5 Minutes with Sue Willcock, CITB Construction Ambassador and Author of 'Help I'm a Manager'

Introduced by Collingwood's Consultancy Director Jennifer Jones, Mark Goldsmith jumped at the chance to meet with Sue Willcock, who works in Operations and Business Development at Griffiths Groundworks. Mark was keen to discuss how the construction and building product markets have changed throughout her years in the industry. Sue's worked in the construction and property sector for over 20 years, having originally qualified as a chartered surveyor. Since then she's held a partner position at EC Harris and set up her own people development consultancy in 2009, working with clients such as Faithful & Gould, Arcadis, BSkyB, European Land & Property and The Design Council CABE. Having designed and managed development programmes for over 400 people, Sue wrote her first book in 2016, ‘Help, I’m A Manager’ for those moving from a technical role to a management role for the first time.

Mark: ‘Help I’m a manager’ has received great reviews since being published in the spring of last year. What drove you to write a book on the subject of becoming an effective manager?

Sue: After many years of working in and around professional services (predominantly in the construction and property sector) I was running some large management development programmes and it struck me that I often got asked the same questions by people who had been promoted because they were technically great but had little or no management experience. As ‘qualified professionals’ I think many felt they should not be asking questions and that they should simply ‘know this stuff’. I wrote the book to be the 'friend in their back pocket' as they made the transition and to help answer the common questions people are often afraid to ask. 

Mark: Much of the book highlights areas to develop and concentrate on. What common mistakes do you see manifesting in new managers specific to the construction/building products market? 

Sue: I see an awful lot of managers trying to just fit their new role around their existing responsibilities (which are often fee earning or client-focused roles) which means they very quickly end up swamped in ‘stuff’ to do as they try to please their clients/customers and their teams. They often don't take stock to realise they have a new role. In the book, I mention ‘leverage’ as being a key thing to consider when you take on a management role – your job is to leverage your impact through a team. I also see people simply not realising that just like any job, management takes time to learn. The first talk you give to your team might not be worthy of a TED recording. And that’s OK.

Mark: Succession planning and development of staff are still main issues and topics of conversation in the construction sector. Are there any particular tools or techniques you have seen work well? 

Sue: For me, whatever framework you might have in place as an organisation, the fundamental relationship to make succession planning and development effective is the one between the line manager and the team member. Of course, it’s hugely important to have the right culture in place, but if you develop and support line managers and team members so they are having the right conversations, the magic can happen! Put simply, line managers are the conduit: If they know the direction of the business (i.e. what is required going forward in terms of technical knowledge and desired behaviours) and they are simultaneously working with team members on their aspirations, then matching the two is made a lot easier at a local level.  The most complicated framework in the world will never replace people talking to each other and building relationships.

Mark: A huge, ongoing debate in the construction and building products industry has been how to attract youngsters into an area that is not always seen as the most attractive. Have you any insights into this based on your own experience? 

Sue: My own observation is that young people don’t seem to know the plethora of different careers within our sector and that the diversity of what we do makes it difficult to articulate. There are all sorts of assumptions made about it being about ‘muddy boots’ when we all know that working on-site is just one area of our industry. Despite being a sector that has a track record in supporting social mobility, it also feels like we often get overlooked by parents when they encourage their children into one profession or another. 

From a personal perspective, working as a volunteer in girl guiding, I know that girls need much more encouragement to see opportunities for them in construction and other STEM subjects. I’ve had girls as young as 7 tell me that “ladies don’t work on building sites” when at home I have a 5-year-old daughter who loves driving past sites and watching them change. 

GoConstruct, funded by the CITB levy, is doing a tremendous job at the moment in trying to reach out to young people and there are lots of mentoring programmes, such as the CITB Ambassador programme that is also helping. I’m training to be an Ambassador now and would encourage others to do the same.

I believe one thing we can all do, is to remember the small stuff – how we talk about what we do to our own children, or cousins, nieces, nephews and other adults. 

Do we make our sector sound exciting and relate it to the bigger picture? Do we say that we were ‘on-site looking at foundations’ or that we were ‘helping to regenerate an area to make it a better place to live’? 

undefined Sue Willcock, Dip Proj Man (RICS) MBA (Construction and Real Estate)

Sue's book Help, I'm a Manager is available to buy from Amazon.