In a nutshell...

This client wanted to develop the 'people expertise' of their most promising group of engineers. Like many managers, they were overly task-focused, i.e. interested in just getting the job done. Yet their roles required them to manage a diverse mix of people, expertise and interests, the effectiveness of which was crucial to the completion of projects within budget and on time. We facilitated a programme which focused on each individual's needs and skill gaps, bringing managers to realise that it is precisely by working on ourselves and our own performance that we earn the authority and develop the capacity to manage others effectively. By applying particular directions and exercises to their daily working situations, they came to discover for themselves that a ‘people-focused’ approach leads to excellence whereas the task-focused alternative will only achieve a certain level of compliance at best. The programme had a “breakthrough” effect. Significant improvements were measured in every competency that was addressed indicating that a substantial shift had taken place. Managers claimed to have discovered a more intelligent and reasonable approach which they found more motivational in terms of productivity and more effective in terms of dealing with difficult or challenging individuals. Finally, each manager expressed sincere gratitude for the transformative impact of the programme on both their professional and personal lives.

Developing Effective People Managers

Moving a team of 20 civil engineers from a technical task-driven management approach to a more engaging people-centred one.


A well-established international construction firm and engineering group.


As part of a long term initiative aimed at developing and retaining their best people, this client had decided to invest in the “People Expertise” of their most promising managers. The group consisted of 20 civil engineers, each of whom was involved in the management of substantial infrastructure projects throughout the country. Their role required them to both attend and facilitate many meetings with diverse stakeholders all with different interests and priorities. Successfully managing the interaction of expertise as well as the eclectic mix of people was crucial to the completion of the various construction projects within budget and on time. Our brief was to help this group to become better People Managers i.e. leading and communicating in a way that people will willingly follow.


The first challenge was an inherent resistance to look at the ‘people’ side of their role. While they saw it as essential to learn about the technical aspect of their profession, when it came to people expertise they had the erroneous idea that these skills would somehow be picked up in an ad-hoc way over time. In addition, this group had found people management to be particularly hard and as a result had come to believe that they had to toughen up in order to deal with ‘difficult people’ on site. Whenever they faced aggressive communication from sub contractors, trades people or labourers, their solution was to treat like with like and respond aggressively. Finally, the nature of an individual who excels as an engineer can often render them somewhat less capable when it comes to the people side of things – Design a bridge? No problem! Motivate and inspire a team of people? Well that’s a different story!


As intimated above, this group, like many managers in general, were task-focused i.e. interested in getting the job done at all costs. While getting the job done is vital and a ‘task-focused’ approach will deliver the finished product, it is often at the expense of the people involved. In other words, people feel disengaged and undervalued, their hearts and minds are not in the work resulting in a level of compliance rather than excellence. The symptoms of this approach also include high levels of absenteeism, stress, conflict and fractured relationships. It was precisely this approach that was eliciting the unhelpful behaviour from staff and stakeholders alike, making the engineers ineffective and their daily routine challenging.

The need was to move from a task-focused approach to a people-focused one. This means acknowledging the person first, managing and assisting them to develop through their work and perform at their very best. It is based on the belief that real engagement with the person will drive excellence in the tasks. It is not about giving people what they want; it is about recognising and attending to what people need in order to overcome the obstacles that are limiting their performance thus helping people to excel. This approach yields outstanding results for the staff member, the manager and the organisation as a whole. It delivers happier, stronger, braver, more motivated and more inspired people, and these people perform better across the board.

Despite the fact that a people-focused approach is what we would want for ourselves, when it comes to managing others, most of us automatically default to a task-focused approach. Why this blind spot, why don’t we manage others as we ourselves would like to be managed? Without working on ourselves, managing others is devoid of understanding and will always be based on some idea that we have to do something to people. Working on ourselves is what raises our awareness and deepens our understanding of what it takes to improve performance. It is precisely this work which lends us the authority and capacity to manage others.

What we did

We met with the client’s head of learning and development and the HR director on a number of occasions, and against the backdrop of all the difficulties that these young managers were experiencing, we teased out what the programme needed to consist of in order to bring about the necessary shift in mindset and behaviour. Moving towards a more people-focused approach required that managers focus on practicing their skills and working on themselves rather than on the acquisition of theories and technical knowledge. The whole process centred on the following four components:

  1. Understanding - Bringing the group to realise, through reflection and analysis of their own experiences, that a people-focused approach was the approach that would bring out the best in others, and was the approach that they would each want for themselves.

  2. Awareness - Raising awareness of the group’s task-based orientation in order to break certain habitual patterns and task-focused ways of working. In addition, individuals had to appreciate the negative effects of the task-focused communication style on people.

  3. Personal Development - Equipping managers with the understanding, tools and support needed to raise their self-awareness and fostering ongoing efforts in the area of their own personal development and self-mastery.

  4. Building Capacity - Developing the skills and know-how of each individual in relation to managing people and their performance.

A two-year programme

We designed a 2-year programme which consisted of both group workshops and individual coaching.  There were 12 modules which were presented over the 2-year period allowing for maximum implementation and practice in the field.

