In My Opinion: Chartered Management Institute

Chartered Management Institute Companion John McDonough, group CEO of Carillion, on creating effective project management teams.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The dictionary defines a project as a 'planned undertaking'. Therefore, any endeavour becomes a project if we create a plan for its delivery.

Having spent many years in the automotive industry before joining Carillion, I've learnt a great deal about project management, and the leadership qualities and skills needed to be a successful project manager.

Delivering the required output on time and to budget is the headline objective of any project. The skills required to be a successful manager depend on the nature of the project. But the ability to lead and command the respect of a large and often multi-disciplinary team is fundamental. It is a controversial truth that in the past, engineers had something of a reputation for being more interested in building things than in making a profit. This is a luxury our industry cannot afford, and today our project managers must be good business people too.

At Carillion, project management has changed dramatically over the past decade or so, as the scope of our services has widened and contract periods have become longer. We still undertake large, complex construction contracts for public and private-sector customers, which typically take up to three years to complete and for which we require project managers with specialist skills. But the growth of our infrastructure management and support services activities, where contracts tend to be longer (five to 10 years), has required the development of different project management skills.

The biggest driver of change has been the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), which has brought the need for a new set of skills and leadership qualities. Providing integrated solutions that use all our skills and resources is key to Carillion's strategy, and PFI offers the opportunity to do just that.

It requires the integration of project finance, design, construction, maintenance and facilities management, typically over contract periods of 25 to 30 years.

Recruiting and developing people with the leadership skills to manage the integration of such a wide range of activities and produce high-quality solutions with the lowest whole-life costs is our greatest challenge.

Project managers need to understand these activities and how they interact in order to identify the risks attendant on every aspect of the project.

The risks can then be allocated to whoever in the supply chain is best placed to manage them.

The emphasis then switches to managing the supply chain and to ensuring that we have the appropriate processes in place at every management level, up to the main board. If we don't have the right calibre of people available to lead a project, we will not bid.

We have learnt from bitter experience that no matter how attractive a project might be, without first-class people to manage it, the chances are it will end in tears. Stopping a bid can also be difficult once it has gathered momentum, unless we have strong managers and clear criteria underpinning our decision-making. Taking action to correct problems once a project is up and running is easier with a good project management team in place, backed by robust management processes.

Project managers are also a key interface with customers. It is important for them to see a project through from inception to the point where construction is complete and the facility is operational, with our support services function performing to the customer's satisfaction. This enables us to build strong customer relationships, which are vital to winning the order and delivering the project successfully.

But there is one more vital ingredient: the right culture throughout the business. Traditionally, construction companies have had a very different culture from that required to be a successful support services company. At Carillion, we have been working to deliver major cultural change. This is not about forgetting our construction skills and heritage, which includes many landmark projects, such as the Channel Tunnel, the Thames Barrage and, more recently, the new Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham.

But if we are to fulfil our vision of being the leader in providing integrated solutions for buildings, infrastructure and services, we need to see things through the eyes of our customers and to design solutions that meet their demands. Three years ago, we began a programme to embed our core values of openness, collaboration, mutual dependency, innovation, professional delivery and focus on sustainable profitable growth, right across our business. In short, we had to learn how to really live our values every day and in everything we do.

Changing the culture of an organisation is one of the hardest leadership challenges of all. It must be led from the top, and everyone in leadership positions must follow that lead. This will always be 'work in progress' as we recruit new people and continue to raise the bar. But we believe the progress we have made is helping us build real brand value, win more orders and deliver tangible bottom-line benefits.


John McDonough is group chief executive of Carillion. He was formerly vice-president, Integrated Facilities Management for Europe, the Middle East and Africa of Johnson Controls Inc. He was appointed Carillion's CEO in January 2001 and is a member of the CBI's Public Services Strategy Board. He is also a non-executive director of Exel.

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