In July this year it was my honour to deliver the keynote speech at the graduation ceremony for the Arts and Humanities faculty at St Mary’s university.
It was a very special day for all those gathered at Westminster Cathedral, and, as it came 47 years after my own graduation from St Mary’s, you can imagine my feelings of pride at being invited to address the graduates starting out on their careers.
I felt the best advice I could offer was to tell them about the three most important lessons I have learned on my own journey. Firstly, the value of family and friends; secondly, the importance of ‘learning how to learn’, and finally, the benefits of life experience.
The value of family and friends
Having grown up in rural Ireland in the 1950s and 196os, I had a very close knit family. After completing my secondary education I decided to explore pastures new. After working at various jobs I took a position as an unqualified teacher in a primary school. My enjoyment of teaching led me to enrol on a teacher training course at St Mary’s, where I spent three very happy years as a student.
With a passion for music, I became an active member of the social committee and performed in a band with some Irish friends.
After St Mary’s, I embarked on a teaching career at a high school in West London, specialising in Maths and Physics. I also played in a student band and provided a book-keeping service for friends who ran small businesses.
Through my 20s and early 30s, my life was extremely busy. And then I made a decision to establish a construction business with a friend. The interwoven work and social life, crafted as a student at St Mary’s then as a teacher and amateur musician, formed the bedrock for my future business and support network.
Learning how to learn
In business, we must continue to develop knowledge, skills and experience, to ensure survival. We must never underestimate the value and importance of education. Beyond that, we must keep an open mind and embrace all opportunities.
Little did I know what life had in store for me when I attended my own graduation. I never imagined I would move away from teaching, or spend a lifetime building a business in construction, with a business that now employs 1,400 people nationally.
None of this could have been achieved without the support of a team of the best and brightest industry specialists. It has always been my view that the greatest asset of our business is our people, and that it is essential to create an open, consultative and inclusive culture. A place where people are treated with respect, their diversity is valued and where opportunities are provided to all employees.
Life is unpredictable: full of highs and lows, challenges and opportunities. Knowing that you can emerge from setbacks wiser and stronger, develops an ability to survive.