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ACEC panel explores how best to develop future leaders

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by LINDSEY COLE

A diverse panel of both young professionals and seasoned engineers, at the recent ACEC summit, provided different perspectives about the development of future industry leaders.

Alana Gauthier, a manager of industrial engineering with WSP Canada and Andy Robinson, chair of Robinson Consultants Inc., made up a diverse, multi-generational panel who spoke about leadership during the recent Association of Consulting Engineering Companies Canada (ACEC) summit in Niagara Falls, Ont. Not pictured are Christine Harries, a junior engineer in structural building design with SNC-Lavalin Inc. and Michael Walker, who works as project manager with McElhanney Consulting Services Ltd.
Alana Gauthier, a manager of industrial engineering with WSP Canada and Andy Robinson, chair of Robinson Consultants Inc., made up a diverse, multi-generational panel who spoke about leadership during the recent Association of Consulting Engineering Companies Canada (ACEC) summit in Niagara Falls, Ont. Not pictured are Christine Harries, a junior engineer in structural building design with SNC-Lavalin Inc. and Michael Walker, who works as project manager with McElhanney Consulting Services Ltd. - Photo: LINDSEY COLE

The panel was asked to answer the question: How can firms create a business culture that will foster the necessary leadership skills to drive this transformation and ensure long-term success?

Alana Gauthier, a manager of industrial engineering with WSP Canada, explained to the audience, at the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies Canada (ACEC) annual event, that leadership skills involve passion, trust, a willingness to make decisions, take on responsibility as well as the ability to network, communicate and be innovative.

"We like people to be thinking outside the box," she said. "We want to act with integrity. It's super important that you treat everyone with respect."

WSP, she said, encourages their employees to "design their own career path. If you tell us how you want to get there, we can help you form that path."

This help can come in the form of mentorships.

"We have mentoring of people at similar levels, so that managers can talk to other managers...and we do a lot of mentoring of upcoming YPs (Young Professionals)," she said. "When you're trying to go after a project that you have no experience in at all, within two or three phone calls you're talking to the person who's done it before and knows how it works."

This message was echoed by Christine Harries, a junior engineer in structural building design with SNC-Lavalin Inc. who emphasized the importance of multi-generational teams.

"There's a wealth of knowledge that the more senior engineers have. As they retire, if there isn't a significant effort and planning that's put into transferring that knowledge from the seasoned, experienced senior engineers, to the more junior engineers, we're going to have a gap," she stated.

"That would be detrimental and bad for the whole consulting engineering profession."

She said initiatives such as "lunch and learns" as well as co-op programs can benefit both companies and employees.

"For firms that invest in co-op programs, not only are they benefiting from this four month interview process while the student is on their internships, they are starting their learning curve early," she said.

"They're also letting students see if this is the type of role that (they) want to do."

Andy Robinson, chair of Robinson Consultants Inc., says it also comes down to keeping employees happy, be it through personal interaction and feedback, or by making sure there are certain perks.

"We must keep our people motivated. There is a lot of movement in our industry," he stated.

"Be ahead of the curve with employee benefits and perks. We can't afford not to do it. If we don't provide them, we're going to lose some of our best people at critical times."

Figuring out what people want and getting to know them are important elements to Michael Walker, a project manager with McElhanney Consulting Services Ltd.

"We are a business of people. We don't sell widgets, we sell people. We sell relationships. We need to know who our people are, so that we can sell them appropriately," he explained.

"Not everyone is going to be senior management, not everyone wants to be senior management, but that doesn't mean they can't be a leader in their own right."

He told the audience that if a YP is moving to another firm, it isn't just always about more money.

"Generally, if they're saying that, they're moving because of management. They just won't tell you because odds are you're management," he said.

Summer internships, being part of an association, as well as "celebrating wins," can all foster a successful business culture within a firm, he suggested.

Overall, strong leadership, Walker said, means "approachable leadership. If the young professional wants to ask you a question but they're maybe too intimidated then that's a missed opportunity."

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