Gerard Van Den Broek- An interview

Starting this month, this site will publish question & answer sessions from a selected group of seasoned professionals across several fields of expertise. The idea is to have these people share their backgrounds and experiences with a wider audience and have our readers and followers get something out of it.

The first of the series is a chat with Gerard Van Den Broek is a Construction professional from Australia and he shares with us his insights.

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Q- What is your profession and tell me about yourself, your background

A-  Construction Professional, started in the industry as a boilermaker apprentice in 1987 for a heavy earthmoving and structural fabricator/erector. On completion of the apprenticeship I moved to central Queensland and began working maintiance and construction jobs ranging from coal fired power stations , cyanide facilities, alumina refineries, aluminum smelters, explosive plants, glass manufacturing facilities, acid plants and also ship refits for the South pacific Navy. After some time in the industry I left to study a bachelor of science, applied Biology industrial chemistry (Central Queensland University). During this I worked part time for the department of primary industries as a field hand doing research for the barrier reef and sugar cane industry. Before completion of this I returned to the construction industry and continued both study and work.

After numerous years working my way up to a superintendent level for various companies I Joined Bechtel on the Camalco project in Gladstone in 2003 as a seconded CBI supervisor. I then worked fly in fly out for CBI on the north west shelf and later joined Bechtel again in 2008 for Yarwun stage 2. From their I moved to Worsley for 3 years and then Wheatstone for 4 years, currently still with Bechtel working pre feeds in Houston Texas USA.

Q- What drove you to choose this career path?

A- I have always enjoyed building even as a child building model airplanes, go carts, cubby houses, the reward is in finishing a build and the sense of accomplishment associated with providing a good product.

Q- Have you moved a lot for your profession and do you like travelling?

A- Yes, lots of moving as the work is always in different locations, the travel aspect is one of the benefits of the industry.

Q- What in your opinion are the three major traits to be successful in your profession?

A-  Be Innovative, Be a good Listener and have a thirst for Knowledge.

Q- What have been your biggest challenges over the course of your career?

A-  People, the old saying goes you please some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time.

Q- Would you recommend this profession to young hopefuls?

A-  Yes this is a great industry and has lots of scope for energetic dedicated people, and you get to work yourself out of a job.

Q- What is your advice to young graduates and professionals?

A-  If you are unsure of what path to take in your profession that is ok, joining the construction industry, this industry has so many different functions and career paths that you will never be bored. And along the way you will meet opened minded individuals from all cultures and aspects of life.

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Chile -A glimpse from 2012

Having spent the last few weeks traversing South America, I consider it as a great opportunity. Not just being able to see the continent from the mighty majestic Andes to the Pacific Ocean, from Rio Del Plata to the arid regions, but the chance to live the local life is indeed a windfall. Chile is a country which reflects an unending optimism, the urge to be among the best in the region. And the evidence all points to this. The mineral market has been capitalized by the Government and the ease with which mining giants, BHP Billiton, Xstrata, Barrick can operate in this stable economy makes it a win- win situation for everyone. Never did I sense that unemployment is an issue, never did I sense people desiring to leave Chilean shores for better opportunities. It’s all there and prosperity obvious. And this is Santiago. Valparaiso, the significant harbor on the pacific did lose its economy at the turn of the previous century with the opening of the Panama Canal but has picked herself up and is looks well in tune with any port city in the world; turning herself not only into a la Gold Coast, but being a key contributor to the Chilean economy. I have to yet to explore the north and that’s exactly where the reddish tinges of Copper are all pervading.

Contrast to Chile is that large country across the border; Argentina. Flying into Buenos Aires and getting away from the airport is nothing short of my own experiences in Bombay (I will not call it Mumbai). The dirt, the chaos, the ugly buildings lining the main freeway and the obvious lack of new construction is something you cannot miss. The version of Argentina is at least two fold, the cab driver version is one of rosy optimism and while there are problems, the country is in a growth mode nonetheless. And then a few days later I ran into a Professor of Oceanography and the version from the erudite folks is diametrically opposite. The country, sitting on some of the best natural reserves will not make it any easier for companies to operate and the mindset and the policy of not expending the USD will continue to hurt them. If the seller of real estate keeps waiting on getting paid in USD and the buyer will not pay in any currency other than the Argentine Peso, it doesn’t take a lot to figure out that there is a development and growth impasse. The people have not been helped by the fact that the regimes they are under swing from one of extreme privatization to one that is socialist. When someone says they cannot buy even a decent bread toaster in Argentina, it certainly gives you a lot to ponder.

