Discover your inner soft side

10 May 2011

You might have the technical knowhow to run a site, but have you got the skills to solve the inevitable problems and get the best from your workforce? Katie Puckett asks former CMYA winners what sets great managers apart from the rest. Illustrations by Brett Ryder

What is it that distinguishes a truly great construction manager from one who is merely good? Are great construction managers born or made? And can you really learn to be a good manager in a classroom, or does it require maturity, experience and the wisdom of age?

These are questions that are particularly relevant at the moment as judging begins for the Construction Manager of the Year Awards. But good project management is also more important than ever as contractors compete for jobs in a shrinking market, and tighter margins mean that even the slightest delay can be the difference between profit and financial ruin.

Employers are increasingly aware of the importance of training and development to construction managers, both starting out and well-established, and introducing leadership courses to supplement their employees’ technical skills, as Mansell has done (see box). The techniques they teach for better management are not anything out of the ordinary, but their application to the day-to-day workings of a building site is a new development.

Which makes this the perfect time to ask: what skills do construction managers need and, crucially, how can these skills be developed?

While the best construction managers have built up many years of technical and project experience, there is no doubt that pure construction knowledge is just one facet of the role. “I think you have to have a very broad set of man-management skills nowadays,” says Mark Chamberlain, project director at Willmott Dixon and a CMYA silver medallist in 2008. “You can work on it, none of us are fully rounded — we all need to improve in different areas.”

The importance of “softer” management skills is well illustrated by the fact that new entrants to the industry who only have technical skills invariably struggle. Many of today’s construction managers come from a university background and arrive for their first day on site with greater technical knowledge than many who came up on the tools develop in the first decade of their career.

CIOB vice president Alan Crane has spent more than 40 years in the construction industry, starting out as an industrial painter before working his way up into management, from foreman, to supervisor, to contracts manager, to general manager and then project manager. His daughter is taking a different route, studying civil engineering at university. “I’m a chartered engineer, and a fellow of the Institute of Civil Engineering, but in technical terms she’s already on a par with me,” says Crane. “University graduates have got a massive advantage because they come in with their toolbag half full. I started off with my toolbag empty and had to pick up most of it from experience.”

But that technical knowledge is no substitute for muddy boots. Crane says the first months of his daughter’s year out in industry have been far from stress-free as she gets to grips with so many different personalities and agendas on site. Crane urges universities to focus more on the softer skills that their graduates will need in industry, but he and other construction managers also acknowledge that there is no real substitute for learning on the job.

Ian Eggers, director at Mace and CMYA overall winner in 2000, says he can immediately tell the difference between graduates who have spent a year on site and those that haven’t. “When they go back to university after their year out, they’re completely different people,” says Eggers. “They’ve got a streetwise awareness of what they’re walking into, they know the questions to ask and they understand the process better.”

There’s also a lot to be said for studying and working at the same time. Walter Begg, operations manager at Miller Construction and CMYA silver medallist in 2010, has been in construction for 30 years. He started on site as a trainee engineer and completed his HNC on day release. “We get a lot of graduate trainees coming from university who haven’t been on site a lot and they often don’t know how to interact with people in the working environment. They’re really just starting to learn when they come out of university and join as a site manager, whereas guys who have come through the HNC route have got three or four years’ experience by then.”

Communication skills are cited by many managers as one of the most important things they’ve learned. David Wilson, project manager at Morgan Sindall and CMYA winner in 2009, came through the university route and believes that listening to the trades is especially important when you don’t come from that background yourself. “You can’t tell bricklayers and plasterers how to do their job because you’ve never done it. You don’t have all the answers so you need to embrace their knowledge.”

Wilson learned his own management skills on site, sometimes the hard way. “There were a few times when I approached things the wrong way, and learned little lessons. Once I borrowed a bricklayer’s level to check the level of his wall, and he told me he’d cut my fingers off if I did it again.”

Gemma Sapiano, a project manager at Willmott Dixon and CMYA Gold Medal Winner in 2009, says a more collaborative approach with subcontractors is vital. “Margins are tighter, everyone demands better quality and tighter deadlines, gone are the days of old when the main contractor just used to bully their subbies,” she says.

