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By Mzukona Mantshontsho

WSP is a globally recognized engineering professional services firm with a combined 130-year history. Its roots are in companies founded in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Asia,Nordics and Canada.  The company employs approximately 48 000 people globally.

The South African Professional Services Academy spoke to Executive Director: Transport Infrastructure Africa, Vishaal Lutchman, about his personal, professional and entrepreneurial journey.

Tell us your brief history: academic, professional to your role Today

I was raised in a small town called Stanger, now known as KwaDukuza in KwaZulu-Natal. I was an average student for much of my school career until in Grade 11 when my father broke the news that he could not afford to pay for any tertiary education. Fearing for the unknown, possible uncertain future without education, I put my back to education and focused. We grew up taught that one’s education was the only asset one could possess, hence the thought of not having an education brought absolute fear. Mid-Grade 12, I was the top student in the grade that assisted me in securing a full bursary with Transnet to study B.Sc. engineering at the University Natal, Durban Campus. I was not familiar with engineering and what it entailed as my community did not have such people. I saw it on the bursary application form and chose it because it seemed close to the concept of building which was personal as I helped my dad build our house.

immediately started my working career at Transnet after completing my studies and for the very first time, I was able to give back home – buying a few things we didn’t have and paying for my siblings’ further education – that was a  great feeling to be able to give back especially to my parents. I did my MBA at UKZN and with working hard proceeded up the ranks at Transnet to Senior Engineer.  With the higher level of influence and being a member of the SA Institute of Civil Engineers, I set up methodology on how to train engineers and to qualify as registered professionals in the shortest period as we had a large build program at the time.

I joined the Infrastructure division at Transnet in Johannesburg; this was a perfect fit that met my personal aspirations to make the biggest impact  as I became involved in the development of the Group’s strategic planning, project pre-feasibility and feasibility studies and provided support the engineering team in the business. In 2012, I joined SSI, which was bought by Royal Haskoning DHV as Director of their Maritime Business. When Royal Haskoning DHV took over, the business model changed, the business language and culture changed which I did not align with. I did not believe that I had enough autonomy to operate in my country. . I found the WSP operating model has high regard for the local geography and local development objectives which I personally aligned with.

What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with the position of Executive Director: Transport Infrastructure Africa?

The appointment meant a lot to me; the trust shown to me is valuable and gives me the confidence to leverage this trust to reciprocate with value that is expected. My interface is between clients and the organization ensuring the embedding of trust in the relationship – Understanding trust is different in cultures across the world. My continued learning and push towards understanding cultures allows me converse with confidence knowing that I will be able to engage meaningfully with client across the globe looking to do business in Africa. A lot has do with the first meeting and client’s perception of whether they believe they will get value from a business relationship. The WSP brand has a high level of integrity and ethics which I can associate with and allows me to be effective in my ambition to grow the business.  The WSP brand and capability allows me to build relationships and offer value with confidence. With trust, you have the stamina and conviction that allows you to be creative in the way you do things. Without trust, there is general decay. I can articulate solutions with conviction based on the trust and the fact that I am doing what is in the best interest of our clients and business, which makes for a win/win.

What would you like to have achieved by the end of your term?

My role is to establish the brand in Africa, establishing trust with entities in other countries on the continent, generate revenue and grow a sustainable business. My role is broad and generic as we have 54 countries in the continent, with different, regions, cultures, languages, and policies – I am currently selling WSP global overall, but focused on leading maritime, aviation and rail on the continent.  As for my tenure, I am working towards ensuring a sustainable business with growing clients businesses and our talent to replace me as soon as possible. I believe the future is in the hands of the millennials who have a very outlook on life and have already changed how the world will work going forward and I am confident that I can lead them to expose their new ways of thinking. Industry 4.0 will be leading change faster than my generation can possibly adapt and they need to be in the front leading the business.

How would you describe your management and leadership styles?

Leading on from the previous discussion on my tenure, I have learnt the ability to switch leadership styles between home and work. I am decisive and can at times be autocratic when it comes to the technical side of the work as quality cannot be compromised and I need to deliver on my promise. When we have a staff member that is struggling and not delivering, I change to a listening, empathetic, collaborative role and a mediator kind of person to achieve the results. Predominantly, my leadership style is one of servant leadership to allow others to rise; I like to see others prosper. One of the lessons I learnt from my Grandfather: “Whatever you learn and any knowledge you gain, give it away for free to empower another”, so in the process of leading, my style becomes mentoring, guiding the team or the individual, engaging with them and promoting self-belief. You could call it altruistic, as I believe that all people are good. I endeavor to keep people around me exposed to keeping hope alive and believing in one’s self and one’s purpose. I adopt the same approach with clients as appropriate.

What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night with respect to your position?

I am passionate about South Africa. It is my home and I am passionate about growing it for all of us. For as long as I am at WSP I am passionate about making WSP a better place that is inclusive to everybody from different walks of life. Where there is conflict, and conflict will be there in the workplace, let us remain calm and find solutions with less emotions. I mitigate team fears and emotions whilst encouraging all do their best and make the most of our time. Many still do not realize that we all have a choice, to make the best of the time we have and we should always strive to be effective. If we waste time or are inefficient, it is our own lives that becomes meaningless, so attitude matters.  Let us all grow, let us keep hope alive. I am at times concerned that at a macro level, we are a global organisation, operating in a local country, we are not seizing all the opportunities that are out there given our capacity and capabilities, we are not connecting at times with the demand that is out there. In mature economies, you have mature businesses and mature clients and the position there is much clearer and simpler, wish we had that here, where business and government work together in mature trust environment.