The modules were as follows:

  1. Leadership – The principles and qualities of servant leadership.
  2. Vision – The importance of vision and the need for goal setting.
  3. Discipline – Personal mastery, effectiveness and time management.
  4. Performance – Managing people and their performance.
  5. Communications – Effective interpersonal Skills
  6. Relationships – Cultivating harmonious relationships with all.
  7. Conflict – Managing difficult people.
  8. Facilitation – Effective meeting facilitation both on and off site.
  9. Coaching – Mentoring as a management style.
  10. Negotiation – Skills for dealing with management /contractors etc.
  11. Resilience – Remaining composed while working under pressure.
  12. Delegation – Effective Delegation and Decision Making.

Developing Emotional Intelligence

The programme was designed to help managers to explore their understanding of themselves and how they communicated with people at all levels in their industry. An important part of this was the development of their own emotional intelligence. Prior to the commencement of the programme each manager participated in an Emotional Intelligence profile analysis which included both self-evaluation and 360° feedback. The assessment was designed to evaluate a number of key competencies such as self-awareness, self-confidence, relationship skills, empathy, assertiveness etc. The results provided people with a good indication of their own particular development needs and were a great starting point for the programme, i.e. prior to our first meeting each individual already knew the precise areas on which they needed to place additional focus and effort. In addition, the assessment provided us with valuable insights into each individual’s current levels of understanding as well as weaknesses and blind spots that we needed to address.

Moving Beyond Comfort Zones

Workshops were all conducted using the Dialectic method, but because anything related to dealing with people was outside the normal comfort zone of this group*, we designed every workshop to include an opportunity for individuals to push their boundaries and move outside of their normal operating spheres. Whatever activities you can think of that would make an engineer feel uncomfortable, we did: we ran debates, plays, presentations, singing contests, anything that would push the group to the edge of their comfort zones. Every exercise was recorded for review and discussion during individual coaching sessions. During these exercises individuals became braver, more confident and more willing to chance things that they would never have tried before. And as expected, this translated into their dealings with people outside the training room. If they could get up and sing in front of all of their colleagues, having an engaging one-to-one meeting with a sub contractor suddenly seemed far less daunting. Most of the group claimed that after these comfort-zone sessions they were never the same.

Learning Logs - “The point of action is the point of learning”

At the start of the programme we introduced the mangers to the process of keeping a ‘Learning Log’. Between workshops and in addition to a comprehensive reading schedule, managers completed various exercises and practices relating to their work, e.g. After each implementation, they recorded what was discovered and learned as well as how the learning could be applied in the future. This logging process fostered the idea of continuous improvement as well as experience-based learning and self-reflection.

Individual Coaching

Individual Coaching sessions featured throughout the programme and were vital in terms of allowing each person to address issues that were not suited to a group setting. Sessions were conducted using appreciative enquiry which focuses on development (possibilities) and not on deficiencies (mistakes). Following the first coaching session, each manager was asked for a full and accurate report back on both failure and success, after which an action plan with precise tasks and directions was agreed. Between sessions, managers were able to contact our coaches at any time by telephone or email.

Individual Development Needs

Based on the results of the initial Emotional Intelligence analysis as well as discussions during coaching, a tailored development booklet was created for each manager. These booklets documented particular needs as well as action plans, guidelines and individualised practices for their development. The booklets also contained a simple monitoring system which allowed each engineer to assess their progress on an ongoing basis and record both successes and transgressions.


Upon completion of the programme managers re-took the initial Emotional Intelligence Assessment in order to measure the changes that had occurred over the course of the two years. Overall, increases were recorded in every single competency indicating that a significant shift had taken place in the group, a shift that was equally validated by the 360° feedback. Several months after the completion of the programme we met with each manager individually. All claimed that they had made considerable progress and each spoke of the transformative effect that the programme had had on them, both professionally and personally. Some of the effects were as follows:

  • There was a substantial improvement in people’s understanding of how they managed themselves as well as others.
  • Managers claimed to have discovered a more intelligent and reasonable approach to their communication which they found to be more motivational in terms of productivity and more effective in terms of dealing with difficult or challenging individuals.
  • Managers claimed to have discovered the importance of building and maintaining good working relationships.
  • All felt that prior to the programme, they had rarely, if ever, considered the subject of self-awareness and its impact on their behaviour and performance. While sceptical at the outset, at the end of the programme all claimed that it had been an ‘eye-opener’ and an aspect for which they were most grateful.
  • Managers felt that at the end of the programme they had come to appreciate that without self-awareness no change or improvement was possible for the development of oneself or others.
  • There was a marked improvement in the levels of confidence. All felt that changes in this area were dramatic.
  • Significant progress was made in their capacity to make presentations and to connect with their audience while at the same time demonstrate an understanding of their subject.

One of the most challenging aspects of this programme was helping the group to appreciate the importance of the ‘people’ side of their role. It was not easy to shift this but in the end each individual came to see people expertise as the master key to successful project management in the construction industry. This was a major breakthrough for many. Finally, the majority of this group were still working at the time of economic downturn despite the challenges that it presented to their industry. Last time we checked in with them, they were each making their presence felt, staying confident, fearless, taking risks and not playing small.


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