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My career at Mott MacDonald: from PhD student to manager

Technical specialist, client manager, people manager, project manager: in a varied career, Frances has learned that teamwork is key to a project’s success.
Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder. You can get satisfaction and learning opportunities by moving sideways.

Sheryl Sandberg gets it right, I think, when she says that careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder. You don’t need to be on a rigid, upwards path all the time – you can get satisfaction and learning opportunities by moving sideways. I have spent time in academia and industry; I’ve worked as a technical specialist, in client-focused roles and in people and project management roles. I’ve never had a detailed career plan, more a general sense of direction; if an interesting role comes up, I’ll pursue it.

An academic life

In my final year of my MEng, I applied for engineering jobs and a PhD. I was offered a job, but I’d enjoyed the research in my final year and I thought that I could always go into industry later. If you are deciding between going into industry and staying in academia, I recommend talking to people who are doing both: see what they actually do and whether it would suit you.

My PhD was sponsored by AstraZeneca and I studied the recirculation of water in coastal bays. The work involved a mixture of computer modelling, lab experiments (I had a big tank of water to play with) and field work (I went out in a boat to measure water speeds). I had more variety in my work than many doctoral students, but by my final year I was ready for the range of project work offered by industry.

A friendly start

I finished my thesis in November 2004, and started job-hunting. The job at Mott MacDonald was as a hydraulic modeller, which involved a lot of computer modelling, and it appealed partly because it would allow me to use my technical skills.

I still clearly remember being taken around the office at interview. It’s the friendliness of the team that I remember and this was one of the things I liked most about joining Mott MacDonald. Towards the end of my PhD, I’d isolated myself to focus on my thesis. It was good to work in a team and to get involved with the sports and social activities on offer.

Career turning points

Looking back, I can identify two points in my career that were pivotal to my development. The first happened in around 2007. The project involved using computer models to predict flooding locations under different conditions. It was my first experience of a proper project management role and it didn’t exactly go to plan!

We all have projects that don’t go perfectly. Although it feels awful, you can learn much from your mistakes: I didn’t know enough about the financial management of projects. However, during a training course in which we had to deliver a project with tangible benefits for the company, I suggested that we design a financial management handbook for our peers. It was rolled out and we had positive feedback that it was very useful.

The second turning point was in 2012. I was a project manager, managing a team of five. The project involved investigating how pesticides from agricultural land get into rivers and how this could be prevented. We were located in the client office and so I was effectively the line manager for the team. It made me step up, in terms of team management and project delivery, and the team responded well to my management.

The training and coaching I have received has allowed me to understand people better: how working preferences and natural traits affect behaviour. You can pick up technical skills on the job, but projects only work if people work together. I like to ensure everyone is either happy with a decision or at least understands the reasoning behind it.

A people-focused role

I now manage the ten team leaders who manage the 190 people in the environment division; it is my job to take an overall, strategic view of the division. I’m really enjoying working in a team again. My previous role as an account leader was very client and commercially focused; my work cut across several teams and I was not directly responsible for managing people.

My present role is busy and mostly involves talking to people. On Friday, for example, I had a pre-interview discussion with an experienced professional who was considering joining us. I was then in a bid meeting to go through our proposals (bids for work) before we submit them, and to go through opportunities to decide whether we should bid for them. I then had a one-to-one with one of my team leaders, and then spent time answering various queries about a range of issues.

I work a 30-hour week, and squeezing everything in can be a challenge, with a six- and a four-year-old. It’s absolutely possible to combine a career with motherhood, and it is helpful to have a partner who is also committed to the juggling. I’m also happy to work in an organisation that is very supportive of flexible working.

Learn about yourself

I recommend getting as much work experience in as many different environments as possible. It’s the best way to find out what you enjoy. Pay attention to the career paths in each one to discover what you want from your early career.

When I work with graduates, I particularly notice those who are keen, show initiative and are positive about new challenges and opportunities. It is important to listen to feedback: use it to discover more about yourself and what you need to learn.

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