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More pay... are you sure?

If you always do what you've always done, you will always get what you've always got. Antony Oliver explains why engineers need to radically rethink their approach to business management.

Civil engineers have been complaining about low pay and the lack of respect from the outside world for decades. Poor management has often been blamed, and the NCE survey reinforces this. It shows that 43% of you think that poor business management is one of the industry's biggest problems.

It is certainly true that construction lags behind many other newer industries in its approach to people management. This is deeply worrying when you consider that for most consultants, their staff are their only assets.

According to organisational behaviour expert Professor Nigel Nicholson of London Business School, civil engineering firms are not unlike those in most other technically based industries. He explains that such firms tend to be set up with a machine-like structure and operate with traditional 'command and control' management. The principle is to set a direction, carry out the task and get a result.

'A lot of technical skill based operations turn good operators into bad managers,' he says. 'People are promoted on their technical skills rather than on the basis of their management skills - very often promoted to their own level of incompetence.'

'This is fine if you are doing something simple,' he says. 'But it is not the world we are living in today. It just won't do any more - you can no longer survive by running a business that way.'

There will never be a substitute for properly trained professional engineers within a civil engineering firm. But not all of the skills required to run businesses and manage staff come naturally to these people.

Today's complex business relationships demand more, says Nicholson. Recognising the talents within an organisation and empowering individuals according to their ability gives firms a much greater flexibility to meet client demands.

'The most admired companies are those that involve their people and treat them with respect. Successful firms treat people like people and not just parts of a mechanism - as a manager you need to remember that with every pair of hands you get a free brain.'

Nicholson refers to companies such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, which, despite being technically based, have managed to create collegiate- based environments in which people enjoy going to work. Other firms such as telephone bank First Direct have also created team-based working practices in what is effectively a factory environment.

Nicholson maintains that pay is important but not such a big a motivator as one might think. 'You do not necessarily have to be be a high payer to be a good employer,' he says. 'It is not usually the only reason you do a job or the only reason that you leave a job.' Of course, like health there is a certain minimum threshold to maintain.

This point is backed by Dr Philip Dewe who teaches organisational behaviour at London's Birkbeck College. 'Pay is only one of a range of things that motivate people,' he says adding that it is not necessarily the most important factor. 'People have been known to work in appalling conditions for appalling pay if they feel the work is right for them. 'The current management thinking is that you have to empower people and give them the right environment in which they can release their creativity,' he adds.

'This means giving staff feedback, variety in their work, autonomy and commitment.'

As with many traditional industries, civil engineering is changing and the demands of clients are now much more broadly based. Meeting these changes with the right skills is vital and requires firms to think in a completely different way about their businesses.

'Firms should not be afraid to bring in marketing and management experts,' adds Dewe. 'There is nothing wrong in saying: 'We recognise that civil engineering is our core business which is why we are buying in these extra skills.' '

How good is your boss?

Does he generate trust between everyone in the business - does he do what he says he'll do? Do you clients trust what you say you'll do?

Is everybody involved - are you told how the business is doing and what its goals are for the future?

Is responsibility devolved - are staff allowed to make their own decisions?

Does the firm dare to be different - does your firm have a unique way of doing business that inspires you?

Do you have a reputation for delivering quality, a reputation which is cultivated throughout the business?

Is there focus on what the firm does well - or do you get dragged into doing things that cannot be delivered well?

Has the management got a vision for where it wants to be?

Has your boss ever had any management training?

Do any of the senior management team have MBA qualifications?

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