How to be a pro-sustainability leader

Written by Emma Molloy Tuesday 12 October 2021
Punit Jaipal Shah CMgr is an engineer, musician – and big believer in managers’ roles in combating climate change
Punit Shah surrounded by trees and symbols of sustainability

Punit Japial Shah CMgr has worked on some of the world’s iconic engineering projects. These include the London 2012 Olympics and key metro rail projects across Sydney, Perth and Doha. Punit is also an acclaimed sitar and tabla performer who has lived in more than 16 different cities across six different countries.

Punit left his hometown of Mumbai as a student to pursue a BEng in Electronics Engineering at Cardiff University, Wale. His primary focus is now on systems engineering and safety assurance in the rail space.

His adventurous spirit has taken him all over the world and played a key part in his personal development, boosting his confidence and teaching him how to communicate and engage with all sorts of people, whether clients or colleagues. Dealing with lots of different people, he says, is also what makes his work so enjoyable.

He attributes much of his success in balancing work, music and research to the management and leadership skills he has obtained along the way. Self-development, he believes, is a crucial skill in itself, involving clever use of time and self belief.

Normally based in Glasgow, Punit is currently on secondment in Perth, Western Australia, working on the new Forrestfield-Airport metro link. Thanks to pandemic restrictions, most of his team that he manages is stuck in Italy. He is also currently completing his part-time PhD on a topic at the intersection of Indian classical music and film studies, finding a couple of hours each week to mentor and counsel younger graduates via LinkedIn and has a couple of other projects up his sleeve – including a documentary and publication, among other things, ​​about leadership’s role in sustainability.

Managers and climate change

Punit is a strong believer that management and leadership can help mitigate climate change. And his industry has a big role to play in global carbon reduction – almost half of the UK's carbon emissions are from construction projects. “Buildings are the main things apart from cars that give out so much energy.”

As a multidisciplinary consultant in the infrastructure sector, Punit makes a direct impact on carbon emissions by actively designing more sustainably. Specifically, he cites the lighting design on projects such as Birmingham New Street station, Crossrail and the Doha Metro. “This was all based on sustainable lighting technology, which is a huge energy saver.”

Punit Shah playing the sitar
Punit has a deep interest in Indian classical music and is an acclaimed sitar player

These sorts of technologies are not cheap, and he admits that balancing clients’ needs can be challenging. “We make suggestions based on the budget; do the design; then compare methods, showing the differences and the energy saved on paper – what the figures are – and then clients say we can or we can’t go for this.”

It’s going to be very difficult to achieve carbon reduction if we don't implement these sorts of innovations, says Punit. “Nowadays in the building services and rail industry, almost everybody is pushing [more environmentally friendly methods], at least in the UK. Some push less, some push more depending on the situation. Attitudes elsewhere are slowly changing.” The metro systems in Doha and Sydney for example have incorporated such sustainable technologies.

For managers who aren’t in the frontline of engineering, design and construction, Punit still believes they can make a positive contribution to sustainability. Here’s his advice:

Be passionate and knowledgeable

“I was born into a vegetarian family and have been an environmentalist since my childhood. This personal philosophy then transformed into my enthusiasm for sustainable building and rail services. Though I originally studied electrical engineering and building services, I’m now doing Open University modules in environmental management and environmental policy-making.”

This passion and knowledge should shine through when advocating for more environmentally friendly policies, he says. “I feel the most important skills here are negotiation, effective presentation, and communication – because [otherwise] how will you convince the client? And you should be well researched [so as not to] look like a fool when somebody asks you a relevant question.” This rule applies whether you’re negotiating with external clients or people within your organisation.

Be open to developing

Being knowledgeable and skilled enough to advocate for change involves learning and development. Driven by the Indian mantra that “you can always polish your inner skills and abilities”, Punit is passionate about constantly developing himself and his skills. Besides communication, he believes future leaders need qualities such as confidence, flexibility and a vision; some of these are inborn, some you have to learn through tuition or experience, he says.

“I feel there’s two parts to leadership and management skills: one is natural skill which everybody either has or doesn't have, and the second is acquired skill. Having natural skill is great, but people take the second part quite lightly. Learning and development is always important, and I still keep doing that.”

Be the change

“I think it should start from your personal life as much as possible – something as simple as switching off lights, the food you eat, reducing plastic,” says Punit. “I feel this attitude can change many things.”

But slashing the carbon rate is going to be difficult without individuals with influence pushing for wider change. “If every manager who has the control to push and advocate for more environmentally friendly policies in their area does so, that’s going to have more of an effect,” he agrees.

Image: Shutterstock/metamorworks

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Emma Molloy

Emma Molloy

Emma Molloy is a writer, editor and translator. She loves words, especially in different languages, and will never turn down a chance to learn something new.

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