Putting the best foot forward

rcw-news-lemon2-medFor James Lemon, being dubbed the AAPA National Emerging Leader for 2016 is a great honour, but it is the acknowledgement from the industry that resonates most for him.

“It was a bit of a surprise to win the award at the time, especially as the quality of the other nominees was so outstanding,” he explains. “It’s not the title that’s important to me, but the fact that I’ve been recognised by my peers.”

Mr. Lemon, Downer South Australia’s Asphalt Operations Manager, won the 2016 South Australia AAPA Emerging Leader Award in early September. He went on to win the national title later that month at the association’s national awards ceremony.

The award is given to an individual under the age of 35 who has demonstrated outstanding leadership and contribution to the industry and AAPA.

Since beginning his working career in South Australia, Mr. Lemon has strived to achieve highly, while keeping his strong work ethic and ideologies close to heart. He shares his thoughts with Roads & Civil Works Magazine on his win, and the significance of recognising leadership in the Australian roads and civil sector.

Originally from New South Wales, the 34-year-old has worked all of his professional life in South Australia.

He began his career in the road maintenance and civil arm of an RPC Roads State branch. Downer acquired RPC Roads in early 2003 and Mr. Lemon has been with the company since.

Eight years into his career, he moved into asphalt, quickly rising to an asphalt supervisor role in 2009 after just 18 months. In 2011, he went on to become Downer South Australia’s Senior Asphalt Supervisor.

By 2013, Mr. Lemon had risen to the position of branch Operations Manager, a role he still holds today.

His rapid ascension is testament to the company’s own expansion within the state, but also Mr. Lemon’s own personal drive and work ethic.

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity that I’ve been given through the development and growth of the business. The company’s evolution has worked naturally with my own personal approach, which is to put your best foot forward,” he says.

“Downer’s asphalt business in South Australia has expanded and the number of crews has grown. We’ve now got 55 direct employees and engage with 100 sub-contractors on a daily basis.”

Mr. Lemon has been involved in a number of major projects at a state level while also building a reputation for delivering quality interstate projects involving specialist pavements, such as runways, airports and defence bases.

Notable projects include the Hidden Valley Racecourse in Darwin, the South Road Superway project and the Edinburgh RAAF Base runway, with the latter two based in South Australia.

Downer SA undertook the asphalt component of the Superway project – an elevated segmented structure. The project team achieved a sub-20 ride count: a milestone Mr. Lemon says was originally considered unachievable.

“We also did the Edinburgh RAAF Base runway in nine days, 15 days ahead of schedule,” he says. Fires devastated the region just days after completion, and the runway was used to support a number of planes deployed to fight the blazes. Mr. Lemon says that had the project been completed to its original timelines, the runway would still have been under construction when it was needed for the aircraft.

Leadership has always been an important facet of how Mr. Lemon and his team work well together.

“We’ve got a very high retention rate within our team and the people around us are all dedicated to the job. We challenge each other and we’ve got continual direction,” he says. ”We’re constantly engaging with one another and that’s given us considerable strength.”

Passing on that knowledge to the up-and-comers in his team and helping them grow and succeed has also been an intrinsic part of Mr. Lemon’s own leadership and work ethos.

“To me, the people who work with you are as important as the people you do work for. I wouldn’t ask them to do something I wouldn’t do myself,” he says.

Even when he has a spare moment, Mr. Lemon is happy to go out on site and operate the machinery, having begun his career as a plant operator and still enjoying the work today.

Mr. Lemon says associations such as AAPA have helped develop the asphalt sector into a national industry, and not just an eastern-states based one, allowing regions such as South Australia to flourish.

“That’s also in line with what Downer has done to grow its road surface business, which is to take a national approach. Even in the last 15 months that strategy has helped us to build some strong relationships in the industry.”

For Mr. Lemon, challenging the norm and looking at how things can be done differently, and perhaps better, is a fundamental element of his role.

“I think it’s our responsibility to challenge the status quo going forward,” he says.

Mr. Lemon acknowledges the importance of leadership in Australia’s growing road and infrastructure sector, and asserts that there is a need to focus on the positives to encourage the future leaders in the industry.

“We have a lot of toolbox talks where we look at the positives,” he says, adding that it’s necessary to recognise individuals and the group as a whole by providing constructive feedback and acknowledging when something’s done right.

“You can pull a negative out of everything, but you need to focus on the things we do right, and that helps these guys to grow. As a younger person in the industry, I think it’s our responsibility to be at the forefront of implementing those kinds of practices,” he adds.

In terms of introducing new ideas, innovations and technologies, Mr. Lemon states that leadership and communicating on the same level with any team is crucial to advancing the industry. “As leaders, we need to provide context and communicate openly with our teams in the field so that they are engaged and understand why they are doing what they do. More importantly, if we also focus on encouraging feedback through open communication, we have an avenue to source and apply thought leadership and innovation that will continue improving our industry.”

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