CEO interview: ISG's Paul Cossell - ‘We are in a revolution’

28 March 2019 | By Neil Gerrard

ISG is recruiting 50 new workers a month to keep pace with expansion in a rapidly changing market. In the third in our series of CEO interviews, ISG’s Paul Cossell tells Neil Gerrard how the make-up of the firm’s workforce is starting to shift as it looks beyond traditional pools of talent. Photography: Peter Searle.

Paul Cossell could do with being a bit more patient. At least, that’s what the results of a company-wide survey examining his leadership style tell him.

With disarming frankness, Cossell shares the way in which he is perceived. “Some of the feedback was very nice, and some if it was very painful,” he explains. “One of the things that I am doing well is that I am creating an environment and a culture where people feel confident to have ideas and innovation is encouraged. That is supported by the fact that we have got private ownership that takes the ‘forever’ view. I also get feedback about having a low ego and being very approachable.

“The bits I need to address are to be more patient and I need to give more time and a wider hearing to a range of different ideas to make sure more people buy into things, rather than deciding too quickly.”

A certain amount of impatience can probably be forgiven though, given that Cossell sees rapid change ahead in the sector, as digital technology alters the way construction firms will do business in the future. And that is informing the way the company recruits and trains its people.

“We are in a revolution and things are moving very quickly,” he asserts. “We need a balance of experience and lessons learned from people who have been around for a long time, but also the creativity and different ways of working that come from the younger generation. The skill for us is going to be making sure that we listen and we don’t block that potential.

Paul Cossell CV

  • Trained as a surveyor.
  • Joined ISG in 1996 as senior financial manager.
  • Appointed group managing director responsible for commercial office fit-out and engineering services business in 2010.
  • Led ISG’s office fit-out business to become market leader in London.
  • His business unit was recognised by the Chartered Management Institute as one of the UK’s Top
    50-rated companies for productivity in 2015.
  • Appointed chief executive of ISG in 2016.

“We are very much of the mindset that the best ideas should prevail and not that the highest-paid person should decide. At the moment, we have an initiative where we have got our three most senior operations guys trying to solve a couple of efficiency areas, but concurrent with that, we have got our bright young things also doing it. It will be interesting to see who has got the best ideas – because the best idea will prevail.”

‘New talent makes us better’

ISG, which employs 3,000 staff, places a strong emphasis on developing these “bright young things”. Market leader in office and retail fit out in London, the business is expanding rapidly both at home and internationally and is recruiting about 50 roles a month in areas like planning, project leadership and surveying to sustain its growth.

It is partly for that reason that it has committed to increasing the young people it employs, by becoming the latest member of the 5% Club, which lobbies UK businesses to make sure at least 5% of their workforce are in “earn and learn” positions as trainees, apprentices or graduates.

The initiative also requires ISG to increase the gender and ethnic diversity of people within its business and is being overseen by the company’s chief human resources officer Jane Falconer, herself promoted to ISG’s board earlier this year.

Cossell needs little convincing when it comes to the merits of broadening diversity among ISG’s workforce. “When you are hiring, you tend to fish in the seas that you know and eventually they become depleted. So we have been looking in other seas, and that has been transformational for us,” he says.

“What we have found is that when we start to bring in new talent from these different areas, it makes us better,” he adds.

While 50% of ISG’s 10-strong executive committee board is now female, boosting representation of traditionally under-represented groups, in an organisation as large as ISG, is still a challenge.

“We are still getting massive underrepresentation of diversity by gender and ethnicity, particularly in site-based roles, so that is disappointing. We have started to run stats based on diversity about people interviewed, jobs offered and jobs accepted,” Cossell says. “It will be interesting to see what that tells us about any unconscious bias.”

He sees it as easier and quicker to change things at the grassroots level, hence joining the 5% Club. ISG has also put considerable time and investment into reaching school pupils before they make decisions about their career.

‘Our sector is more diverse and stimulating than perceptions’

Cossell recalls: “I asked an audience of 90 kids aged 14-15 at a local school in east London, where we are based, who had considered a career in construction. One hand up went up. You talk about other sectors – marketing, design, computers – and a whole load of hands come up. It is a real articulation of the challenge we have as a sector to appeal to the talent when they make a career choice.”

To that end, ISG has developed the Professional Construction Practice (PCP) Level 3 diploma with the WJEC exam board for post-16 learners. Equivalent to an A-level, it is designed to be aspirational and targets STEM students.

Paul Cossell on…


“This is a subject that has repeated itself for 20, 30, 40 years. I read the Hackitt report and it seemed to me to be applying all the things we could and should already be doing.”

…Early involvement

“Whether it is standardised components, offsite manufacture, BIM – it is all about being involved early. The technology exists. To apply it we have got to get in earlier. That is our challenge, not our customers’.”

…Advice to new recruits

“Maintain your integrity and be careful who you take advice from because the temptation is to assume people in high positions know best and in my experience that is not always the case.”

“Based on statistical data what we found is that by the time people get to the graduate stage, already the lack of diversity has shown itself because they have made their career choices and because of the perception of our sector,” Cossell explains.

“In order to disrupt that, we want to get to 16-year-olds and to show them that our sector is far more diverse and stimulating than they may perceive. This Level 3 diploma is a way of doing that. It is an outstanding piece of work that will take you through the whole construction process. It also looks at technology and how it can influence and enhance what we do.”

‘We’re bringing in new ways of working’

Cossell is enthusiastic about the flexibility of thinking that younger people bring to the business, but aware that older workers also need to be brought up to speed. “What is exciting is that anyone aged from 18 to 35 seems to have a natural leaning towards digital technology,” he says. “And then you get the pen and paper brigade – which I am a member of – and I observe that there tends to be less agility and flexibility and embracing of new ideas.

“It is clearly a challenge for the non-tech generation to embrace and use technology effectively. Part of it is coaching. We train people both face-to-face but also virtually. We try to bring in new ways of working on a phased basis, encouraging people who are resistant to change.”

ISG doesn’t like to use the term “skills shortage” within its walls, Cossell explains, and says that there is plenty of talent available provided the business is willing to cast its net wider to secure it. Finding the right people to drive the business forward and creating the right environment for them to thrive is a key management objective, he adds.

“The challenge for the leadership of this business is to be good enough to enable the talent within it. That is what drives me. The talent and commitment of people within ISG is endless.

“And that is before we start getting more people from different sectors and backgrounds, who have a different view on things,” he continues, before checking himself slightly: “I just need to have patience.”


Great ideas, particularly the drive to encourage more school leavers to consider a career in construction.
Keep up the good work Paul, but remember sometimes youthful enthusiasm needs to be tempered with mature experience.

Andrew Pearce, 22 May 2019

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