Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Management advice from industry leaders

How can you make the leap from keen novice to high-flying manager? According to industry experts, while technical knowledge is useful, it’s the softer skills that count.

Ben Woodgate is a design co-ordinator of a commercial office construction in London. He’s been working for two years for building and engineering specialist Kier. Working life as a manager, he says, is very different from what he expected. “I’ve found that many things you learn in your degree don’t necessary apply when you start work. You have to develop the confidence necessary to tell people – who may have many more years’ experience as you – what to do.”

While this confidence comes with time, there are lots of other ways you can improve your management skills – how you ‘tell people what to do’.

Making a connection

Now, more than ever, construction management is all about the people. A medium-sized project costing around £5 million may entail managing up to 50 people at any time, but even managers of smaller projects could look after up to 15 people, including designers, surveyors and sub-contractors.

The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) named David Wilson, a manager at full-service construction business Morgan Ashurst, Construction Manager of the Year 2009 for his role managing a university project in York. For him, establishing good relations is key.

“A good working relationship involves being friendly, receptive and respecting people and their knowledge. General speaking, if people working on a project get on as well with each other at the end of a project as they did at the beginning, then you’ve succeeded.”

A good manager will have good communication skills.

“You have to communicate on many different levels to different people, from the client to surveyors, engineers, labourers – anyone working on the team,” says Saul Townsend, a spokesperson for the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB). “Imagine a project involving, say, building a school. You will have to be able to liaise with the client – the local authority – and also the people on site: the teachers and the children.”

Recent developments in technology over the last few years have improved communication, says Townsend. “Most sites have wireless internet where information can be shared quickly and easily. Everyone's got access to CAD drawings online now, so it's much easier to check the designs and discuss them over extranets or intranets.”

But direct communication is still important, according to Paul Sealey, who’s head of organisation, development and training at Kier.

“Recent advances in technology have made it easier to reach everybody working on a project at one time. But with people actually working on site with you, it’s much more effective to go out of the office and speak to them face to face.”

Time for good management

Ben Woodgate has found that time management is another important aspect of his job. “You learn to juggle many different tasks and prioritise the most important. Most people consider their job is the most ‘urgent’ but it’s up to you to decide what really is urgent and organise tasks accordingly,” he explains.

“A lot of project management is about logistics and planning – whether you’re talking about human resources, building materials or the financial side,” agrees Paul Sykes, head of recruitment and careers at ConstructionSkills.

According to David Wilson, a good construction manager always plans in advance. “It’s important to look at the whole picture. Have a plan from the start, look at the site overall and check any budgetary issues at the beginning.

“You should also choose the right supply chain,” he says. “For example, roofers may also have cladding skills, so you don’t have to organise a different sub-contractor to do two separate jobs.”

A head for business

A recent survey of current practice in the industry, the Wolstenhume Report, suggested that new construction graduates have excellent technical knowledge, but lack business know-how. Ben agrees. “I need to learn about the commercial aspects of the project – and that’s something which I’ve learnt since working at Kier.”

Of course, on most projects, it’s the quantity surveyor’s job to manage costs and keep track of the financial aspects. But Paul Sykes believes that sticking to budget, particularly in the current economic crisis, is a vital part of being a good construction manager.

“Although, depending on the type of project, the quantity surveyor will be the financial specialist, it’s fundamentally the manager’s responsibility to keep to budget,” he says.

Keeping it safe

The watchword in construction at the moment is health and safety. Despite ever more stringent regulations, there were still 53 fatalities following construction accidents in 2008/2009, according to Health and Safety Executive figures.

For Ben, “health and safety is an important part of my job. Health and safety officers visit once a week, and it’s up to me as manager to report any problems and ensure that procedures are put into place.”

Paul Sealey agrees. “It’s important to make the site a really safe place to work, to make sure everybody’s briefed properly and that everybody knows their responsibility.”

But a good manager shouldn’t just focus on physical injuries.

“Construction managers should be good at spotting stress levels, professional relationship issues and the dynamics of the work,” says Townsend.

Maintaining quality

Once you’ve gained these skills, it’s vital to keep them up.

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