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Bridging the gap from managing to leading projects

Driving better outcomes through projects

Mark Vella, NSW Operations Manager for LendLease shares how he is working with his teams and clients differently to support better outcomes in projects

Building bridges of the concrete and steel kind is arguably the more straightforward aspect of Mark Vella’s job. It’s the more conceptual spanning of often competing interests in the major infrastructure projects he leads that highlights his combined capabilities as a technical project manager and a project leader.

As New South Wales Operations Manager for property and infrastructure giant Lendlease, Vella is responsible for targeting and securing multimillion-dollar government contracts to construct major infrastructure projects in New South Wales, and then staffing, leading and successfully delivering on them. The three he’s currently managing – two upgrades to The Northern Road in Sydney’s west and one to the Pacific Highway in the north of the state – are worth a combined total of $1.2 billion and involve around 700 project participants.

Vella brings significant experience to his role, with degrees including a Master of Engineering Management and more than 15 years’ experience managing major construction initiatives at both project and governance levels. So he was initially surprised to be nominated by his employer to participate in the Executive Leadership in Major Projects (ELMP) program offered by the University of Sydney’s John Grill Centre for Project Leadership.

“I entered the program with solid ideas about what I knew from my own experience,” Vella explains. “I thought, ‘Well, I know what works for me and what doesn’t, so I’ll just keep doing what does.’ But the program really backfilled that knowledge and joined the dots for me, so I could start to understand why those things work.”

The effect of this, he says, was not only to strengthen his own capabilities as a project leader but also to enhance his ability to lead others.

Leading project teams

“A big part of my role is developing younger or less experienced members of my teams into leaders,” he explains. “For example, I’m currently leading a first-time project leader who is leading a team of 200 people. They’re his team, not mine, but as part of my role I’ll support and empower him to develop his leadership skills as well as his own style of leadership. I was already doing that, but now I can explain with a lot more clarity why I’m suggesting what I suggest.

There’s a lot more depth now to my ability to lead other people. The program has given me the language, the tools and the techniques to have effective conversations.”

Supporting clients to serve their communities better

But perhaps the most significant flow-on effect of Vella’s participation in the ELMP program has been on the clients he serves, and therefore ultimately on the communities affected by the projects he delivers. “All of my clients are government clients,” he explains, “and I see their challenge in terms of needing to balance the wishes of the community at three basic levels.

“The first level is the local community – those people who are directly affected by their close proximity to a project. These people might be unhappy because, for example, what was once rural land is now being repurposed for a major highway, and they don’t want that change in land use. They might also be unhappy about the construction impacts associated with the project itself.

“Then there’s the second level, which is the regional community that will benefit from having the new highway, and the third level, which is the broader state or even national community. These people might all be happy about the project because it will mean safer, faster and more efficient travel into the city centre or between cities or towns.

“Each of these views is valid – there’s no single view that’s right. People close to the project are right to be concerned that it will change the dynamic of their area, and people in those outer regions deserve to be able to get to work quickly, safely, efficiently and cheaply. I feel for all of these people. They are different communities in different circumstances, and so they have different wishes.

“It’s good for me as the project leader to now have a much broader perspective on these concerns that my clients need to balance, so that I can better support them in determining holistically what is the best outcome overall.”

Developing teams and understanding your own leadership style

Vella attributes his leadership success to his genuine interest in the people around him. “I come from a close family, and I have a lot of close friends,” he says, “and I think that spills over into my work. The person I am outside work is the same person I am at work. I’m very interested in my team members – I get a kick out of watching them succeed.”

To help them do so, he has been sharing with them some of the experiential learning techniques used in the ELMP program, including one illustrating just how different various people’s perspectives can be.

“In one session they took us all to the art gallery and got each of us to choose an artwork and write a haiku about it,” Vella says. “That was a challenge in itself, because most of the people in the program were engineers, and engineers can’t write! Then we each put our haiku in a box, and someone else had to pull it out and read it and try to identify which artwork it was about. It was a beautiful example of the different perspectives that can exist when people are looking at and talking about the exact same thing.

“That was an important session for me, because I think leadership is essentially about understanding other perspectives and finding commonalities. So an activity like this makes you ask yourself, ‘Am I really seeing and understanding the perspectives of the others in my team? And am I getting my own message across the way I intend to?’

“So we did the same activity with some of our people [at Lendlease], and they found it a really valuable learning experience.” Other activities saw program participants learn about transfer of power from a judo expert, about military leadership from an Army specialist, and about bringing together different musicians to play a complex jazz piece from someone from the Conservatorium of Music.

Of his own organisation, Vella says: “At LendLease our vision is to create the best places, and effective project leadership is at the very heart of this. In an ever-increasingly complex and rapidly changing world, the ELMP program has given me the tools to be become a better project leader.”

Executive Leadership in Major Projects (ELMP) program  

Organisations nominate their high performing project professionals to join the nine-month program to build their capability in leading major projects. The program has been running for four years with the next intake in August 2018.

The ELMP program combines instruction from expert practitioners with case studies, coaching and peer collaboration to provide an immersive education for experienced executives seeking to develop themselves as robust leaders of business-defining major projects. While Mark Vella was open to meeting and sharing experiences with likeminded people, he wasn’t immediately convinced that the program itself would be directly applicable to his role. “My initial fear was that it would be highly theoretical,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘I stand in front of 150 people at work, leading them through sessions on safety and other practical aspects of project management – what could Sydney Uni teach me about that?’”

Nevertheless, he accepted the opportunity – and was quickly glad he did. “In fact, what I found was that the program had struck a couple of rich veins with respect to project leadership,” he says. “The centre have developed a robust experiential learning approach, which is then linked back to the theory behind those experiences, and then on to real case studies shared by successful leaders and mentors from a wide range of spheres external to the University, who’d learnt these lessons through their own experience of projects.”

This multidimensional and highly practical approach struck a chord with the pragmatically minded Vella, who, despite having attained his Master’s degree by research, describes himself as “not overly academic”. “The fact that these people hadn’t learnt what they knew from a textbook – that they’d learnt it themselves in their respective industries through a long process of trial and error – really appealed to me,” he says.

The result was a far greater sense of perspective and clarity in his role as a leader of major projects, which in turn has led to a series of associated flow-on benefits to the people he leads, the clients he serves and ultimately the communities his projects affect.