Darren Taylor used his experience as an army engineer to forge a career in the renewable energy sector. Now, as onshore northern service manager at Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, he gets his thrills from taking on tricky projects in extremely challenging circumstances.
What first prompted you to move into project management?
Project management is something I gained a lot of experience in during my military career, where I took on big civil engineering projects that I had to deliver within a specific timeframe.
When I left the army, I realised I had developed an appetite for planning and executing time-sensitive projects in quite unpredictable environments, and so what started as an offshoot of my military career became the thing I wanted to pursue.
Going into project management in the wind industry was a natural transition as you’re constantly battling with a lot of potentially disruptive elements, not least the weather.
Take us through your career to date, who have you worked for?
I spent 27 years in the Royal Engineers in the British Army, from boy soldier to late entry commissioned officer in my final three years. During this time, I moved into different roles every few years, from supporting operations worldwide across all three services, to managing a civilian contractual workforce.
Three years ago, I started my new role at Siemens Wind Power (now Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy) as the Onshore Northern Service Manager.
What are you up to right now?
In my current role, I am responsible for project managing service contracts on numerous wind farms across the remote highlands of Scotland. This involves leading a team of technicians and back office staff supporting the service operations.
What makes your work fulfilling and fun?
Wind farms tend to be located in very challenging environments, and most of the people in my team work 60-70 metres up in the air. Because of this, and because of the inherent safety implications, there is a strong sense of trust and it being a team effort.
Working with such a dedicated and motivated group of people who share the same values, to overcome any challenges, makes my work fulfilling. In terms of being fun, being in the outdoors is a huge bonus, especially when you’re based in the Scottish Highlands, an area of outstanding beauty.
What are your key strengths and how have you used these?
I’m able to engage with people effectively and communicate well with a team, which is crucial in my job where the team is spread across a wide geographical area and we don’t have face-to-face contact every day.
I’m also a meticulous planner, and always try to map out various eventualities, as well as the knock-on effects of every decision. This has been invaluable at Siemens, which is such a matrix organisation where there are lots of dependent variables and lots of potential sources of disruption.
What aspects of the role pose the greatest challenge?
Safety is, and will undoubtedly always be, the biggest challenge in my role. All the elements of our work can be dangerous if the correct processes and procedures aren’t carried out. It has been challenging trying to create an open environment where people feel empowered to raise any safety concerns, no matter what the circumstances are.
Too often, in many industries, people don’t prioritise safety concerns because of other pressures, such as the timeline for a project’s completion.
Siemens Gamesa had started growing a new, strong safety leadership culture in partnership with Lacerta Consulting when I started my role, and it has continued to grow since then. Even though the business has grown a strong safety culture, you cannot be complacent.
What training have you received and how has this helped you in your career?
I have been fortunate at Siemens to receive leadership and cultural training from organisational change specialists Lacerta Consulting. Recently, I have been involved in a Growing Empowered Leaders project run by one of their directors, which has been invaluable in helping me transition from project managing in the army to at Siemens.
The programme, encompassing 45 leaders from across the organisation, aimed to get us to reflect on our management approach and understand how we could grow a better relationship with, and empower, our teams.
This was vital to me, as I had learnt that the style of leadership that I practised in the army – which involved a hierarchal system of leading my team and shutting down challenges – was not effective in my new environment.
Working remotely across the Highlands, my team need to be empowered to make their own decisions in order to work efficiently, and I had to evolve to develop a more inclusive, values-based leadership.
I also undertook safety training when I started at Siemens. Coming from a high-risk environment in the army, I had a very uncompromising perception of safety. My training at Siemens highlighted that I needed to have a different perspective on how a team is kept safe on a wind farm, which encompassed things I would never have previously considered.
What characteristics and skills do you think make a great project manager
I think that being able to adapt to your environment and the requirements of your team is crucial: there is no one-size fits all management approach.
Having the ability to plan thoroughly and foresee any hurdles you might come across is also vital, as it means that when you do inevitably stumble somewhere along the line, you have a contingency plan in place that grants you more choices than if you were unprepared.
Quick, sound decision making is also essential, and understanding what the 2nd or 3rd effect of these could be.
Which project are you most proud of?
I was the infrastructure officer for the closure of Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, which was the size of Reading and needed to be reduced to the size of a small village in order to hand it over to the Afghans.
This required meticulous planning in order to execute the project to meet politically driven deadlines. We completed it on time and on budget – no mean feat -and passed National Audit Office scrutiny.
What elements make your work easier (methodology, software, strategy etc)?
The digital innovation that’s continually going on in Siemens Gamesa makes my work easier to manage and control, by giving me vision on things very quickly. For example, we have digital tools and software systems that we use for planning, which gives us data at our fingertips.
As work is completed, the times and costs are delivered to us quickly through the software. This means that if something isn’t performing how it should be, I can change things quite quickly and put counter measures in place, as well as ensuring that we remain within budget.
Does being a good project manager help you in other aspects of your life?
Yes! It helps me to plan and deliver things at home, from simple things like DIY projects, through to planning my finances and helping my children through big milestones in their lives like going to university. I also hope it’s passed onto them certain life skills that I’ve developed throughout my career, such as thinking things through logically.
How would you like your career to progress from here?
I’d like to continue to grow and take on projects that are a lot bigger in scope. For example, I’d really like to plan, manage and execute a multi-project programme lasting 2-5 years, that has innovation and change at its heart.
The wind industry continues to grow and evolve quickly, and the potential is definitely there for this opportunity. Renewable energy will soon be the primary energy source within the UK’s energy mix, which makes it exciting to be part of.
What’s your best advice for people hoping to move up the career ladder?
Seize opportunities when they arise. You never know what’s around the corner, and you should always try to gain blocks of experience – however small – when you can.
Always being willing to learn is also crucial; every day is a school day. Finally, it’s important to remember to accept help where needed, and think about what you want to achieve and how to get there. Reflection is a very powerful tool.