Face-to-face: Elaine McKenna, EC Harris

Elaine McKenna epitomises the progressive face of construction

Elaine McKenna.
Elaine McKenna.

Elaine McKenna epitomises the progressive face of construction. In an ever-changing industry, it makes sense that those who work in such a dynamic and transforming environment are equally diverse, resilient and adaptable

Winning Project Manager of the Year title in the Construction Week Qatar Awards, 2014, McKenna’s enthusiasm is contagious, and for one so communicative, she was rendered speechless when she heard that she’d won the award.

Feisty and upbeat about walking away with this highly-prized award — more so as she was one of only two female nominees in this year’s entries — McKenna is passionate about the role she plays. “It’s an absolute honour to be acknowledged and recognised within this industry, specifically in such a male-orientated environment as this one," in the Middle East she said.

With enthusiasm she explained her present role more fully, describing exactly what it is that makes a successful project manager: “There are so many facets to the role, it’s not so much about the technical aspect or the commercial side, which are essential, it’s more about people and managing their expectations, and it’s about building relationships.

“In fact, people skills form a vital part of the role; there’s no point sitting at your desk without people interaction — it just wouldn’t work,” she stressed. The role requires an ability to collaborate, to listen and to hear.

“It’s not about an individual, it’s about the team; it’s about sharing knowledge and tailoring each requirement to fit the client’s need and vision.”

She attributed her win to having “chats” with her team and explained: “It’s too easy to berate somebody when something goes wrong. We have all worked on construction projects where something has gone wrong, but you have to move past that and find a solution.”

While she acknowledges that there are women in all disciplines of the industry, she has carved a niche for herself.

“While collaboration sounds like a ‘soft’ skill,” she added, “people skills and an ability to communicate clearly are vital to a person in my role and it’s a skill that is needed up front.

“With the diverse cultures and personalities that I encounter every day, an aptitude for collaboration and an ability to listen has stood me in good stead.”

To her mind, women in particular are adept at “crossing boundaries and communicating. It’s about understanding; it’s about not being afraid and to step up to the mark be a role model to those who come after”.

As a woman in such a responsible role, she believes that it serves as a confidence building exercise for those coming through the ranks, something to aspire to: “It’s all about being soft, but not weak.”

She continued, “Feminism is not seen as a particularly ‘nice’ word which, by definition, is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.

“However, as women, we should not expect to get promoted just because there are not sufficient females at managerial level. Success is about preparation, hard work and learning from failure.

“One of my favourite quotes is by Churchill: ‘To improve is to change – to be perfect, is to change often’,” she added lightly.

“When you talk about empowerment, and how that feels, it’s a sense of enablement, it’s liberation, it’s equality among your peers.

“It’s about not being afraid to ask the tough questions or give the tougher answers. It’s also about not being afraid to ask for help and support when you need it.”

She assured that ECH’s company culture is that of collaboration: “It is more about the team than the individual; it actively encourages teamwork and helping each other through knowledge transfer, search-share and recycling of information.

“It is this ethos of collaboration that I have successfully installed on site within the design construction supervision consultant community, through the establishment of DCSC forums here in Qatar. This leads to sharing of knowledge, not only among our own internal teams, but also in the wider market that is Qatar.”

Giving an example, she explained how, when she started on the project in which she is presently involved, she sat at a table with the project team, all from different cultures, regions and backgrounds.

“With such diversity, as project manager, I was tasked with handling the vast complexities of the situation, so I took the advice of a man I respect hugely, Kenneth Blanchard: ‘Take a minute: look at your goals, look at your performance, see if your performance matches your goals.’ This has been my mantra going forward,” she explained.

Working on that precept, McKenna initiated a monthly safety, security, health and environmental leadership team (SSHELT) that conducted meetings for contractors and consultants, “establishing standards required for conscious perception of health and safety and environmental matters.”

With obvious enthusiasm, she continued, “SSHELT meetings were, and still continue to be held in an open, trusting environment, which further cultivates talent and encourages knowledge share and best practise across all sites.

“The outcomes boosted inspiration and real motivation among the contractors and consultants, which has been a vital achievement in best practice. This behavioural change is the real success of the project; we don’t dictate to anyone, it’s all about collaboration, about how things can be improved and about how we can achieve it. It’s about cultivating the experience within the group, from all areas from around the world; we plan and discuss how we can implement best practice here.”

McKenna has also taken on the role of mentor to the younger Qatari graduates who have just embarked on their careers... She commented: “I have been very fortunate to be able to sit and discuss new ways of working, technical and commercial issue, interaction and interfaces that define the project manager role.
“Their keenness to learn is an inspiration,” she added.

Over the last two years in Qatar, McKenna has been involved in 10 projects, all within the healthcare sector, which is really close to her heart: “This is where I feel that I can make a positive contribution and a difference: where I can give back to the community,” she emphasised.

The Supreme Council of Health (SCH) for Qatar aims to improve public health services by ensuring that the most advanced and best quality service is available within its medical facilities, based on the Qatar Vision 2030. This includes upgrading customer service standards of primary healthcare, through enhancing the quality of services offered.

The health centres are designed to provide additional curative services to reduce the burden on the small number of hospitals in Qatar. “The projects consist of the design and construction of all the health centres with the development of the wellness and urgent care centres, central to the strategic direction for primary care,”
she explained.

The health centres generally include a variety of clinics, including: male and female clinics, speciality, dental and a walk-in clinic.

They also have radiology, pharmacy, a lab, storage and administrative areas, comprising ENT services, ophthalmology, optometry and chronic disease management, such as cardiology.

“The healthcare facilities will also provide patient health education, self-care and community and social learning programmes, as well as a collection of services for mental health, diet, maternal child health; well-baby/child clinic, well women/post-partum; ultrasound laboratory, mammograms and panorama.”

McKenna commented on the changes within the construction sector: “For me, here in Qatar, I have seen the most change in the people who are working on site; in terms of how they are thinking around safety and implementing best practise and managing safety issues.

“It’s tangible; we go onto site knowing that it’s a safe site and I’m satisfied to know that I have implemented it,” she added with pride.

“I know that it’s a result of knowledge that I have gained and used from previous sites; it’s a perfect example of knowledge-sharing — and people are starting to own it on site, which is great.”

Challenges and motivations
Working within the Doha environment has been a challenge, she commented: “The projects are challenging and complex owing to the requirements to manage multiple packages of works simultaneously, whilst working with organisations unfamiliar with the development of a programme management consultancy, using international management processes new to the Qatar construction market.

“Also, we are still seen as ‘a new entity’, with the perception that we have come in here to tell long established contractors and consultants what to do and how to do it. Suspicion of motives plays a role in forming trust and, as in any region where cultures collide, trust has to be earned — from both sides,” she added matter-of-factly.

What drives her and motivates her are her children: “They are my inspiration for trying to be the best that I can be; a role model that they would be proud of. It’s all about potential and possibilities and I see that echoed in working in Qatar — that’s what it’s about.

“It’s about career development and personal growth — it’s about the resolution of issues and the communication of new ways of working, new ways of adding value and ultimately, of reaping the benefits.

“It’s about being involved rather than being a spectator on the side-line. If it’s not me then who, and if it’s not now, then when?”

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