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Leader of the pack

Cover story - Civil engineering manager of the year

Judges described entries to this year's ICE Civil Engineering Manager of the Year award as the best ever.

The winner, Carillion's Mark Cutler, plays down his part in what he sees as a team award. Steve Turner went to meet him.

It would be very difficult to underestimate the achievement of Mark Cutler, winner of this year's ICE Civil Engineering Manager of the Year award. But that is exactly what he himself attempts to do and it may give a clue to his success.

Cutler was just 29 when he was appointed Alliance project manager for the West Coast Route Modernisation Proof House Junction remodelling scheme. He admits it was a daunting task, but one that he ultimately excelled at.

A graduate from Imperial College, London, where he was sponsored by his current and only employer Carillion, he had previously worked on a number of major projects, notably the Jubilee line extension and the construction of Manchester Airport's second runway. He had also spent two years on power plant design and construction, including a year in Kansas City.

But Proof House, he confesses, was something else entirely. So how did he cope with the step up? His management style, he explains, is not one he learnt from books, but has been picked up from others he has worked with.

'I've worked with a lot of talented people, ' he says, 'And with those where things haven't worked so well, ' he adds diplomatically.

'I am now lucky enough to be in a situation where I can put in to practice the methods that worked.'

He is dismissive of the old style adversarial contract relationships that, thankfully less and less now, exist in civil engineering; convinced that they never work anyway. 'There are too many things people can do with their careers to be wasting time fighting with clients and resident engineers.'

His enthusiasm to promote this consultative, softer approach was one of the main reasons he was selected to take charge of the Alliance.

Cutler is adamant that the contract was so successful because it was an alliance in every respect, something he set out to ensure from day one. All the project offices were open plan, with much thought given to seating to ensure there were no 'secret meetings'. Information systems were shared and subcontractor staff were integrated.

'I saw one of my main jobs in the early days as promoting the single team approach, ' he says.

'I spent time walking around the office and making sure people were talking to each other.'

There was a zero tolerance policy on 'silo behaviour' as Cutler puts it - not thinking as a single unit - and the team was populated with people who could deliver a culture change.

Those who failed were removed.

However, he does admit that keeping all three parties in the Alliance happy and ensuring they trusted and remained confident in him was challenging.

But trust is a management quality he rates extremely highly, and one that the judges of the Civil Engineering Manager of the Year Award highlighted as one of his strengths.

He gained the trust of his staff with an approachable and open management style, and by always being available. He does not believe in telling people he is too busy, and makes sure he is always there if colleagues require his input.

'I never seem to get any work done in the office, ' he says, adding: 'My days seem primarily to consist of meetings and talking to people.'

But it is this approach that helped develop the team spirit so much in evidence on Proof House, and is the main reason behind its success.

'People wanted to come and work with us and be associated with the job, ' he says proudly.

'There were no miserable old experts on the team, and people liked us, as we were so open, ambitious and realistic.'

Constant availability and the numerous meetings meant there were never enough hours in the day and Cutler admits to taking work home at night where he was free from interruptions.

He feels that the support of his wife Anne-Marie is crucial to his success, describing her as 'extremely patient'. They had their first child during the Proof House contract.

Cutler has since been appointed project director leading another much bigger Alliance on the West Coast upgrade, a several hundred million pound resignalling and remodelling project in the Rugby and Coventry areas.

He believes he still has a lot to learn and is making a conscious effort to improve his management style. He feels the lessons learnt on the Proof House contract stand him in good stead.

'I am learning to become a little more strategic, ' he says, 'and trying to manage without wanting to know every single detail.'

On the massive Rugby Alliance this would clearly be impossible, so he is taking a step back from some issues - although he admits he is going to find it hard.

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