Skip to main content

The principles of workplace prosperity

Published by
World Pipelines,

Jim Frith, Director of McConnell Dowell and IPLOCA Director, East & Far East, discusses how to manage a healthy construction company through the ups and downs of a business cycle.

The construction industry is renowned for its cycles; one minute we are searching for work to keep our people challenged, the next we are searching for skilled people to deliver the volume of work on offer. ‘Feast or famine’ is a commonly used phrase.

In a growth phase, an organisation’s culture will be tested by the pressure of expansion and can become fractured. In a shrinking market, with its job insecurity and uncertainty, a company may experience instability, loss of skills and morale. In both these scenarios, the performance of an organisation (financial, quality, safety, etc.) will suffer.

A successful business is one that is able to mitigate the negative effects of change using its own unique strategies and attributes. These may include a balanced portfolio approach utilising geographic and/or capability diversity to smooth the cyclic effect, or an acquisition to facilitate expansion and a move into growth markets.

These are valid approaches, however one thing is certain, change and the negative impacts it can have on a business are devastating if poorly managed. Strong leadership and decisive management are crucial throughout these turbulent times.

As a successful pipeline constructor in Australasia and a prominent multidiscipline general contractor for more than 50 years, McConnell Dowell knows all too well the business cycle and its impact on performance. Its blueprint for success is based on three key principles. These principles have helped the company prosper through feast and famine, and can be applied to any business.

Nurturing the right culture

Every organisation, regardless of size, industry, ownership or structure, has its own unique culture. It is a distinctive mix of attitudes, behaviours, expectations and beliefs that define it – concisely described as ‘how things are done around here’. Some organisations have mastered the complexities of culture and proactively nurture it; while others let it evolve naturally and, well, hope for the best!

McConnell Dowell understands that during turbulent times, it has been and will continue to be its culture, and the attitude and behaviours of its employees, that will ensure the group’s continued success.

For example, to address a contracting market in Australia in 2013, McConnell Dowell launched a major initiative called ‘mobilising optimism’, a proactive programme to re-engage its employees and ignite positivity throughout the organisation. The initiative started with a review of what the group calls its cultural platform: its vision, purpose, values and behaviours.

Engaging a cross section of employees from all parts of the group, this review was undertaken to ensure it had the same meaning and relevance regardless of who you were or your role in the company: The vision statement was tested and revised to the aspirational: ‘to be leaders in infrastructure development.’

The purpose statement was revised to the outward looking and externally focused: ‘building better communities through safe, smart, and efficient infrastructure.’

The values and behaviours were refreshed and restated as five strong verbs: ‘lead, grow, deliver, sustain and protect.’ These values capture the essence of what McConnell Dowell does and how it achieves this across every dimension of its business. The group also developed its ‘value compass’ as a simple, visual tool to help communicate and reinforce this message.

However, establishing a relevant cultural platform was only the first step. Crucial to any shift in workplace culture is visible leadership backed up by consistent communication and activity around that platform.

An internal launch by the group’s Chief Executive Officer, an executive roadshow to all offices, and a renamed and re-launched internal employee magazine and intranet underpinned the initiative. The group incorporated its values in its annual business planning process that, together with a revision to all its internal and external marketing collateral, delivered the message out to all corners of the business. As a result, the group’s corporate communications are now clearer and more consistent, helping engage its employees and build a positive narrative around the future of the company.

To continue the momentum McConnell Dowell is developing a new employee reward and recognition programme called the MVPs (standing for McConnell Dowell values programme, but a nice play on most valuable player) and revising its employee performance management programme to embrace these values in staff key performance indicators.

Despite the current tough business conditions, the shift in attitude and behaviour has been very positive with internal surveys showing a marked improvement in its staff’s engagement and alignment with the company’s culture, purpose and future direction. This bodes well for any tough times ahead.

Ensuring organisational simplicity

Agility and flexibility are primary attributes of today’s successful organisations; an organisation that adapts and change the quickest will be the most likely to prosper.

While there are numerous contributors to organisational agility and flexibility, McConnell Dowell believes that a fundamental ingredient is an appropriate organisational structure. Nothing hinders agility and flexibility more than a complex organisation that negatively impacts team and individual clarity, accountability and responsiveness.

As a company with over 50 years of continuous operations, McConnell Dowell has been through numerous structural changes. From discipline based to regional based to matrix, the group has experienced all types of structures and understands what works and what does not.

While there is no universal right or wrong answer to structure, the underlying principle is to keep it as simple as you can, regardless of the phase of the business cycle you are in.

Single lines of reporting, minimal layers top-to-bottom and clearly articulated individual and team accountabilities are the group’s fundamental ingredients of a simple organisation.

And one final thing on structure, as a company expands and contracts through the cycles, it is often tempting to make structural changes in response. McConnell Dowell’s advice is that wherever possible, flex and change the skill levels and resources within the current structure to meet the market, not the structure itself. Keep it simple but also keep it stable.

Written by Jim Frith, Director of McConnell Dowell and IPLOCA Director, East & Far East and edited by Elizabeth Corner. This article was published in full in the August 2015 issue of World Pipelines. To read the full article, click here.

Part 2 coming soon.

Read the article online at:

You might also like


Embed article link: (copy the HTML code below):