Talking to the people who are actually doing the building inevitably comes more naturally to people who’ve come up on the tools side. Bill Taylor, contracts manager at Beard, started out as an apprentice carpenter, later going to college and completing his HNC, NVQ level 5 and CIOB accreditation. “I know how it feels as an employee when the director or contracts manager comes to the site and they won’t speak to you,” he says.

But while there is no substitute for experience, even time-served construction managers say they’ve found management training courses useful. Beard Construction recently introduced a leadership development programme as part of working towards its Investors in People Gold accreditation, and Taylor found focusing on his business skills has given him more confidence dealing with the non-technical parts of his job. “It gives you a better understanding of how things work behind the scenes, a better financial awareness, so you’re more comfortable dealing with commercial elements and presenting yourself in meetings.”

Mace runs a range of courses to develop managers’ softer skills, such as giving presentations and developing awareness of how they present themselves.

“I find it all fascinating,” says Eggers. “Management is a bit of a science. You’ve probably got characters who are naturally good with people, but there’s loads of things you can learn. One of the most telling things I’ve ever done was when as directors we filled out a questionnaire about ourselves, and then our bosses, our peers and the people below us were sent the same one. It was like a mirror — terrifying, but unless you’ve been through that process, you don’t know.”

Mansell’s academy award

“Site managers have some of the most difficult jobs in our organisation,” says Maxine Wheldon, director of human resources at Mansell. “They’re expected to run sites safely, to time, to budget, dealing with many different stakeholders. Historically, the construction industry has been excellent at technical training, but it’s not particularly renowned for investing in the leadership skills of site teams.”

That’s why Wheldon’s team decided to develop Mansell’s new Leadership Academy, and will spend £200,000 over the next two years to put each of its 500 site managers through a two-day management training programme.

The idea came about when Mansell was implementing a behavioural safety programme throughout the workforce and conducted focus groups in regional offices. “Our teams told us they wanted to be better at toolbox talks, they wanted more confidence at site inductions,” says Wheldon. “They had never been trained at doing presentations, and they felt that, as a workforce, they could have better skills.”

Already, 18 of Mansell’s site managers have been through an initial pilot programme, developed with external consultant iOpener. The course aims to increase self-awareness, improve insight into other people’s approaches and equip managers with skills such is giving feedback, delivering messages and handling tough conversations. “For anyone to be the best leader they can be, they have to understand themselves and others well,” explains Julia Lindsay, managing director at iOpener.

“We can all benefit from that. If I need to pass on an important message, the words I choose and the way I deliver it will impact on whether you receive it.”

For site manager Jon Brookes, the course was a completely new concept. “Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned from other managers,” he says. “This gives you the chance to look at yourself and how you carry on on a daily basis, and see different ways to handle situations. I think we all picked up on that we need to be better listeners. When you’ve been doing the job a long time, you can railroad people.”

Since the course, Brooks says he’s been trying to make more time to listen to people on site. “It helped me dealing with people who aren’t 100% happy with what I’ve told them to do. I used to take the approach that ‘you need to do it, get on with it’. Now I give myself enough time to listen to their side of the story, then I get them to listen to my side of the story. Generally it works a lot better. If you approach a situation with a level head, you get it sorted a lot quicker.”

Personal and personnel skills: What you can teach...           


“When I first started out, I was extremely blunt. My manager had to take me aside and say ‘you could have handled that a bit better’. I now understand that even if you’re right, you’ve got to put it in a manner that everyone finds acceptable.”

Walter Begg, Miller

How to be a good listener

“You have to know your own limitations and when to listen to other people. Throughout my career I’ve worked with great site managers, some have been very good manipulators, others very good listeners.”

David Wilson, Morgan Sindall

How to motivate people

“The whole thing to me is about humanity, you need to understand how to motivate people and make them feel good. Most of that you can learn.”

Alan Crane, CIOB vice president


“You need to make sure you go out on site and be in close discussion with your supply chain. It’s surprising how many managers want to sit behind a computer screen and have to be forced out.

Gemma Sapiano, Willmott Dixon

The art of persuasion

“When neighbours get involved and you’ve got a bolshy construction manager, it can go horribly wrong. How do you learn it? Well, if you’ve got two young children, you’re doing well...”

Ian Eggers, Mace


...and what you can’t


“Sometimes in our industry you have to make a decision there and then. There’s a gut feeling for it and you’ve either got it or you haven’t. I don’t think you can teach someone to make quick decisions.”

