New CIOB research shows a deficit in crucial management skills. So is it time to look outside the industry for ideas and inspiration? Elaine Knutt speaks to the companies that are already doing just that. Illustration by Adam Nickel.
If you’ve risen up the managerial ranks in construction, chances are you’ve developed your management skills to a high degree. Your know how to act to avert problems, but react decisively when they’re coming head on. You can use your soft skills to help a team gel, but show a hard edge when needed. You’ve had your share of 360-degree appraisals, away days, mentoring and coaching. And if you’ve crossed the line from site-based roles to head office operations, then you’re competent on business development and commercial issues.
So why do the results of the latest CIOB online survey show that respondents score themselves as lacking in crucial management skills? Looking at the results from around 700 respondents (see page 24) construction managers combine highly-developed technical capabilities with difficulties in planning and implementing change; good communication skills with a poor record on business transparency; competence in managing resources with difficulties in managing risk and business processes.
According to talent development consultancy Crelos, which collaborated with the CIOB on the survey, the results indicate an imbalance that could destabilise construction. Crucially, the skills deficits are in exactly the areas the industry will need if it is to meet the challenges of a new era. When companies can no longer rely on traditional business models and have to provide innovative new offers, they need forward-thinking managers who can spot opportunities and then deliver the back-end changes in business processes to make them work.
“Encouraging innovation, managing business process, transparency, planning and implementing change, managing risk – these weaknesses are aligned with what we would expect from leaders,” says Claire Topping, head of marketing at Crelos. “They are skills which enable leaders to challenge the status quo, communicate a new vision, and provide direction and strategy which will inspire others.”
Crelos also questions whether the industry is developing its managers in the most effective way. While 70% of respondents consider that the skills needed by construction managers are different from those needed in other industries, Topping points out that many of the skills emphasised are generic to project management in other sectors. But if the industry is over-focused on what differentiates it from other types of business, then it’s ignoring the
common ground it shares with them.
For Stephen Martin, chief executive of contractor Clugston, the risks of being too inward-looking are self-evident. “We think of construction as one distinct sector, but in fact we work in all areas of the economy, from retail to the public sector,” he says. “We need to get people to move and adapt quickly, because if they carry on doing the same old thing in the same way, they won’t get very far.” Clugston itself is currently moving to the world of “soft” FM by adding catering and cleaning services alongside its “hard” FM maintenance contracts on healthcare projects.
One option suggested by Crelos is for construction to take advantage of recession in other sectors to recruit management talent from elsewhere, an idea that Martin gives qualified support to. “It’s a failing that we don’t look at it more. It’s about finding a [person with a] good cultural fit – you can pick up the technical skills later. You can’t crowd the company with them, but one or two “change agents” to challenge people have got to be a good idea,” he says.
Already, many in the industry are asking the same questions as Crelos, and coming up with similar answers to Clugston. If the industry wants to broaden its field of operation, it needs managers with a broader perspective. While out-of-sector hires may make sense in some cases, most agree that re-equipping construction’s existing managers to deal with new challenges is a more practical goal.
Contractors Willmott Dixon, Costain and Kier, and consultant McBains Cooper are among those offering talent development programmes that de-emphasise project-running skills in favour of broader business issues. “It’s about identifying people who are strong technically and have the potential to be good people managers. We help them develop and operate at high levels, where you rely less on technical competence and more on their ability to inspire and motivate others,” says Richard Lee, group chief human resources officer for Willmott Dixon Group.
Costain is moving towards “whole-life” project management, guiding clients from a project’s inception through to operational management. In the process, it takes on responsibilities that go far beyond construction sites. So its Project Management Academy takes a broader view too, being based on the leadership behaviours identified by the Association of Project Management and drawn from a variety of sectors, such as banking and IT.
Jeremy Galpin, group skills and development manager, explains the priorities. “A key part of what we do with the APM is benchmarking against other major organisations, such as our customers and oil companies, taking their best practice and applying it through our operations.”
Design and delivery consultant McBains Cooper also sees itself as an innovator, selling mid-tier clients a one-stop solution that cuts out the interfaces and inefficiencies usually found in traditional contracts. To develop the free thinkers the business needs, it puts all its associates and directors on a Leadership and Development Programme that covers capturing new work, reading a business’s accounts and client management. “If they spotted an opportunity, they would know how to handle and maximise it,” says managing director Michael Thirkettle.
Contractor Kier has a similar programme, but has recently added an appealing new element to the formula. When its senior directors recognised that the management tier below would benefit from a broader perspective, head of organisational development Paul Sealy realised that structured networking events with executives from other industries could deliver both training and commercial objectives. He was able to turn a chance meeting with an executive from BSkyB into an opportunity to increase Kier’s knowledge capital.
With his opposite number at BSkyB, Sealy devised a two-day knowledge exchange programme. In a day of presentations in January, 10 Kier managers selected from its various business units shared their expertise on areas where Kier excelled and BSkyB aspired: collaboration, project management, and sharing best practice across the business. In return, BSkyB will next month invite Kier to hear about how it approaches customer focus, research, branding and corporate innovation.
Sealy hopes it will give the group an awareness of business strategies they might not find in construction, and an insight into the commercial drivers of potential customers. “It’s an awareness that construction might not have all the answers – for instance, we can learn about Sky’s methodology for customer research and collecting customer feedback to inform our products. Our senior people might be able to turn a germ of an idea into something that works in construction.”
For Gary Wintersgill, a director of Kier Education, insights included BSkyB’s ability to translate its highly technical service into client-friendly language. “We’re very good at process, but probably not so good at client focus,” he says. “We tend to talk to our clients as if they’re construction professionals, but we need to get clear messages across in a way they understand. When Sky are selling a product it has to be exciting, and they let the technology go on behind the scenes – maybe we have to do that better.”
Louisa France, a Kier Build operations manager running several projects on site and in tendering, found striking similarities in the Sky executives’ roles. A project manager for the roll-out of 3D TV, for instance, needed an understanding of complex technical issues combined with the ability to move quickly to exploit opportunities.
Asked whether construction should be more open to a two-way traffic of ideas from other sectors, France agrees: “Historically, we’ve thought that you need that in-depth technical understanding but if you’re going to be a leader and manager, you don’t need that full technical back-up. For the past four or five years, Kier has identified a need for training to see beyond technical competencies.”
Many construction businesses are already recognising that the common ground they share with other industries can be at least as wide as the territory that divides them. For consultants, sectors such as accountancy or communications could provide inspiration; for contractors, businesses with a technology-driven product or a need to translate technical issues to the public and stakeholders will face similar issues.
Of course, the question goes to the heart of the industry’s traditional identity. Because the technical barriers to entry to construction are set relatively high, managers who have made a successful career on the other side may look back on those barriers as their security and defence. But in today’s economy, with its emphasis on openness and innovation, good ideas from other sectors must be able to cross the barriers, just as the outside world needs to hear more about the professional project management skills that lie behind them. cm
Download the full survey results and report from the CIOB website.