Ciaran McGovern is the Managing Director of TOBIN Consulting Engineers, having taken up the role in January 2020. He leads its executive team and more than 140 staff within the core divisions of building and infrastructure; environment project planning services, civil | design build | water; and roads and transportation.
“My professional background is in civil engineering, having graduated from Queen’s University Belfast in 1994,” he says, “where I have always had an interest in my ongoing professional development since graduation. I have looked at this through two lenses, the first being to keep my technical training up to date but also to develop my managerial, communication and soft skills throughout my career, culminating in the completion of an MBA with NUI Galway in 2018. “I have worked with TOBIN for more than 20 years, but I previously spent part of my career with local authorities and civil engineering contractors. Each arena carries with it its own challenges and rewards, and I recommend that graduates consider gaining experience in both the public and private sectors as part of their career portfolio.”
You achieved the title of Fellow with Engineers Ireland recently. Why did you pursue that title and what does it mean to you?
I believe that one of the ways I can contribute positively to the profession is to show leadership in my own career development. Becoming a Fellow in Engineers Ireland has been a personal development goal of mine for some time, where this professional recognition allows me to advocate for the further development of the profession and raise its profile in the communities within which we all work and live.
Engineers are among the most trusted professionals in Irish society, but more work is needed to translate that trust into recognition and remuneration throughout our professional careers. I see the current stage of my working life not as a finish point but rather as a marker along my professional development journey, where I am still excited to see where the next steps of that journey will bring me.
Do you think it is important to embrace change in the workplace – can you give some examples of how you have done this?
Those who actively seek to upskill themselves through in-house or external structured CPD programmes can be confident that the skills they are developing will serve them well when embracing change in the workplace.
We are continuing to live through a time of ongoing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) and as such, each of us must be open to embracing change. ‘Change is the only constant in life’ is often quoted in supporting the need for professional development, but perhaps a more pertinent quote might be that ‘there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen’.
The past two years have brought about more change in our working patterns than the previous 20 and the terrible events which have unfolded in Ukraine in recent months will likely bring about even further systematic change in society. Engineers will be at the heart of responding to the needs of society as we continue through this period of uncertainty, particularly as it relates to Ireland’s transition to a low carbon economy over the coming decade.
Within TOBIN, as generally within professional services firms, how we undertake our work has fundamentally changed in the past two years through the use of remote working tools, the digitisation of our work processes, and communication with each other and with our stakeholders. We have displaced in-person engagement with video and virtual calls, but perhaps we are all still learning that this change has been quite natural for some, but more difficult for others.
Our in-house graduate development programme and performance management systems have had to be flexible in response to these changing needs, providing opportunities for feedback at greater frequencies and therein keep positive alignment between personal development needs and company goals.
Change in this context has meant not only that we align CPD needs to learn how to use the digital tools to generate and check our work, but also that we consider how we communicate within teams so that we are getting the best from each other, our partners and our clients.
These changes have provided opportunities for growth for each of us individually as we were forced out of our comfort zones, particularly in the area of innovation where our clients now expect new ways of thinking in helping them meet their decarbonisation goals.
The emphasis on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) objectives within society has also brought about significant changes, not only in the way we seek to reduce our own carbon footprint in carrying out our work but also in how we take ESG into consideration in the projects we work on.
The pandemic has brought about significant change for all of us in project execution, and how we engage with stakeholders in particular.
Virtual online exhibition halls now allow the public to move from room to room containing the planning stages of a project, where they can engage with members of the team, attend Q&A sessions or use comment boxes. This has made the consultation process more inclusive and allowed those who might not have been comfortable attending a public meeting to now participate in the process of infrastructure development from the comfort of their own home.
How we manage change will continue to be at the core of the development of our CPD programmes and the design of our workplaces in the future.
When leading a team, what do you do to ensure they are developing new competencies and performing to a high level?
We are a learning organisation where, at our core, knowledge acquisition through structured continuous development is tempered against experiential learning achieved by working in teams.
Our learning objectives are defined not only in terms of the skills and abilities which are needed within each team but also the leadership behaviours we must continually develop, such as being results-driven, collaborating within teams, displaying integrity, problem-solving and communicating effectively.
Within TOBIN we have adopted the Direction, Competence, Opportunity, Motivation (DCOM) leadership model, which is recognised as a proven framework for outstanding execution. In 2020, our leadership team prepared a strategic plan that, in turn, defined competencies which the company required in order to effectively deliver our strategic goals.
We have worked hard to define what success looks like, whether these are our commercial targets, talent acquisition and retention initiatives, our people development actions, diversity in background, gender or age and ESG goals over the lifetime of our strategic plan. All of these components come together within our DCOM leadership model, designed to support high-level performance across the organisation.
The Irish economy has changed significantly in the past decade and our CPD planning must also continually evolve to ensure that transferrable skills and services are strategically reapplied in new sectors such as onshore and offshore wind, solar and green energy for example.
We can individually build our confidence and contribute to high-performance teams operating in these sectors, when our CPD is aligned to learning about new technologies, innovating and evolving during this broader economic transition.
