While COVID-19 restrictions meant that The CEO Magazine’s 2020 Executive of the Year Awards had to be held virtually rather than at a luxurious venue like The Palladium at Crown, Melbourne, which was where last year’s ceremony was held, the digital event on 12 November was still every bit as thrilling – honouring the best and brightest senior executives making a difference across a wide range of industries in Australia.
For Louise Adams, Aurecon’s Chief Executive of Australia and New Zealand, the news that she had won the prestigious title of CEO of the Year came as a total shock.
"I’m a bit gobsmacked, to be honest," she told The CEO Magazine after the announcement. "I’m blown away. It’s quite humbling and very exciting. I was honoured enough to be shortlisted – I thought that in itself was a hell of an achievement."
Louise is the second female to be honoured with the award in the history of the event, the first being in 2015.
In total, Louise’s career with Aurecon spans 20 years, and numerous countries across the globe, with extensive time spent in the Middle East, Asia and South America. By age 34, Louise had worked her way up to Country Manager for Aurecon’s UAE business and, in 2013, she was appointed to Aurecon’s Global board. In 2015, she was named Regional Director for the organisation’s South Australia and Victoria operations, and in February last year, Louise stepped up as Aurecon’s Chief Executive for Australia and New Zealand.
Among the many accolades she’s earned over the years, Louise received a high commendation in the 2016 Champions of Change Female Leadership category at Consult Australia’s Awards for Excellence and a Chief Executive Women scholarship in 2018.
"I feel that I’m in one of the best industries," Louise smiles. "Aurecon’s vision is about bringing ideas to life, and that is exactly what we do – we design and build infrastructure and create the cities of tomorrow. I see it as a privilege to have a role in doing that. We have the ability to have an impact, to make a difference, and that is absolutely what gets me out of bed every day."
When she first began work with Aurecon in 2000 as a graduate civil engineer, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream for Louise – given she’d had an insatiable passion for engineering sparked from a desire to help those in need since age five.
"We have the ability to have an impact, to make a difference, and that is absolutely what gets me out of bed every day." – Louise Adams
"I remember when I was quite young, I saw images of people living underneath a bridge on a flat plain in Bangladesh and found out that every year, their houses would be washed away," she says. "I asked what I would need to be when I grew up to help them. From that moment on, there was never going to be any career for me except as a civil engineer."
Louise explains that right now is a particularly exciting and important time for her industry, given the myriad problems that society is currently staring down the barrel of.
"There’s a recognition that the issues we’re facing in the world today – climate change, congestion, urbanisation, food, energy, water, security – are all very complex problems that can’t necessarily be fixed with traditional solutions," she says. "As engineers, we really have to step up and use all of our smarts and experience to look at innovative solutions we can suggest as alternatives, that might actually have an even more profound impact on the world around us."
With demonstrated ability in successfully developing and implementing strategies to continue sustainable growth, Aurecon has flourished under Louise’s guidance. As a leader, Louise is a firm believer in fostering strong relationships within teams, and offering tangible support to the next generation. Louise is proud to be Aurecon’s first female Chief Executive for Australia and New Zealand, especially given she is a fierce advocate for female leadership, and in particular, for diversity and equality within STEM.
"I was given a lot of freedom throughout my career, so I feel passionate about giving space to leaders below me so that they have room to grow and flourish," she says. "If you look at our industry, we need more women in general, let alone in leadership positions. We know that there are systemic barriers that hold women back from being able to do that, so it’s about putting policies and practices and programs in place that can help to support women to succeed."
"The executive in a post COVID-19 world will be demonstrably different than what we’ve seen in the past." – Louise Adams
Louise concedes that while 2020 has proved to be a tumultuous and challenging year for all businesses and leaders, she sees resultant transition to alternative styles of leadership as immeasurably positive.
"The executive in a post COVID-19 world will be demonstrably different than what we’ve seen in the past," she says. "The days of demanding that people follow you are gone, because people need to be driven by purpose firstly, and then they need leaders to connect people to that purpose through trust, empathy and gaining followership in a modern world where trust is at an all-time low."
In her acceptance speech on the evening of the awards, Louise concluded that the Executive Awards have proved to be a positive opportunity to reflect on the past, and prepare for a better future amid a climate of "disruption, uncertainty and for some, sadly, despair".
"With everything that is going on in the world, we need to be able to recognise and celebrate good leadership when we see it, and I want to thank The CEO Magazine for enabling this to happen," she said. "The role that business leaders are going to have to play in creating a better world moving forward is considerable. We often see what poor leadership looks like; however, we don’t often celebrate what good looks like, especially at an individual level. Now, more than ever, we need it."
Last year’s CEO of the Year winner was David Hackett, former CEO of MLC Life Insurance.
CEO of the Year – Runner-Up went to Sanjiv Manchanda, CEO of Atlas Iron, while the CEO of the Year – Highly Commended accolade was presented to Mark Allison, CEO and Managing Director of Elders.