For Chartered Engineer and Fellow of Engineers Ireland Aly Gleeson 'continuing professional development became medicinal – a way of both growing as an engineer and atoning for past indifference'.
Aly Gleeson is a Chartered Engineer and Fellow of Engineers Ireland, with more than 20 years’ postgraduate experience. He is a director of PMCE, whose engineering background includes delivery of major international projects; multidiscipline design management; coordination of major projects through planning/environmental processes, local authority transport projects, and development infrastructure design.
Gleeson’s experience is supported by engineering and management qualifications, including a BSc (Hons) in Civil Engineering, a first class MEng (Hons) in Civil Engineering, and a first class MBA. He is active within Engineers Ireland, previously holding the role of public relations officer for the Roads and Transportation Society for two terms, before being elected as the honorary secretary for the Cork Region’s 2021/22 term.
My engineering journey started in 1996 at the age of 17, when I left Ireland to study civil engineering at the University of Glamorgan, now called the University of South Wales.
In truth, I didn’t have the temperament or maturity to succeed at university, so it was nothing short of a miracle that I graduated in 1999. Indeed, maturity remained an absent friend for the first couple of years in my career.
Once I settled down, I began to enjoy learning, and found a hunger for knowledge, and for developing myself as an engineer. Without sounding too precious, continuing professional development became medicinal – a way of both growing as an engineer and atoning for past indifference.
Of course, I’d not suggest any person dwell too long on the past, but I found it to be a fantastic driver of change in my career. This motivation has supported me through my chartership interview in 2007, a master’s degree in 2013, an MBA in 2018, and my fellowship in 2021. But importantly, it has allowed me to tread water in a discipline that is incredibly challenging, demanding, and in a constant state of flux.
When ‘change’ is mentioned in a professional context, we often hear about the importance of being able to adapt to new technical innovations, new industry processes, digitisation, smart systems, etc.
Research papers and business articles have become obsessed with words like ‘Agile’, ‘Paradigm Shift’, ‘Disruption’, and ‘Pivot’, with the disciples of change management tripping over themselves to quote Darwin’s overbaked reference in relation to adapting to change (I’ll not do it here out of protest).
Of course, I don’t disagree with the key points being made, particularly as we find ourselves in the jaws of Brexit and a global pandemic. However, I find these examples to be external, and a little unrelatable to the personal changes that occur in each of us as we duck and dive our way through busy lives.
For many that are managing the pressures of leadership in their respective careers, little is known of the personal demands and pressures that exist outside the workplace, and the sophisticated challenges presented at the nexus of these two intersecting worlds.
Sometimes, it’s less about embracing professional change, and more about surviving personal change. While there has been growing attention on mental health over the past five years, a greater focus on Continuous Professional and Personal Development (CP2D) can play an important role in developing better engineers and better people.
This may take a leap of faith for many employers, who typically focus on professional and technical performance, and their willingness to support training in ‘non-technical’ areas such as stress management, multitasking, mental health, conflict management, or even awareness campaigns related to the risks of loneliness and isolation, which may become more prevalent as remote working extends its roots into the national economy.
I have been very fortunate in my career to work with great leaders, but I’ve had my fair share of bad ones too. I’ve found many managers to be bureaucratic and transactional in their approach, which I suspect reflects the heavily regulated and process driven nature of engineering in the construction industry.
This can be quite frustrating, as attentions can be focused more on box ticking than adding real value. I’ve heard it said that ‘good managers’ do things right, while ‘good leaders’ do the right thing. A subtle play on words, but I think there is some truth to it.
I have enjoyed working with people that focus on aspirational goals, and are not afraid to rip up the rule book to achieve their objectives. I think real change occurs when these transformational leaders are given licence to explore new markets, and adopt a collaborative style of leadership with their team, ensuring everybody is motivated to work towards the same vision.
However, too much of any one leadership style, whether it be coercive, authoritative, democratic, affiliative, or bureaucratic, can lead to imbalance, and ultimately negative outcomes.
The best leaders, in my experience, are those who can transition between different styles of leadership depending on the situation or the team they’re leading.
I don’t believe there is a ‘one size fits all’ leadership style, particularly where an organisation is going through fundamental structural and cultural change, which I’ve witnessed on a couple of occasions in my career.
I do believe good leadership skills can be taught, provided the leader is open minded and capable of internal reflection. But I think, from my own experience working on both sides of the equator, that certain leadership skills are almost impossible to teach. It may be a natural skillset that is baked into the leader’s personality, charisma, and sense of purpose.
I came across an interesting perspective when researching leadership a number of years ago. Daniel Goleman, a well-known author, psychologist, and science journalist, identified ‘emotional intelligence’ as the key to great leadership.
Goleman described IQ and technical skills as ‘threshold capabilities’, or the pre-requisite for most leaders, but all ‘great’ leaders had high emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is an ability founded on five key attributes: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.
As I reflect on each of the leaders I’ve had over the past 22 years, I see a lot of truth in this perspective. In other words, great leaders have the awareness to see their own weaknesses, the ability to change themselves, are driven to better themselves and others, can truly understand the feelings of others, and have the ability to communicate with a diverse group of people.
I see these five attributes as the grease that allows good leaders to transition between different leadership styles, adapt to the day-to-day challenges in their industry, and to interact with the ever-changing team dynamics in each organisation.
I’ll leave it for others to define my leadership style, but there are three things I consciously make an effort to achieve with my team:
CPD has certainly helped shape my professional and personal life. An obvious example is my transition to remote working in 2019. As part of my postgraduate studies in 2018, I undertook research into the cultural attitudes and barriers of remote working practices in Ireland.
At the time, I didn’t realise it would be the catalyst for changing my own working dynamic, but it certainly supported discussion with my managing director. Shortly afterwards, I said goodbye to a daily two-hour commute, fuel costs, early morning departures, and late evening arrivals.
As I reflect on the past 30 months of remote working, I find it’s had a profoundly positive impact on my life, with more time spent with friends and family, and less commuter stress and costs. I’m also lucky that my role includes a lot of site visits, which gives me plenty of opportunities to stay physically connected to my friends in the office.
For the most part however, I feel CPD has kept me engaged and motivated. I am a person who can quickly become bored with day-to-day tasks, and regularly seek opportunities for fresh and interesting distractions from the important – but sometimes taxing – daily grind.
In this respect, CPD has been a great tool in exploring different interests, as well as meeting interesting people and, on occasion, developing fruitful working relationships with future clients.
My advice to others in the construction industry, particularly those just starting their careers, is to never stand still. It’s so important to keep developing yourself, whether it be a training course, getting involved in a committee, reading technical papers or business articles, or simply engaging with your peers over a coffee.
If you can keep positioning yourself just slightly outside your comfort zone, you’ll be in a good position to keep pace with the industry, and work towards your potential.
The same is true of your personal development; perhaps learn to play an instrument, take up running, or use your qualifications to travel the world, and immerse yourself in different cultures and societies.
Importantly, every year, be sure to take a moment to think strategically about your life. Get out of the office, and sit in a coffee shop, library, or a quiet room at home, and ask yourself if you’re happy.
It sounds simple, but I have spoken to so many people in the construction industry who don’t do this simple exercise. If you’re happy, great! If you’re not, change something!