August 8, 2018 | Anna Etherington-Smith, Head of Project Management, Clarkson Alliance
Projects are human endeavours, and what is more, every project and every project team is unique. The range of skills, both technical and behavioral, required to successfully deliver a construction project are extensive, and a good project leader should have an appreciation of the diverse set of skills needed when they are building their team, and an awareness of how different people operate.
On joining the industry straight out of university, I quickly became accustomed to being in the minority as a woman. In the early stage of my career I tried to emulate the behaviors of other women around me – those who appeared to embrace the sometimes confrontational nature of the industry as a way to progress. I quickly learnt that this approach simply didn’t suit me, and I began to understand that it was important for me to be my authentic self in the workplace in order to thrive. Shouting the odds and trying to demand respect wasn’t for me.
Having now spent over 15 years working in construction – as a structural engineer, construction manager and now as Head of Project Management at Clarkson Alliance – I have worked on a range of projects and have seen the value in allowing individuals to work to their strengths. For example, one person may be good at detailed analysis but less good at communication – this individual may thrive when considering options and developing solutions but struggle in a large meeting environment or when asked to present to the wider team.
When I joined Clarkson Alliance I spent some time learning about my individual strengths which has helped me to understand where I can play my best role. It has also reinforced where I may need support from other members of the team to get the best results.
My strengths are all in developing relationships or being strategic – I’m at my best when I’m working with people towards an objective. I’m good at listening and understanding what people need and galvanising a team. I’m also driven to get results and to constantly improve. These qualities are useful in project management where you need to be able to understand everyone’s objectives and to focus on the outcome. If I had to spend hours developing solutions or carrying out detailed analysis I would not be at my best. In my current leadership role, I am now able to encourage the other members of the team to understand and work towards developing their own strengths.
As a company we emphasise people’s strengths, and look for opportunities to let them work on the tasks they enjoy, and identify how our diverse range of abilities can complement each other and be used to the benefit of our clients. We use a tool called ‘StrengthsFinder’ which is an online assessment that helps people discover that they are naturally best at, and gives suggestions for how to develop talent. For example if, as part of our role, we need to undertake assessment of options, whether it’s a tender, options appraisals or risk assessments we use people with analytical and input (data) strengths. If we are producing written reports or presenting information we use people with communication strengths.
When members of a project team have a good understanding of their relative strengths they are well placed to work together through difficult periods – this is essential, given that dealing with unexpected challenges is a key part of almost any construction project. Rather than a culture of blame developing, the team can collaborate effectively to find a solution, and ensure continued unity around the project outcomes. By understanding and appreciating each other’s strengths you build trust, and in a challenging situation know who is best placed to take on responsibilities.
As a leader having an awareness of human behaviours can help you to galvanise commitment from your team and ultimately fulfil both the client’s wishes and the individual’s potential. Knowing the relative skills of your team – who may well have never worked together before – is an essential part of leading an effective project. A diverse range of skills can lead to better decision making, as teams can benefit from having a wide variety of views and experiences to consider as you navigate the sometimes choppy waters of a project.