Leighton Contractors case study

In 2010, Leighton Contractors invested in a customised development program through Melbourne Business School-Mt Eliza Executive Education. The program represents a major effort to develop a new generation of leaders committed to ‘passion, integrity, courage and care’.

"We conducted an enormous amount of due diligence to select a strong business school we could partner with and grow with. We were very impressed with MBS-Mt Eliza’s strong track record in leadership, especially in aligning leadership to business performance.’

Jane Sherlock
General Manager |People and Capability
Leighton Contractors

The company

With more than AU$13 billion of work in hand, Leighton Contractors is one of Australia’s most recognised, diverse and established industry leaders.

On any given day, the company engages more than 25,000 employees and subcontractors across Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Africa to deliver projects in the infrastructure, mining, telecommunications, civil construction, industrial, energy, health and other services sectors.

Leighton Contractors is a diversified company with a variety of businesses. Building billion-dollar civil infrastructure projects; mining iron ores and precious metals; delivering alternative energy sources; arranging funding for infrastructure; and providing sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure and expertise is all part of a typical day.

With a new core purpose of building trust with clients and ensuring positive outcomes for communities and people, the company is transforming its image through a fresh culture driven by ‘doing the right thing’.

Designed with a specific focus on the company’s unique context, the program aims to complement Leighton Contractors’ traditional results-oriented focus with strong leadership based on values and behaviours.

‘We know that our leaders drive behaviours throughout the company,’ says Leighton Contractors’ Jane Sherlock, General Manager, People and Capability, from the head office in Sydney. ‘In turn, this builds our culture, which translates into the performance we expect across our business.’

After an in-depth discovery and design process, the ASCENT Leadership Development Program (ASCENT Program) commenced in 2011.

Discovery and design

Michael Curtin, Principal Consultant for MBS-Mt Eliza, has partnered with Leighton Contractors since 2010, consulting through each of the program’s phases—discovery and design; delivery; and impact.

‘It’s important to conduct an in-depth discovery before you even think about the design,’ he says. ‘The first step is understanding what’s really going on in the organisation and its business context.’

Michael formed a close partnership with Rachel Laws, Group Manager, Organisational Capability for Leighton Contractors. Together, they undertook 10 months of research and exploration, before jointly designing the ASCENT Program.

‘At the surface level, the discovery process is examining issues such as strategy, and the various people and leadership policies,’ Michael explains. ‘But at a more nuanced level, it’s really trying to understand, What is the culture? What are the leadership values?  What are the strengths and deficits within those?’

In such a large company, understanding stakeholder impact is crucial. ‘Rachel and I needed to hear from as many people as possible,’ Michael says. ‘We conducted extensive interviews across Leighton Contractors, facilitated forums with potential participants and spoke with customers.’

The team established three core goals as the foundation for the ASCENT Program: leadership that makes a difference; strategic mindset; and creating commercial value.


In 2012, the first cohort of 20 participants from across Australia and New Zealand undertook the ASCENT Program in Sydney. The program spans an entire calendar year and includes three five-day residential modules.

‘The modular format allows on-the-job learning alongside actual practical implementation,’ says Jane. ‘There’s a very strong collaboration with MBS-Mt Eliza and many of our executive leadership team are involved as well.’

Michael and Rachel jointly lead program facilitation throughout the 12-month delivery. Guest speakers also present on the program, including Leighton Contractors executives, and external leadership and strategy experts.

Participants undertake activities in local communities, classroom-based learning, practical activities, academic lectures, coaching and mentoring, and group work.

‘Consolidating the learning back in the workplace is fundamental,’ says Michael. ‘We employ a wide range of psychometric tools to support learning, and participants work on strategic projects throughout the year, both on program and between modules.’

The design incorporates Thread, an online learning platform developed by MBS-Mt Eliza that fosters networking across continents and ensures ongoing teamwork across the strategic projects.

‘We refer to Thread as a “learning ecosystem”,’ says Michael. ‘It delivers materials and content to participants, but it’s also highly interactive and allows learning that revolves around specific areas of interest. It’s serving the need very well.’

A further design strength is real-world translation. ‘ASCENT is centred absolutely in the culture, practice and behaviour of Leighton Contractors,’ explains Michael. ‘When the participants engage in the program, they know this is not an academic program coming from the outside; it’s very practical and real within their culture.’

‘Our participants find the program extremely rewarding,’ agrees Jane. ‘They enjoy the exposure to different theories and learning how values-based behaviours can really enhance our industries’ more traditional focus on strategy and commercial risk.’


‘The first iteration was a great success,’ says Jane. ‘The executive leadership team has seen significant behavioural change and competency development among the cohort.’

Of the first cohort of 20 participants, Jane reports that 11 have already moved into broader management roles, including general management positions. She also notes increased performance, stronger strategy orientation and greater communication across the company.

‘We’re a diverse company. More than ever, it’s not just what we do, but how we do it that matters,’ Jane explains. ‘Through this program, we’re driving collaboration and forging essential deep relationships across our businesses.

‘Last year’s participants have developed strategic and commercial capability that will really support our people, our business and the communities we work in. Strategically, this program enables us to build a pipeline of leaders who can meet our current and long-term challenges.’

In 2013, a second cohort is benefiting from a further refined ASCENT Program. ‘Program design is never stagnant; we evolve based on impact,’ Michael emphasises. ‘We’re implementing lessons learned and further accentuating the leadership and strategic mindset elements.’

‘It’s been a fantastic partnership between MBS-Mt Eliza and Leighton Contractors,’ Jane reflects. ‘We work together and we’ve learnt together what works and what we can improve.

‘The ASCENT Program is a core part of our leadership capability framework.’