How do you take part in mentoring others?

I take part in mentorship at various levels, there is the formal level that looks at our team and their career paths and interactions happen a couple of times a year. I do push junior professionals to register professionally on time – I am happy to push the business case, budgets, and create a safe space for our professionals to get the skills and grow. At an unofficial level, I have peers where we help each other with different career and growth paths. The same applies to clients that also need mentoring.

If you had to relate a couple of experiences, what would be the highs and what would be the lows of your working career?

The highs would be the different opportunities I’ve had along the way in my entire working career. Having worked in the public sector at Transnet and my move to the private sector was another highlight. Career wise, I believe that I am looked after, which keeps me in safe space. I have an enthusiastic sense of gratitude that my work is always paving a way for greater opportunities. I have had great opportunities thus far and I relay this to the young engineers to grab any chance or opportunities to grow. When I see younger engineers take opportunities and grow on the back of these with dedication and hard work, I feel a sense of accomplishment that is difficult to explain and is very personal.

The lows would those various spaces where I felt I was taking an initiative and others felt I was not a team player, whenever I saw an opportunity I tended to move swiftly, this did not sit well with others. I have found myself having to step back and give work to others opportunity – that was a learning experience for me to get around that. Not everyone wants to support another to succeed and one needs to be aware of such dynamics. I feel in life when one is wanting to succeed, there will always be the decenters that are envious of the success of another. In these cases I have adopted an inclusive approach to ensure that no one is left behind, hence part of my mentorship is firm in the sense as the young engineers grow they need to also mentor those younger. In cases where the inclusive approach has not worked, in retrospect, I am thankful to them to help me move on to greater heights. So look out for those that are drawing you down as one day you will thank them for who you have become.

What accolades have you and your organisation received recently?

WSP was ranked The Number 1 Consultancy Firm Globally by the ENR Rankings. Personally, the accolades do not do justice to the organization as there is so much more to WSP. The awards measure certain criteria, which I suppose is a good recognition. To me what matter most is that the company is growing in the development of its culture globally, with people that are free to think and do what works for them to the best of their abilities in each business unit and region. The accolades are many, but the ability for such a large company to engender willing collaboration with teams in the USA, UK Canada all willing to work and support each other is a quality if measured, I am sure we will take the award every time.

How has the firm fared in terms of achieving its business growth objectives?

We have done all the fundamentals correctly, they may be changing, but we are growing in various forms, culture and transformation. I am very positive about how we have grown and did it. We have been merging, globally, we have had an upward trend, and that is great. We have solid clients, solid capability and projects that are robust globally supported by many great partners in the built environment that makes for award winning projects. We attract great talent and retain them which is fundament to grow and remain relevant.

Through what means does the organisation ensure that the firm maintains high level of ethics and integrity?

Communication is very important and a significant component of being a success. Always have agenda free conversations, figure out what is right and will work for all the stakeholders, do an analysis of who will get hurt and who won’t. As an individual, I have a fundamental value system at work, at home with my kids, that helps me engage with everyone I interact with. Awareness is key in what you do and impact others, be present, that will enable integrity, honesty and ethical conduct. One has to balance the cognitive and the emotions.

Is transformation considered a key objective at the firm, and if so, how is it attended to?

Yes, and on that topic, we are continuously transforming in the market place, technology, and people with new worldviews. For me it is how we transform our minds, how do we embrace the World going forward, we need to understand what is happening in South Africa, the continent, and the rest of the World. The World around us is changing daily, I love how as professionals we transform our behavior to make these changes work for us as communities and the provision of infrastructure solutions. In South Africa, I believe that our cultural diversity makes us best placed to show the world how to transform live peacefully. Our journey of change is difficult but we will rise above many developed economies, which I do not believe have the social and economic fundamentals in place at this time.

Kindly highlight some recent contributions by the firm to the community and to the relevant professions your professionals are a part of.

We have an active bursary programme for tertiary education in engineering and science and offer support to several organisations that promote mathematics and science, as well as careers in engineering and environmental science, in high schools. For example, we are fully behind and support Engineers without Borders. We have a global exchange program allowing global exposure to teams across the world. We have a thorough task-force mandatory report that outlines how WSP does business, how we budget to travel to the communities where we are working, how we engage the community around where we are working, what will be delivered, how, and when. We volunteer this information to our clients, so they know the WSP way

How does the firm ensure that professionalism and good customer service are upheld?

We have professionals that lead the business. We have business integrity and ethics that underpins the company culture. We do work for professional clients that are able to appreciate the value we bring to them. We work with the best partner firms to deliver the best value, which allows us to ensure a continued professional service. Our staff and leadership are the most professional in the market.

About our customers, we have implemented a CRM approach to ensure that we remain close to and relevant to client. The CRM approach enables us to position and ensure that we have a proactive approach in developing solutions needed by our clients.

When you not at work, what do you get up to including family life, and where can people follow you online?

I love spending time with family, my two boys aged 14 and 10 years are very busy with extra mural activities at school and over the weekends, I sometimes can’t keep up, but I love that about them. I am excited to be finishing my Master’s thesis this year: “The Effects of Colonialism on African Leadership, how quick the present leadership tends to support some of the ways they didn’t accept about previous regimes,” this should be fascinating!


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