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Future leaders: Leading from the front

In a quest to seek out the people who will lead our industry in the decades to come, NCE invited people from across the industry to discuss the qualities of leadership. The results are published here, along with profiles of some of the names to look out for. Margo Cole reports.

future leaders

The challenges that the infrastructure sector will face in the future are very different to those of the past. While our predecessors may have seen their role as “harnessing the forces of nature for the benefit of mankind”, the future leaders of our industry have to understand their role in society, their impact on the environment, their contribution to ensuring there is enough food, water and energy for a growing population, the commercial implications of their activities and their relationship with technologies that are developing at an accelerating pace.

So who will these future leaders be, and where will they come from? NCE asked representatives from across the infrastructure sector to discuss what skills and capabilities they think are essential to tomorrow’s industry leaders, and to nominate some people currently working their way up through their organisations who show some of these essential qualities.

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Flint and Neill logo

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Parsons Brinckerhoff logo

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The discussion was initiated by NCE editor Mark Hansford. “This a really interesting time to explore what kind of person makes a future leader in our industry,” he says. “Conventionally, leaders in engineering came from people being promoted up the chain until they reached their point of incompetence. But it seems there is a little more to it these days, with companies ­offering a range of different career paths and career development opportunities.”

In consultancy there has certainly been a move to ensure that engineers can rise just as highly within an organisation as their project management and business development colleagues, as Parsons Brinckerhoff director Rachel Skinner explains.

“One of the things we’ve done in last five years is to create far stronger recognition around different career paths, especially around technical excellence. We are now seeing people who have real pride in their place on our technical career track; they are able to focus on innovation and technical excellence, which is exactly where they add the most value.”

“You have to be able to lead people to do what you or your organisation’s aspirations want them to do”

John Patch, Roger Bullivant

But does being promoted for technical excellence equate to being a leader? Surely there is more to it than just being incredibly good at your job.

“The main constituent of leadership is the ability to lead people - that’s a given,” says Roger Bullivant director John Patch. “You have to be able to lead people to do what you or your organisation’s aspirations want them to do.”

But Rhead group human resources manager Sarah Daniels thinks there is more to it than that. “In my company, there is a big difference between being able to manage people in order to get them to do what you want them to do and leadership,” she says, suggesting that leaders are those who think innovatively, understand new technologies and inspire people - while getting the job done.

Patch is concerned that engineers are not learning or developing the right skills. “I am proud to be a civil engineer, but you just have to look at our organisation - only one of our eight business unit leaders is an engineer, whereas three have come up through the tools,” he says. A further three are ex-military.

“Engineers come in without having much of a clear idea of what they really want to do,” says Patch. “Whereas I see non-engineers coming in - those who didn’t go to university or who followed a vocational path - who have far more of a clue as to what they want to try and do with life.”

“True leadership is rare. We all know people who are fantastic at their jobs, but they would not inspire anybody to do anything”

Sarah Daniels, Rhead

Patch advocates a radical overhaul of university technical departments to ensure engineering students are taught about business leadership and about issues associated with sustainability and engineers’ role in society.

“It is the people who have knowledge and understanding of these wider issues who will end up leading,” he says.

As Flint & Neill chief executive officer David MacKenzie says: “What we’re doing as engineers isn’t just doing sums. There’s an awful lot more to it.

“We are solving problems, and that means we have got to think wider. I’m very interested in how our future leaders will take that forward.”

But could the idea that the industry’s future leaders will need to understand a wider range of issues than their predecessors - from the pros and cons of fracking to the value of big data - mean that these leaders will not necessarily be engineers? Rhead also has a number of ex-military people in management positions, and Daniels says it has been extremely successful.

The panel

David Mackenzie: Chief executive officer, Flint & Neill
Rachel Skinner: Director, marketing & communications, Europe, Parsons Brinckerhoff
Sarah Daniels: Group HR manager, Rhead Group
John Patch: Director, Roger Bullivant
Mark Hansford: Editor, NCE
Jonathan Jarritt: Technical director - strategic consulting, Amey

“Many people in the industry are not really thinking about ­anything beyond the project they’re working on, but these people think much more broadly,” she says.

“They have a mind-set that is extraordinary.”

MacKenzie says future leaders must be capable of looking at problems in a different way. “There is a pressure for us to be innovative,” he says. “If you can produce a more innovative solution for client that will last longer, they will invest in it. So we have to keep challenging the way we do things, and forward thinking leaders have got to have that.”

Brightest engineers

He says it is important to remember that many other industries are keen to recruit the brightest engineers because of their ability to solve problems. Some of the leading civil engineering departments report that up to 50% of their top graduates go into different sectors - particularly financial services.

Amey technical director Jonathan Jarritt says he attracts people into his consultancy business by advertising that the firm can offer “the hardest problems going”.

“That brings in people who don’t want to go into the City - people who really want to make a difference with their qualifications and skills - and they might be engineers,” he says.

As someone who has started and is running his own business unit, Jarritt believes a vital ingredient of leadership - however far you get up the managerial ladder - is maintaining a high level of technical skill; in other words, “leading by example”.

Patch agrees. “Leaders should have drive and enthusiasm, but they should also be capable of leading by example,” he says.

Technical ability

But will people follow you on the basis of your technical ability alone? Probably not, says Patch. “I think the important word is ‘inspiration’,” he says.

Daniels agrees. “True leadership is rare,” she says.

“We all know people who are fantastic at their jobs, but they would not inspire anybody to do anything.”

So, as Hansford says, it looks like the future leaders of our industry must be “people who show they’ve inspired others, and taken people with them, as well as recognising the bigger picture of world we’re living in”. In addition, he says, anyone likely to become a future leader should understand and respond to the need to bring through the next generation of leaders.

There are certainly significant challenges ahead for the industry, and it seems from the conversation initiated by NCE that the industry expects something different from the leaders of the future to those in positions of responsibility at the moment.

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