ONE TEAM – ONE P&L – that’s the way to do it by Angela Podmore

Space shuttle Atlantis lifting off on 8th July 2011

A masterclass lives up to its billing

It’s not often a masterclass in leadership lives up to its name but Bob Duff did this week at an Aston University event. Bob is VP for UK and Ireland at Jacobs – a global engineering enterprise.

He introduces himself professionally (joined in 2004 through acquisition) but then adds, “I’m a husband and father first”. Good to know we’re listening to a man who has his ‘rocks in a jar’.

Some of his team really are rocket scientists – eg half of the people behind the NASA desk on manned space flight are from Jacobs.

Read on for how he got 62,000 people – culturally diverse – facing in the same direction.

They were losing 380 people a year to sickness and knew ‘problems cannot be resolved at the level of consciousness that created them’, Albert Einstein.

So in 2006 they launched, Beyond Zero – a culture of caring – to cut sickness to zero. It was beyond health and safety regime. “You have to live it.” They were 40K people worldwide then, they’re 62K today so they’ve done something right.


Jacobs developed a triad of values: 1. we are relationship-based (they’ve been working continuously for 46 years with Exxon Mobil. They’ve only 40 to 50 clients worldwide. “Clients like the people not the company”. They’re spread 50/50 over public/private sectors. 2. people are our greatest asset, 3. growth is an imperative (“we don’t pay dividend, we reinvest and are trading on Wall Street”).

He was full of the usual wisdoms: “transformation comes from the people not from the management, ” and “a good boss doesn’t really need appraisals. You never leave something to an appraisal which you should be doing right here and now.”

He was open with their figures showing steady growth through the 1990s and then the ‘bubble’ in the mid to late noughties. But they’re still on that 1990s/early-noughties growth track if you extrapolate that line through the bubble.

“Our margins are thin because the business model says our clients don’t like us making huge profits.” Jacobs is very customer-driven.  They grow by asking customers where they want them to be in ten years’ time.

“We’re multi domestic – ie where we open offices where we’re operational.” They work for Unilever all over the world but run it out of India because that’s where Unilever wants them.

Founding fathers lead the lessons

Jacobs College – at the US HQ – features lectures by the chairman – a- 75-year old who originally worked with the founder Joe Jacob. “You don’t go there to get ‘chipped and pinned’. It’s about learning the core values and it’s loaded with tests and role plays of how to do things ‘the Jacobs way’. Values underpin everything we do.”

Jacobs College takes to the road – important to keep momentum which is certainly there with every day, someone’s asking ‘what’s next’.


Jacobs has only one p&l worldwide. They don’t measure turnover but they’re committed to delivering 15% growth year on year. That’s a commitment to Wall Street (which is why I personally prefer the Arup business model).

But the Jacobs business model is undoubtedly successful – only 20% of the workforce has seen a downturn and their headcount speaks for itself. Each dept subsidises another.  The audience questioned that.

Bob Duff replied, “Culturally, you have to adjust to the fact that you may need to be supported one day.” In one fell swoop he showed how they’d swept away the departmental silos and made the one team culture dream a reality.

Jacobs is keeping the momentum by working with Aston University (they approached three business schools and chose Aston for the way its courses are Jacobs-focused as well as accredited to MBA. “We were looking for diversity – it’s great for cross-fertilisation – our workshops are like the UN.” And Aston certainly knows how to make international talent feel right at home.


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