Can you tell us about when you have had to face a particular challenge or manage a project outside of your experience range. How did you tackle it and what was the outcome?
Innovation is a cornerstone of our business, where we are always considering how we might apply existing technologies to new problems or harness the efficiency of new technologies to existing projects.
If we take the recent construction of the NUI Galway Connacht GAA Air Dome as an example, a traditional fixed structure approach would not have been cost-effective given the size of the facility that the client wanted to bring to life. It became apparent that a new approach was required, where we consulted internationally to see how alternative approaches might allow the project to be delivered within the capital envelope available.
In this instance we applied established construction techniques associated with GAA synthetic pitch construction with new inflatable air dome technologies utilised internationally, in order to achieve weather protection, heating control and integrated lighting standards in a single structure.
Another example is the use of iPads in the field for data collection such as EIAR baseline studies, where data can be geolocated at source and brought to life through ArcGIS. In this way, when consulting with stakeholders at planning stage, visualisation tools help the public gain a deeper understanding of how a project will integrate into the landscape and add value within the community.
At the heart of both of these examples is our Engineers Ireland accredited CPD programme, where our staff spend at least five days annually learning about these emerging technologies, design standards adopted in their use and how we can then translate the tools and techniques through into solving problems for our clients.
How has CPD enabled your career progression and what advice would you give to others?
My own career progression has been heavily influenced by the choices I have made during my CPD journey since graduation. There have been times when I have had an interest in pursuing a particular area of opportunity, be that in technical progression or in leadership development.
As engineers, our first calling will always be in solving challenging technical problems and aligning our CPD accordingly, but we should also be aware of the benefits of progressing non-technical training in leadership development.
Internally, we have run in-house management training programmes where external facilitators have come into our offices to complete one-day sessions over a number of months, or staff have attended accredited external third level courses such as an MBA. The value of such training in the management of multidisciplinary teams who are delivering complex projects is significant.
On a personal level, during my own career, I have tried to adopt a curiosity approach to learning, not jumping in at the deep end, signing up for a time-intensive course over many months, but rather I have explored the topic through online lectures, webinars or structured reading first.
I have also sought advice from more experienced engineers and, while the decision on a route to take will always remain your own, having the input of somebody who has previously walked the path can be tremendously insightful in considering choices.
As engineers, we each have a duty to ensure we support the development of the profession, which we can do through mentoring of junior members within each of our teams. In that way we can ‘pay forward’ the support each of us receives from other engineers during our own career development.
This approach has helped me to get a better understanding of my own strengths, weaknesses, areas for improvement and critically, if I was truly motivated, to learn and align new skills to both my own needs and those of the company.
If I could give any advice to others, it would be that each of us maintains a curiosity approach to learning, that we lean on the experience of others and in this way we will remain motivated to continue to develop professionally throughout our careers.
Engineering as a profession is fast-paced, dynamic and ever-evolving. Can you highlight a time when engaging in CPD helped ensure that you were able to influence policy, strategy or opinion?
Some of the most fulfilling activity I have undertaken with Engineers Ireland has been the time spent working within the Regions committee structure and determining the topics of interest to be pursued within that year’s CPD programme.
Working at the committee level has taught me that there is a huge range in diversity of opinion as each member has a different lens through which they perceive the challenges facing the economy.
Each member of the committee also brings a unique perspective on how we might support the professional development of members in response to these challenges.
The regional committee structures of Engineers Ireland provide a fantastic platform from which to influence policy, strategy or opinion nationally, where as members of Engineers Ireland each of us has that opportunity to be a thought leader.
If we look at the example of where Ireland is seeking to become a low carbon economy, environmental case law is evolving quickly which, in turn, has meant that the profession must be fast-paced, dynamic and ever-evolving in response.
Judicial review (JR) of projects were once rare events but are now frequent once projects have secured permission from An Bord Pleanála. These JRs in turn generate reference projects which define best practices in stakeholder engagement, influence the design of our work and accordingly our CPD programmes must reflect these changing requirements.
Continued alignment of CPD programmes to these best practice reference projects will support the development of the profession, where the regional committee structures will continue to play a key role in the design and delivery of these programmes.
Has CPD helped you grow your network and access experts, and what have you done to promote science, technology and engineering?
I believe that Ireland has moved to become a leading knowledge economy within a generation and this success is built upon the ongoing education choices made by students at second level in the STEM subject areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
An education within STEM offers a huge range of career opportunities, where you are always learning, problem solving and where you can expect a very fulfilling, varied and exciting career with tremendous opportunity.
Within TOBIN we strongly encourage our own family members and second level students generally to pursue STEM as a career pathway as a keystone within our broader sustainability, diversity and inclusion objectives, where we seek to keep staff local and build communities in locations where we live and work.
As an example, our own ‘Women in TOBIN’ internal working group provides active support within the business on career pathway and leadership development, where we hope to inspire greater female participation in STEM core areas over the coming years.
As a company we continually seek to engage with industry, with stakeholders and with prospective future staff through storytelling and showcasing how the built environment relies heavily upon the work undertaken every day by our engineers and scientific teams. In this way, we hope that we are playing our own part in promoting STEM into the future.