Vanessa Wewer started her career with an exciting secondment to Thailand to work on the international airport and has spent the last 20 years achieving new career highlights, learning to lead and building a family.
How to Have A Career of Highlights
As we were talking, Vanessa called a number of her achievements ‘career highlights’. From working on the Bangkok international airport and immersing herself in the Thai culture, to being lead civil engineer on the master planning for the London 2012 Olympics, to the Revitalising Central Dandenong urban regeneration project for Places Victoria, she has loved many aspects of her career.
When we asked Vanessa what she’d suggest to someone wanting to have a diverse career like hers, she quipped;
“someone very wise once told me, ‘don’t get too good at what you’re doing because you’ll get pigeonholed’.”
She laughed that the comment was in relation to a specific engineering software (12D Model, for the engineers out there) that she didn’t want to get stuck with as a technical specialist, and then said,
“I'm flexible in where and what industry I work in. And I think that's attributable to me taking on various infrastructure roles throughout my career over the last 20 years.”
Her tips for changing industry or deliberately seeking a varied, interesting career are:
Build transferrable skills
Vanessa has strong project management skills that she can use in a variety of roles and surrounds herself with strong technical minds. Project management may not be your skill set but look for other strengths that can be used in a variety of ways and places. This might be logical thinking, problem-solving, leadership or a range of other capabilities.
Find your niche
Align your strengths with the new industry, facilitating an easy transition. Make it easy for people to understand that you can do the job! Vanessa also says that you may need to acknowledge that by transferring industries you may not be getting in purely on your technical skills, so focus on soft skills as well.
“Relationships are the precursor for a successful project,” Vanessa told us, “and for enjoying what you do on a day to day basis! People are crucial for being able to transition into new roles and new industries.”
Surround yourself with strong technical people
“I don't pretend to know everything,“ Vanessa is the first to admit. Instead, she highlights the importance of surrounding yourself with people who can guide, assist and mentor you.
Learning to Lead
After many years of project work, ARUP promoted Vanessa to Civil Team Leader, leading a team of about 20 engineers. This role was offered to her while she was working three days a week after having children, and she’s proud to work for a company that values and supports part-time employees. Vanessa told us,
“I think my secret to success leading the team on a part time basis was that I had great support from the people in the team and also managers and peers. It also gave some of my team members the opportunity to step up and assist with the leadership role. That's great, not just for myself but for the wider group. The key people that did step up and support me are now all team leaders themselves.”
While Vanessa was quick to say she’s still learning when it comes to leadership, she did offer some tips for positive leadership;
Maintain open relationships
The key trait of a good leader is open, transparent relationships with people. This requires open communication and honesty.
Being honest with your team enables them to develop trust, which is foundational for your team working well with you and each other.
Develop your team
“Career-oriented people want opportunities to thrive”, says Vanessa, so where you can, provide opportunities for staff to learn, grow and develop. Also, listen to your team. Vanessa says they are often, “very enthusiastic and have ideas, and you've got to consider a diverse array of opinions to hold together a strategy.”
Model the vision
Having a strong vision motivates your team to work with you to achieve it. Make sure you can see the vision from your team’s perspective, and get their assistance in creating the vision rather than presenting it in a top-down approach.
Get off the dance floor and onto the balcony
Developing strategic thinking is critical, and often a difficult skill for new leaders who are used to being in the weeds of project detail and are propelled into leadership positions where they’re expected to have broader oversight. Vanessa recommends seeking opinions and advice from mentors and external people.
The Future is Bright
After working three days per week since having children, Vanessa has just added an additional work day and is excited about taking on more responsibility at work. When asked what’s kept her at ARUP for 14 years, Vanessa shared;
“It's the people I’m surrounded by. I've personally made a lot of good friendships here at work that want to do their best and it's a welcoming and accepting environment.
Also, ARUP is a leading global firm in the industry, so the opportunities are second to none. They train and support their people to develop in their career but also as a person.
It’s a very collaborative culture and we have an amazing work environment.”
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