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Real world test for classroom theories

Management training is best undertaken in parallel with management work says 1998's Civil Engineering Manager of the Year Chris Marshall.

But you will have to spend four months in Sweden in the depths of winter.' Such was the downside to agreeing to manage a tender design for the 0resund Tunnel back in 1994. But the tender was successful, and the freezing streets of Malmo were soon forgotten.

By the end of 1995 I was responsible for a 50-strong design team and answerable to a powerful contractor client for the design of one of Europe's biggest infrastructure projects.

As we mobilised, I tried to plan the work in a serious and detailed way. I quickly became frustrated because my plans kept being changed and I was unable to predict what would happen next. It was some time before it dawned on me that constant change was not only inevitable in this environment, but perfectly healthy, signalling that creativity and innovation had not been left behind in the tender office.

Over time, I learnt that my role was to manage the apparent disorder, not to eliminate it, and that to do so, I must be prepared to tolerate uncertainty, seek to influence rather than control, and show resilience when things went wrong.

From the outset, communication was a key issue. We undertook the design work in England, placed a small liaison team in Copenhagen, and set up state-of-the-art electronic data transfer between the two. I was most often to be found somewhere in the vicinity of Gatwick Airport, bleary eyed and trying to remember whether I was on my way home or just setting off for site.

Added to the remote working, the contractor was a joint venture from five nations and the client employed consultants from three. The language barriers created the occasional hilarious misunderstanding, but also served to emphasise the importance of listening when complex ideas and information are being exchanged. I found that constantly testing for understanding was invaluable; many disputes arise because apparent agreement masks diverse interpretations of the same events.

About halfway through the project, I was offered the opportunity to study part-time for an MBA. I hesitated, partly because I didn't have time, and partly because the construction industry is still lukewarm about management qualifications. However, I decided to take on the challenge, and now - with graduation imminent - consider it one of the best decisions of my career.

The workload has been shattering at times, but the timing was right, since I was able test classroom theories in the real world more or less immediately.

My experience has persuaded me that management training is best undertaken in parallel with management work, not as a preparation for it.

Winning the Civil Engineering Manager of the Year Award was a real landmark for me, adding the perfect finishing touch to my four years on the 0resund Tunnel. Apart from being thoroughly enjoyable, the experience provided an excellent opportunity to reflect on the work I had done, and to grapple with the elusive but critically important question 'what constitutes good management?'

Chris Marshall is a regional director of Symonds Group

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