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What makes a manager?

A good civil engineering manager is hard to define. Ahead of the NCE-backed ICE Civil Engineering Manager of the Year Award, Symonds Group director Chris Marshall, winner in 1998 for managing the 0resund immersed tube tunnel, gives his view.

When I first encountered management work, my impression was that the key tasks of the manager were planning, monitoring the work of others and control.

Indeed, some of my earliest managerial mistakes were founded on just these assumptions, as I planned and monitored a project to death while it inexplicably careered over budget and out of control.

I have since learnt that while necessary, planning is but a small element of the manager's task.

Ours is a project-dominated industry. Projects come and go.

They start and stop, often without warning. They are subject to constant change and, most troublesome of all, they are all different, so we never leave the steep bit of the learning curve.

As a result, management work in civil engineering is by its nature untidy and disjointed. A typical manager's day consists not of lengthy periods of reflection and analysis, but of an endless stream of incoming information, interruptions, changing priorities, small and large crises and, relentlessly, pressure to make decisions and move on.

Rather than get despondent when order refuses to emerge out of the chaos, the smart manager learns to tolerate unpredictability and to operate effectively even when nothing will stay still for long enough to think about it.

What skills, then, are needed to survive in this environment?

Really good managers in my experience are crystal clear in their objectives yet expect and even welcome uncertainty and disorder in their day to day work.

The best managers set a clear agenda, yet always exhibit resilience in the face of setbacks - after all, they know there are going to be plenty of these.

Good managers realise that complex and challenging objectives are seldom reached without first building an effective team, often comprising participants from several organisations.

Team building is much harder than beginners in the art would imagine, and depends on playing to everyone's strengths, being prepared to share both success and blame, and establishing trust. Really good teams with a strong common purpose cannot be created instantly.

Finally, good managers understand the art of influence - that taking the time and effort to win people round is nearly always more effective than issuing edicts.

Central to effective influence is the much underrated skill of listening. The best managers are constantly trying to imagine what it is like to be in the other person's shoes, regardless of the other's role and status.

Where, then, can the industry find these paragons, these exceptional individuals who can build teams, live with uncertainty, and make things happen despite the torrent of distraction and disruption around them?

My own view is that there is no shortage of suitable individuals within civil engineering today.

If as an industry we can recognise that management is difficult, but like any other skill it can be learnt through experience, coaching and training, then we can develop the managers we need to meet challenges of the future.

Path to success This year's award will adopt a slightly different format from the past to encourage the busiest and best civil engineering managers to enter. The judging process will be as follows:

Candidates put forward, with brief explanation and citation, why they should be the 2001 ICE Civil Engineering Manager of the Year. Closing date for entries is 30 June.

Judges shortlist the best dozen candidates by the end of July who will then be asked to prepare a more detailed citation about their methods, achievements and projects.

Finalists announced in mid October in advance of the Awards final on 22 November The final will see the best candidates present to and be questioned by the judging panel.

The winner is announced on the day.

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