The Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction


People: in focus - Spencer Hobbs, alumnus, anticipates APM Project Management Awards final

23 August 2016


Spencer Hobbs, an alumnus of MSc Project and Enterprise Management, has reached the finals of the APM Project Management Awards 2016. In this interview at the Network Rail offices ahead of the final round of presentations at the beginning of September, Spencer spoke about his reaction to the awards, his challenging work as a Project Manager at Network Rail, and the lessons from his groundbreaking dissertation.

Congratulations on becoming a finalist for this award. How does it feel to have come this far?

I felt surprised at first. Particularly because at this stage I have only been in project management for six years after studying MSc Project and Enterprise Management at C&PM. Also, I have only spent two and a half years in a formal project manager role because prior to this I was an assistant project manager. So, it is quite a shock to get shortlisted to being one of four finalists. I also felt pride, as this is a big achievement, potentially something that never comes around again. It’s good for my individual profile, even just to get shortlisted, for Network Rail, the rail industry, and even UCL. Hopefully, I can win it.

How are you feeling about the final round of presentations coming up in the first week in September?

I have got to do a forty-minute presentation to an APM judging panel. I can see that I’m up against some rather tough competition. There are project managers from large reputable organisations such as BAE Systems, so they will be of extremely high quality.  

Can you tell us what the content of your presentation will be?

I have submitted a portfolio of evidence based on my most recent project, at Network Rail. There are certain criteria and I have to demonstrate how I have met and exceeded them. I have to bring this demonstration to life and so I am leading with a key theme of innovation. Who knows how it will go, but I’m confident.

Moving on to your role at Network Rail, what does that involve?

About two and a half years ago I was made the project manager for the Swindon Area Signalling Renewal (SASR). My remit was to manage the client team, which is about twelve to fifteen engineers, construction and commercial personnel. We also managed the supply chain. SASR, completed in February this year, was a re-signalling project of the existing signalling system along the Great Western railway that you have just travelled through from London to be here – it’s boundaries were from Didcot, to around the edge of the Bath and Chippenham area. SASR was one part of the Western Mainline Signalling Renewal Programme, which is a £500 million programme and will renew signalling from Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington.

What were the pressures involved in making this project a success?

There’s also a great deal of stakeholder management. As you can imagine, an area of this size contains a lot of line-side houses, businesses, and train operators which need to be kept happy. There have also been other challenges. For my first project manager role, I had to oversee a large budget of £82 million, the laying of about a million metres of new cable, and the construction of 250 new signal structures. At the project’s peak, there were 450 operatives on site in addition to a large number of contractors. In addition to this, we have had significant timescale pressures as SASR was done in four years, ahead of the electrification of this line currently taking place. We needed to prepare for this by immunising signalling equipment that could be impacted by the new overhead electric lines being installed.

Thinking more about the Swindon signalling, what was the purpose of this?

All signalling has a 25-year life and a lot of the signalling in this area was approaching this age. We also wanted to make signalling more efficient. The old system was operated by individual mechanical signal boxes down the line. As part of SASR, they were all shut down and signalling control has moved to a purpose built centre in Didcot which hosts two or three staff managing signals for the whole area via computer.

Is there any drawback from implementing this system?

Many signallers have been working for more than twenty years and were not happy with the new system given the potential for job losses. The new system saves money for Network Rail due to the reduced number of staff needed for signalling control, and is one of the reasons for SASR. Above all, though, the efficiency of the new technology is much improved. It automates much of the process and removes the human error risk you would have had previously with the mechanical system. Thus, it is a safer way of signalling a railway and should make train times more accurate and reliable.

Now thinking about the course at C&PM, what did you find most challenging?

The workload was challenging as the course was only a year and the assignments came thick and fast. It was brilliant preparation for coming into this profession where you are having to meet multiple, sometimes conflicting, deadlines to get work done. My dissertation and research topic was also a challenge as I covered something which was quite a new concept. We researched emotional intelligence and how this affects project teams. Network Rail sponsored me but were initially not warm towards the idea and didn’t see how it would add value to their company. After I convinced them, Hedley Smyth - my tutor - produced the idea of filming project meetings. We found a large Network Rail project in London – the Kings Cross station redevelopment – and managed to convince the senior management there to film about twenty meetings. You can just imagine the challenges that this threw up, particularly convincing people in the meetings that it was purely for research purposes, and taking care of privacy concerns.

I am assuming you don’t have a background in psychology, anthropology, or linguistics - how did you measure emotional intelligence and assign markers for this?

I had a lot of help from Hedley, who is knowledgeable in this area. We used body language and the way things are said, including words and tone. We had a scoring criteria where we would make a positive or negative mark according to our markers and linked these scores to emotional intelligence competences.

What were your findings?

We found that with some of the contractors, particularly one engineering firm, project managers and project engineers didn’t display enough competencies or were deficient in this regard. We recommended that they could improve these behaviours in meetings. Other companies demonstrated these qualities well. The theory is that if you can get everyone around the table to display these competencies, you will get improved, more efficient, collaborative working. Interestingly, coming into the signalling world, it’s far more adversarial here. This is particularly evident between clients and contractors.

What did you enjoy about the course?

I really enjoyed the dissertation and being introduced to the concept of emotional intelligence. The staff were also brilliant. Dr Stephen Pryke and Professor Hedley Smyth have been very supportive. Also, there were a very good calibre of students who you learn from and get pushed by.

How have you applied your studies at C&PM to your career?

The lectures at C&PM were great and the variety of the topics on the course I studied are so useful in the workplace. The findings from the dissertation have also been very useful as I have been able to apply them to improve my teams. I have frequently used teachings in commercial and procurement in dealing with the adversarial climate of the industry. Contractors don’t get big profit margins so they are naturally going to look to make savings.

Going forward, what plans do you have?

I am on board with the Cornwall re-signalling project, which goes from Bristol to Penzance. That’s a £250 million signalling scheme over nine years, However, over this time, if a vacancy appears for Programme Manager then I would be interested in this, and perhaps Programme Director further down the line. I am also thinking outside the rail industry, perhaps a large infrastructure job, an IT project, or something abroad just to try something new. Regardless, I will definitely stay in projects.

What advice would you give to students?

Focus on your soft skills. I came from a non-engineering background, so when I got taken on by Network Rail and wanted to do my course at C&PM, I was surprised to be accepted as I didn’t know anything about engineering. Interestingly, I think only 3 of the 80 people they sponsored that year were from engineering backgrounds. Now, I can see why: they don’t want someone technical, they want someone who has soft skills and leadership skills who can bring together collaborative teams of technical personnel. MSc Project and Enterprise Management taught me to focus on and apply this. Students should also concentrate on their commercial and contract theory and learning. You have to be quite savvy in your contracts, because you’ll often be sat opposite a contractor who knows the contracts inside out and will try to find a loophole. You have to know your contracts well. Finally, develop resilience, a thick skin, and the ability to overcome challenges. Setbacks can knock the confidence of a new and inexperienced project manager and make them question their commitment to their project, but developing resilience can overcome this.

What is the main lesson you have learnt from your career so far?

I remember going back to UCL last January to guest lecture for the MSc Strategic Management of Projects. A course member asked, “what is the most important quality you need to be successful?”. Some of the cohort seemed genuinely surprised at my answer. They thought I was going to say an engineering degree, as many had come from non-engineering backgrounds, such as History. I said you need to be able to lead and manage teams: it’s a people business.