David Wilson, Morgan Sindall


“You need to be able to visualise what you’re being asked to build from an early stage, from two-dimensional drawings. When you’re standing in the middle of a field, you need be able to visualise what it will look like and how it needs to be built. I don’t think you can teach that. I’m an Aquarian, I’m left-handed, so I’m good at the arty farty side of it.”

David Wilson, Morgan Sindall

A can-do attitude

“You have to be someone whose glass is always more than half full. It’s about positivity and concentrating on the doable. If you don’t believe that you can do something, you’ll never convince anyone else that they can. If you believe in yourself, there’s a good chance you can transmit that.”

Alan Crane


“I don’t think you can teach enthusiasm. When I was 19 or 20 and I began my degree course, I didn’t know whether I’d like it or not. But I never wake up and think ‘oh no, I’ve got to go to work’. But if someone doesn’t like what they do, how do you teach that?”

David Wilson, Morgan Sindall


What kind of manager are you? Take our quiz to see where you stand on the management chart

1. Everything is going wrong. The programme has already slipped by three weeks when a critical part of the steelwork turns out to be faulty, threatening further delays. What are you going to do?

a. Get out there and kick some arse. Shout at the subcontractors, and tell everyone that it’s seven days a week from now on, or no pay.

b. Hole up in your office for three straight days and nights devising a brilliant, if complicated, technical solution to making up the time. Then pin it on the noticeboard in the site hut and crawl home to sleep.

c. Summon everyone to a meeting in the site canteen and encourage a free and fair exchange of views on how you could get back on track. Agree new programmes with specialist contractors and set up a steering group with representatives from every firm to meet daily to ensure everything stays on schedule.

2. Your cement supplier leaves you a voicemail to tell you that there’s no way he can deliver to site on time and that you’ll have to wait two weeks for the materials. You call him back and...

a. Bawl him out, then send your most intimidating site manager down to head office to persuade him to reconsider. Actually, forget that — you’ll go yourself.

b. Why call when you can use email? Send a message to your legal department to begin legal proceedings. Hopefully he’ll be
even more frightened of them than you are.

c. Ask what the problem is, discover it’s because another job has gone wrong and negotiate an earlier delivery of some of the materials. Then call everyone together to rejig the programme to accommodate the delay, cutting the budget by 5% in the process.

3. A member of your site management team confides that he’s being bullied by one of the foremen. How do you react?

a. Fire him. A building site is no place for wimps.

b. Move him on to a different part of the site. The foreman is a bit scary, but best to let him alone, he should be finished soon anyway...

c. Get them both together in a room to share their differences and discuss what they could learn from each other.

4. A graduate who’s just joined your team comes to you with an idea she thinks could save two weeks on the programme. Your response?

a. She’s living in cloud cuckoo land — you worked out those programmes yourself and you know there’s nothing that could possibly be improved upon. Send her off for some skyhooks.

b. It’s plausible and she’s clearly done her sums, but isn’t it a bit late to start changing things? You don’t want everyone else to hate you.

c. This is just the sort of innovative thinking that you encourage from every member of the team. Call a project meeting, and invite her to chair it with you. 

5. The client decides that he wants a completely different configuration of rooms on every floor. How do you handle it?

a. You’ll do it but you’re not happy about it. Start the meter running – this is going to COST.

b. Oh god, why you? Forward the email to the specialists — they’re the ones who are going to build it, so probably best they work it out...

c. What a good idea — now that he’s explained it, you can see it’s a much better design. True, it is rather a late stage, but where there’s a will there’s a way. Time for a team meeting...


How did you score?

Mostly As

You rule the site with an iron fist, and you probably get results. But do you have many friends? Does anyone ever willingly work with you a second time? If you did a personality test, it would probably say you’re an extrovert. I’d tell you myself, but I’m frightened you’ll punch me.

Mostly Bs

No one can accuse you of being overly confrontational, unless it’s in the context of taking passive-aggression to new heights. Your skills are certainly “soft”, but you need to work on developing a more “can-do” attitude. That said, I’m impressed you worked up the energy to take the quiz. We can build on this.

Mostly Cs

How many management training courses have you been on? You’re so collaborative you must sleep with a copy of Rethinking Construction under your pillow. Or are you just secretly addicted to meetings? 

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