First person Are your staff happy and fulfilled? If you don’t know or don’t care, you might have to find out the hard way.
Why is it that construction industry professions are so much poorer at managing people than those of other industries? I can’t speak for all of them, of course, but an almost universal gripe from the rank and file of engineering consultancies is: “Well, their projects are really interesting and I enjoy the work, but their man-management skills are awful.” Is it because designers don’t have the right sort of brains to be managers? Are they “too creative”? Or too interested in technical issues to worry about “people” issues like managing teams, supervising staff and fostering young talent? Surely, it needn’t be so.

Professional institutions have a lot to offer, as they provide a framework for junior staff to train and acquire a qualification. Each institution operates differently, but all require that young aspirants to a qualification – whether it be chartership or associateship or licentiate or whatever – receive regular supervision by an active member of the institution. This may be in the form of a formal training agreement, with periodic submissions and checks, or it may be a less formal review system.

The Institution of Civil Engineers runs perhaps the most exacting programme, with quarterly reports demanded in some detail from graduates. This can be a source of complaints (“I thought I’d given up writing essays when I left college …”) but there is no doubt that writing a report helps to remind young engineers of lessons learned and mistakes to be avoided, and it reveals where they have yet to gain sufficient experience. Yes, it is time-consuming, particularly if put off until an end-of-year scramble. But a dedicated hour a week is not so hard to find, particularly if the working week is structured to accommodate it.

Other institutions use exams – the notoriously difficult seven-hour marathon at the Institution of Structural Engineers, for example – that require revision and practice at past papers. Here, too, the young engineers would benefit from some allocated time to study. Some companies seem reluctant to acknowledge that such a support structure is important. The argument seems to be that these new professionals should be able to organise their time to create the necessary study periods. Mmmm. The result is that appointments get missed and revision periods are squeezed into lunch-hours or pushed out to evenings. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to give them a shove in the right direction every now and again? Surely nurturing our young talent is worth an hour a week?

How often does your boss sit down and ask: “How’s it going?”, expecting a genuine answer rather than a platitude?

Then there is in-house training. Many companies state smugly that they operate “training”, “mentoring” or “development” programmes. But a fancy name doesn’t help if the programme doesn’t happen or isn’t taken seriously. How often does your boss sit down with you and ask: “How’s it going?”, expecting a genuine answer rather than a platitude? How often do you get a chance to tell it how it is, to share your worries and ambitions without your boss looking at his or her watch, making you feel that this is down there with emptying the septic tank on a list of things he or she would rather be doing? Once a year, probably, at salary review time. Or possibly late in the evening at the pub after a work event, when you’re sufficiently inebriated to vocalise all those irritants that you have been brooding about for months.

It’s not really the best method, is it? Yet those same bosses complain that they can’t find, or can’t keep, good staff. Perhaps we need to take a step back, and examine which is more important – meeting that deadline, issuing that cost plan, answering that fax, or making sure your most promising team member isn’t about to join the competition because of something trivial that has been allowed to fester.

This is as important at the highest levels as it is at junior grades. Even directors sometimes need to talk their problems through with a superior, to get some career guidance, to share resourcing difficulties, even – God forbid – to ask for help.