Learning lessons from the past and mastering the art of conversation are key to success for construction and civil engineering professionals
It’s 1980. I’m in the first year of my civil engineering degree at Hatfield Polytechnic.
All the books on the reading list are beyond me, though I’m intrigued by three in the Transportation module:
- Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and others
- Small is Beautiful by E F Schumacher
- A Guide for the Perplexed also by Schumacher
I diligently struggle through all three, thinking: “What’s all this got to do with civil engineering?” and passed the lecturer off as some old hippie. How wrong I was.
Recently, I listened to a BBC R4 Great Lives production (available on the Sounds app) where inspirational economist Kate Raworth talks about the life of environmental scientist and systems thinker Donella Meadows.
Apparently, it turns out that what she and her colleagues postulated 50 years ago in Limits to Growth was a pretty accurate prediction of the world since and particularly now. And it’s very much about civil engineering.
From memory, much of what Schumacher set out in Small is Beautiful is being put forward today as contributions towards achieving net zero and how society might operate better. I remain perplexed about his other book on the reading list.
All this got me thinking about the books I would recommend if I was a civil engineering or construction lecturer now.
If you were one of my students, you’d have to read Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. She talks about how economics theories, still taught today and informing economic policies, are 200 years out of date.
She eloquently puts forward an alternative for living within the finite boundaries of our planet’s resources, while at the same time ensuring all populations have enough of the essentials for a decent life – the outer and inner rings of the “doughnut” respectively. It’s a challenging and uplifting read – there is hope.
Then there’s the excellent The Song of Significance by Seth Godin. He writes about outdated industrial era management where telling, command, control, surveillance and compliance remain the default approach. Godin also puts forward his manifesto for change.
He admits it’s a bit of a rant, though beautifully articulates the mission I’ve been ranting about for more than 20 years.
If you have spent any time in the construction industry, a lot of what Godin says will ring true. And if you were one of my students, I’d be challenging you to change things for the better as you go up the ladder.
I’m recommending this book to all the leaders I am working with because it supports what they are trying to do.
Engaging in conversation
And finally, I’m going to humbly recommend my latest book to you. In our networked and highly connected world, you can’t really achieve anything on your own. To achieve something, you have to have conversations.
Your effectiveness at work and in life is a function of how you have conversations. If you tell people what to do and how to do it, they will stop thinking for themselves and wait for orders.
This approach is not scalable and very soon you will be frustrated, shouty and stressed out; probably just like the managers around you.
There is a better way of having conversations, a way that leads to better results all round and when scaled will change the industry from the ground up.
Coaching is the art of conversations and my book, Coach for Results,explains the essentials of a coaching style of management.
Conversations are foundational to success and this is the way forward, according to Godin and many others – you don’t have to take my word for it.
Coaching is commonplace in many parts of the world and in many sectors, though not yet in UK construction. My mission is to change that and, in doing so, change the industry for the better.
Note of caution – beware of so-called coaches who tell you what to do, make suggestions and give you advice. They are probably well intentioned, though it’s not coaching and somehow, deep down, you know it’s not working for you. No one likes being told what to do.
So, the world has changed since I was at Hatfield Poly, and largely as predicted by Meadows et al in Limits to Growth. Forty years has got behind us, that’s done.
Looking forward, there’s much to do for us civil engineers and constructors. I’m most interested in how we do it and in giving you, my would-be student, something bigger to think about than the technical stuff taught in your other classes, just like my lecturer did with me all those years ago.
Call me an old hippie at your peril!
Dave Stitt FCIOB is a chartered civil engineer, and professional certified coach at DSA Building Performance.