One thing is, like my earlier sojourns in South Africa, the people here come off as very friendly and the kind you will not mind having a beer with.

The Indian professional stereotype

I have seen a huge diaspora of Indian professionals across the globe in various capacities. Sterotypical Indians are not a myth but quite a stark reality.  Having grown up and studied my undergrad school in India, I have allowed myself the liberty of sharing my observations and some subtle tips. When someone like me has grown up in India in the 70’s and 80’s, it is truly eye opening to see several myths busted almost on a daily basis.

For those of you that work with junior level professionals from India (most of you probably do), you possibly think of them in a group rather than individuals. You think these kids tend to stick together protecting themselves from some awkward fears? You think these people assume no identity and go on busting their chops like the proverbial oompa-loompas? You think they get a discount at the local 7-11’s?

The first two are fairly closer to the truth. And a lot of it comes with the “safety in numbers” mentality that comes in intrinsically from just being in a “foreign land”. Takes a while to break them, months, years may be. Some of you probably sound like Hollywood stereotypes too and may come off as too brash. So this is where the inter-cultural compromise comes in. And remember talking to them louder and real s-l-o-w ain’t the solution.

Then the age old Indian myth on superiority of race is ingrained, surprisingly still prevalent in many parts of India outside the metro centers. The erroneous notion that fairer.whiter the person the more intelligent he/she is. Indian have their own brand of racism where stores still sell products that will turn you “fair and lovely” or “fair and handsome” , which is an insinuation of the Indian brand of racism. With this rather naive notion in mind, you may see young Indian professionals intimidated by your approach. Its cool, no one means anything malevolent. Again inter-culture boundaries need breaching to reach across and make them feel belonged.

Trust me, the level of intelligence and diligence seen in several of these entrants (FOB kids) is some kind of a rare commodity. Nurture it well without sense of exploitation or looking down upon them. I have seen the “looking down upon” approach especially to young engineers that just do not dress or appear to be savvy looking.

For you Indian kids, I’ll say this- Work speaks for itself. Do not be intimidated by other people and just because they speak better English does not make them superior. In fact your English is way better than their Hindi, that I can safely say. Assimilate well when you travel overseas and do not be a wildebeest, be a stand out person and performer. Trust me, this will go a long way.

The ethos of Multi National teams

The concept of travel and time and travel in time have been fascinating forays for most of us; travel enhances the outlook no doubt. Wheeling and dealing and working in teams that afford complete engagement with multiple cultures and nationalities is the pinnacle of diversity. As the world started to shrink in the late 90’s and global village came into existence, goal oriented teams became the norm, irrespective of who the team members are or how diverse they may be or what corner of the earth they may be based in. And speaking as someone who grew up in a socialistic Indian public sector, the limited exposure of dealing with someone outside of India was the Soviet influence in setting up steel and heavy industrial plants. Then the 90’s happened.

The IT sector may be what is perceived as a classic case of the culture mixer, but EPC industries have possibly made this step way before the rest. Imagine this- A team working towards constructing and commissioning an industrial plant located remotely at a fast trace pace with just over 200 people thrown in. This is where a team will thrive like a bunch of seamen thrown together in a submarine for a few months. During these times, boundaries cease to exist and focus of the individuals becomes the common goal, the goal to deliver.

Being part of a multi cultural team and even better leading a multi cultural team is seen as a person’s forte. An effective leader is thus born; any leader that can get a project delivered through a multi national, multi cultured team can inevitably motivate and bring a diverse group of individuals together .These are the people you want in your organization for these are the people who will deliver when it matters.

Speaking from personal experience I can lucidly express what it means to be part of such a team and lead such a team. Its the unbridled joy in formation and motivation of such teams that leads to the feeling of a job well done. I can see how its effectively facilitated project delivery.

 

1-Team members do not see themselves as “from somewhere”, they see themselves as part of a focus group that is in this together to deliver. Nothing less

2- Keeping the group motivated by means of an engaging blend outside of work; i.e. highly informal team building sessions. This makes it easier for people to look forward to come back to work on “Monday”

3- Freely share cultural experiences between team members. If I know more about the South American culture or the Chinese culture now, its not because I “googled” but I had a few team members who shared this freely with me. And its incredible how much further this goes in fostering a better working relationship.

4- People are people, so the usual tenets of recognition, attaboys/attagals, celebrating success and lending helping hands to the weaker links will always work.

Nothing gives me a better sense of satisfaction than delivering a project while working in a team of people from all over the globe. Its my “United Nations” and its where you not only build projects but you build values, professionalism, networking and life long memories.