take notice, so I’ve got to live what I believe every day”

So how did she overcome some of the challenges presented by the pandemic? Cox explains that McAlpine has always had a strong reporting cycle and communicated regularly, which enabled the firm to perform well. “Our individual project teams are empowered to solve their own problems. When the pandemic hit, we weren’t trying to solve things centrally, then telling people what to do. We just said: ‘These are the basic principles, you figure out what that means for what you’re trying to do.’” This method, she says, was one of the elements that helped them survive. 


Turning a crisis into an opportunity to connect 

Further innovation was demonstrated when the industry body, Build UK, quickly set up regular communications between the big construction companies to discuss the fallout from the pandemic. “In those difficult early days, for the first time, a senior leadership representative from each organisation met once a week, then once a fortnight. We shared data in ways we’d never done before – how many people were furloughed, productivity on site, material shortages. It was incredibly useful.”  

Build UK then used that information to lobby the government. “It was those conversations that kept us open, and allowed construction sites to keep operating,” Cox says. “In the Prime Minister’s televised announcements, he typically says, ‘Work from home unless you’re unable to work from home, if you work in construction, for example…’ To have that endorsement has been hugely valuable and has helped us avoid mass redundancies.” 

The challenges of 2020 and the wealth of learning acquired from the SEP have made Cox keenly aware of her impact on others. “Previously, I might have thought people weren’t going to take notice of me [as a leader]. I’ve had to accept that they are looking and they are going to take notice, so I’ve got to live what I believe every day.” If there’s a gap between what she says and does, people will notice – so Cox holds herself to high standards in the workplace.  

Would Cox recommend a career in construction to women entering the workforce today? “Every new project you pick up is different and has new challenges, so you never get bored; yes, I’d recommend it as an industry to anybody, regardless of gender, because it’s the ultimate job satisfaction, being able to walk away at the end of the day and say, ‘I built that’.” 

And what plans for the future? Can the sector scale new heights despite continued supply chain pressures? Professionally, Cox is looking forward to putting McAlpine’s plans into action, anticipating changes in client demand driven by the ‘new normal’, and responding to post-Grenfell legislation, and while she acknowledges there could be more surprises in store, she feels better equipped to deal with curveballs than ever. “We’ve done a lot of planning via an internal strategic review, we’ve organised ourselves, and I know it’s not all going to turn out how we envision it, but that’s okay. The pandemic, Cox says, has called into focus the importance of visible leadership, “that kind of charismatic leadership where you have to really rally people and get everybody moving in the right direction”. Leaders needed to be motivational without being too directional, she says. “The SEP gave me some great tools to draw on – and that’s made a huge difference during some very testing months.” 


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