McConnell Dowell is building its people to lead major growth
Melbourne Business School is helping one of the region's most innovative construction companies develop the next generation of leaders.
Business is good at McConnell Dowell, which calls itself the 'Creative Construction Company' because of its ability to find solutions to just about any engineering challenge.
Founded in New Zealand in 1961, the engineering-led company has built thousands of quality assets and facilities for its customers, from remote resources and energy projects to city-shaping infrastructure.
Its expertise has grown to span building, civil, electrical, fabrication, marine, mechanical, pipelines, rail, tunnel and underground construction.
To keep up with delivering projects across Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific and Southeast Asia, McConnell Dowell has recruited heavily, but success has also brought a new challenge – ensuring it has enough leaders to manage its workforce effectively.
"We've tripled in size over the last three or four years, and the demand that places upon leadership is immense," says CEO Scott Cummins.
"We have never, ever had such a demand for leadership in our organisation in its history."
In order to develop the next generation of leaders from within its own ranks, McConnell Dowell partnered with Melbourne Business School to create two custom leadership programs for its senior and operational leaders.
Understanding the business
Creating two programs that complemented each other, for leaders at different levels who worked on diverse projects in multiple regions, was a significant challenge, says James Yorston, who designs and delivers custom programs for organisations at Melbourne Business School.
Tackling that challenge began by understanding the organisation, the situation it was facing and its overall goals.
"One of MBS's core ways to work is really understanding the context of the organisation. So we sat with the group CEO and the executive team, one-on-one, for up to an hour, just really understanding where the business is, where it wants to be."
By collaborating closely, the partners created a program to help senior leaders think and work together, and another for the company’s operational leaders, who must deliver projects on time and within budget in an industry with very tight profit margins and safety standards.
Executive General Manager Steve Collett says many participants describe their experience on the programs as "game-changing".
"When I go and interact with participants on those programs, they're often pretty exhausted," he says.
"They've gone through a really intense process, but have a real sense of euphoria, a real sense that this is game-changing for them in the way they work and will be game-changing for their teams and game-changing for the business."
The Senior Leadership Program has been delivered to around 60 leaders in three two-day blocks. The Operational Leadership Program consists of a week of intensive learning and has been delivered to almost 80 leaders.
Learning to lead growth
For Katrina Dodd, who is McConnell Dowell's General Manager Engineering – Australia, her program was an opportunity to learn how senior leaders can deal with rapid growth.
"A lot of the course is helping us prepare for change and giving us tools to enable us to move with the times, which is really important with growing together and the speed that the company is still proposing to grow at for the next little while," she says.
Katrina's colleague Thomas Gill, who is Group Engineering Services Manager in Singapore, says the program helped him build relationships with colleagues across the organisation.
"I've met people that, in my usual line of work, I wouldn't have the opportunity to meet," he says.
"We've created a working group out of a few like-minded individuals that we've come across through our sharing of our adaptive challenges, where we can actually see ways we can help each other overcome those challenges in the workplace."
Sara Paris, General Manager Human Resources – New Zealand, says one of the main benefits of the Senior Leadership Program is the connection it provides to other people who've been on the program before her.
"I think this is the third cohort that has gone through," she says.
"So we’re all speaking the same language within four different business units, that within itself has massive value. It makes you strive and get out of your comfort zone as a leader."
The biggest takeaway for Project Engineer Michelle Zhao was learning new ways to get things done.
"I think that's been really a good experience on the Melbourne Business School Operational Leadership Program because what they've given us is not only the theory and the fluff around leadership but also some useful and practical skills."
Developing a leadership network
Mr Yorston says seeing participants apply what they've learned, connect with other leaders and make an impact on McDonnell Dowell as a whole is very gratifying.
"This is about me connecting with other humans and really building that network, and that's what’s going to see you continue to move through the program in the organisation," he says.
"A series of programs that started at a senior leadership level five years ago has now moved into another whole level of cohort with the operational leaders. Now that’s a testament. You don’t keep doing something if it’s not adding value.”
From his perspective as a CEO, Mr Cummins says the program has become an important part of the company's overall leadership development strategy.
"While we can recruit from the outside, there's nothing more pleasurable and satisfying than developing within," he says.
"Everyone we bring into the organisation, we want to use all the tools available to us to develop our leaders. The Melbourne Business School is one of those tools. It’s an ingredient in the mix."