Face to face: People-centric manager – Keith Reynolds

It’s the day after the devastating 22 February earthquake in Canterbury, and Keith Reynolds is preoccupied with the welfare of his Christchurch-based people.
“I’ve just come away from disaster management meeting,” he says. “We’re coordinating our response from this [Auckland] office and just getting in touch with everyone.
“So far I think 95 percent of our Christchurch staff members are accounted for – certainly everybody who was in the office at the time of the quake is safe. But there are few who were out on sites, out on projects, out with clients that we’re still trying to track down. We’re very anxious to hear from them…”
The company was already involved in aiding Canterbury’s recovery from the 4 September quake. Reynolds is at pains to note that “whilst engineering is at the heart of our business, I’d prefer to call ourselves professional services consultancy, in that there’s suite of other advisory consultancy skills we have built around the core business that makes us much broader than pure engineering.
“Our structural engineers were on the ground immediately – they were out there helping Jim Boult and his team get Christchurch Airport up and running again within few hours, for example,” he says of the initial seismic event, “and we’ve been involved in the longer term recovery and infrastructure support in more recent months.”
He declines to give prognosis for the prospects of the Garden City now – “it’s too early to tell” – beyond the fact that this fresh disaster is “obviously going to set the city back on its haunches in terms of getting back into the position that Christchurch was in”.
One thing Reynolds is adamant about, however, is that Beca will be there to help – in fact, that’s something the company’s already in the process of providing.
“We’re deploying staff to get down to Christchurch to help support the rescue and recovery efforts, and we’re also supporting Civil Defence in their request for more engineers to be there helping them. So there’s lot of coordination going on at the moment.
“From our point of view, though, our first priority is to look after the safety and welfare of our people in Christchurch and the Canterbury region, and that of their families.”
The attributes that led Reynolds to take up the profession of civil engineer were evident in childhood.
“Probably like most engineers, I really used to enjoy building things out of Lego and Meccano when I was kid,” he chuckles. “Engineering is basically just an extension of that early excitement in creating things.”
This passion evolved into an abiding interest in creativity and problem-solving, as well as desire to make tangible difference to the world around him.
“I guess my natural mindset tended me towards engineering while I was at school and then entering college. And early on in my career there was the obvious excitement of seeing things you’ve created, and of the travel opportunities that come with the worldwide requirement for engineering.
“Then there was the appeal of all those positive attributes and advantages of engineering, whether it’s around the water, the power, the transport, the buildings … Engineering touches everything we do, really, and it’s wonderful privilege to be in career that plays part in shaping our planet.”
Reynolds’ move into the managerial ranks was, he thinks, prompted by the same qualities that attracted him to engineering.
“When you take the engineering mindset and apply it to business,” he says, “many of the same thought-processes are involved. So solving problems within business, helping to shape the business, putting in place strategies – that’s all very appealing.”
While one might be forgiven for assuming an engineer would favour the purely quantitative aspects of manager’s duties, in Reynolds’ case at least the greatest interest lies in dealing with the qualitative quirks of human beings.
“In management and leadership,” he says, “the most appealing factor for me is that you’re working with people – helping to build people, encouraging them and putting in place appropriate frameworks and structures to help them be the best they can be.”
Asked whether his affinity for the ‘soft’ skills required for managing staff is the product of nature or nurture, Reynolds plumps for bit of both.
“I think there are certain competencies we are born with and are intrinsic, but at the same time we learn behaviours and fresh skills. For me, I’ve been blessed to have worked with some wonderful mentors over my career, as well as to have an appetite for learning, I guess.
“A lot of my people skills, if you like, have been born of observing others, listening to others, and seeking input from others. One of my key management philosophies is to surround myself with great people – much greater than I am – and by so doing I know we’re going to be successful.”
Another of Reynolds’ key philosophies also pivots around people.
“My belief is that you have to ensure you have focus on what the business is seeking to achieve and compelling vision and goal for the business, and then you try to put in place measures to simplify the business so it’s not distracted.
“I’m referring to ‘the business’ in the third-person there because the business is the people that form and shape it. So it’s really matter of understanding how the people drivers work.
“As such, my first compass bearing would always be my own motivation and my own excitement around my roles in my career – just understanding and reflecting upon my own values, and then checking in with the business and its values and ensuring the two are firmly aligned. If they are, you know you can go places. If there’s disconnect, then it’s not going to work very well.”
Reynolds notes that, while “there’s certainly huge motivational appeal in the blood of many engineers around the excitement of actually creating things and having positive impact”, and there are many similarities between large engineering and design consultancies in terms of the types of clients and projects they’re involved with, he believes Beca has an edge thanks to its particular style and culture.
“We are very relationship focused as business and very values focused,” he says. “Much more so than I’ve witnessed with similar businesses in our industry. Many companies paste their values on their website and then pretend that’s that.”
If corporate values are to be authentic, and therefore effective, he suggests, they can’t simply be conjured from vacuum.
“Our values were identified few years ago and crystallised,” observes Reynolds, “by really reflecting on the style of personalities, mindsets and competencies of our people and how those were reflected in the way we do our business.
“And I’ve been blown away when visiting our various offices to see those values really burning alive within people – values around tenacity, partnership, care and enjoyment, the four key values that really hit the heart of the culture of Beca.”
Reynolds is in good position to identify what’s unique about Beca, being the first externally recruited group CEO in its almost 100-year history. Ask if this indicates the company – which has headcount of 2500 and offices dotted about the globe – was seeking change agent when it tapped him 18 months ago, though, and he good-naturedly declines to speculate.
“It’s very good question but I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer it,” he laughs. “I know the company looked at variety of candidates, internal and external. I think the key driver was not necessarily looking for change, but being open and mindful of the possibility that change would be required to take the business onwards and upwards.”
Noting that he’s “hugely respectful of the business that had been built up before I came, and of my ‘forefathers’, if you like”, Reynold

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