It’s a cold, wet autumn morning at the north end of Thirlmere reservoir in the Lake District. Yes, reservoir, I learn. It was originally two lakes that were subsumed into a reservoir around 125 years ago. Anyway, the rain is pouring, dark clouds sit menacingly atop the mountains. Beautiful, I think, and take in a large breath in admiration.

I’m retrieving my outdoor boots and waterproof jacket from the boot of the car in preparation for a tour of the project sites, the hypnotic sound of a nearby stream giving me a sense of peace and tranquillity.

“Up here is the only place I can get a bloody signal!”

And…back in the room…

I look up. It’s my client, John, mug of cold coffee in hand, trudging down from a typical looking lake district stone and slate outbuilding some 50 metres or so up the hill, greeting me with a grin and a jovial cursing of technology. As John describes the uses of the different outbuildings and some of their history, it is with haste that we head out of the elements into the main office building, which has been converted from an old sawmill and retains many of its features. As a constant reminder of the building’s history, there are also old tools from bygone days on show on windowsills and in corners.

Along with other projects in the North West of England and North Wales, John is the Project Director leading the West Cumbria Water Supplies Project, which, for ease of typing, I’ll refer to as a very catchy WCSP.

Beginning in the Spring of 2017, WCSP is United Utilities’ five-year, quarter of a billion-pound project to link West Cumbria into the rest of the regional water network. It involves laying around 100km of new water pipes, building a new treatment works and two new service reservoirs – a monumental project when you consider the geology and terrain of the lake district.

Having worked with John and each of his leadership team for about six months, I was keen to see first-hand the extent of this massive engineering and construction project.

We head out on our circa 100km journey along the country roads and dirt tracks of the lake district national park in the Land Rover, affectionately named Eleanor, after the grey Mustang in ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’. “She’s the same colour, and”, John insists, “just as temperamental!” This is a journey John has beaten many times, often with key stakeholders from inside and outside the business.

Our first port of call is the Thirlmere dam and aqueduct. Having lived in the Kendal area for almost 20 years, I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t even know the dam existed…

This somewhat intimidating structure, over 20 metres high, with another 18 metres below ground level, and over 250 metres wide, is holding back nearly 40,000 million litres of water. Wow! I struggle to even comprehend that number. I hear from John about the wonders and inspiration of Victorian engineering as he talks about the dam’s overflow cill, and how, in recent years, it has been tested to its limit, incurring significant damage, upgrading and maintenance – a massive job in its own right. This is the start of the WCSP.

The route of the pipeline meanders north through the valley, through Keswick, along Bassenthwaite lake – yes, this one is a lake and the only official lake in the lake district! – all the way to Williamsgate, north of Cockermouth, where a new water treatment works is being constructed. 30km, and incredibly, all using the power of gravity.

While John is driving, the depth of his knowledge about the fine details of the project become clear, the operational intricacies of the project that John has, while maintaining a well-placed strategic perspective. He talks with relish and at great length about the challenging targets, not in a defeatist way, taking it in his stride. I’ll say it again, a quarter of a billion pounds!!

He often talks about his team, getting the best out them, the group dynamics, their focus and mindset, everything to do with them really.

We knew about the project’s challenging targets, so our objective was to help each person maximise their performance, of course by enhancing their leadership skills – absolutely critical – but an equally important ingredient to John was their state of mind, their wellbeing, their happiness, particularly under pressure.

We used emotional intelligence as a reflective introduction to John and his team’s development journey, feeding back each report on a one-to-one basis and entering into the first coaching session. This has been lapped up by the team and they have engaged wholeheartedly into the process. We agreed personal action plans using SMART objectives, focusing on their own leadership development needs. Since then each person has had subsequent coaching sessions, and much to the delight of John, there are really high levels of engagement from the team, embracing their leadership journey and focusing on just one or two critical goals back in the work place.

John says he is already recognising really encouraging changes in individuals as a result, and sees that high levels of Emotional Intelligence in his leadership team are critical to the success of the project, and will be the consistent thread during our engagement.

Back on our tour I hear more about the wider WCSP. Who would’ve known that UU ship pipes from Spain directly to Workington?! John explains that having them shipped directly to the port of Workington in Cumbria is the best environmental solution and supports the local economy.

I expected John to know the project, but he knows it intimately, citing conversations with residents, being on first name terms with them. This engagement of key stakeholders and customers demonstrates the whole view approach John adopts and shows what a skilled operator he is.

That’s not all, John has built close relationships with suppliers, agencies, contractors, sub-contractors, borough councils, the national park and other land owners. He has engaged with local communities to describe the work to be done, keep them updated and to provide a platform for any concerns and ideas. In one case a local resident has been actively involved in helping with ideas in order to minimise the impact on the environment.

This depth of knowledge of key stakeholders is impressive, and clearly a priority. “It’s all about relationships”, John proudly reminds me. This isn’t some throw away comment. I know John believes it, lives by it. I’ve seen it. I believe it too as it’s also my mantra. I think it’s one of the reasons we get on.

We park up at one site where UU have had to close the road for several weeks to lay pipes. There is some banter with contractors guarding the way in. Among the friendly chat, we are advised of health and safety, where to walk, where not to walk. We head through some trees along a very wet, slippery path. Already our boots and trousers are mud splattered. As we navigate our way along the side of the construction site, John describes the scene before us, as well as the back story – the work, energy, the headaches, the stakeholder management that is required to close off 400 metres of road. It’s astounding. To think in a few short weeks, they will have dug up the road, created a large trench, laid the pipes, re-used the displaced earth to fill in the trench, re-laid the tarmac and re-seeded the fields. I learned that using the same earth is critical as it means the pH of the soil remains the same, meaning that the land won’t be scarred with grass of a different shade. It is a critical part of their environmental commitments. Legacy is important. Meticulous detail.

So, when we came to our first of a series of two-day leadership team workshops, key areas for focus and improvement across the team and through their own operational teams mirrored John’s leadership style. After a tough couple of days, we get the breakthrough.

We agreed that developing strong relationships inside and outside of the team, not suffering from complacency, and building trust and confidence through open, constructive dialogue were key.  They are all very busy people with their own KPIs, so this pressure can understandably engender a narrow and inwardly focused mindset, so leveraging off others’ skills is perhaps not at the forefront of the mind.

In an environment which is heavily regulated, monitored and measured, where there are endless stakeholders inside and outside the business, relationship management was regarded as a nice to have, not a critical golden thread for getting the job done!

Back on tour, we pull up at the south side of Ennerdale Water, another construction site. I learn about how the project here is a sensitive one, for the work being carried out must include the protection of a particularly rare breed of mussel which is found in only a few places in the world.

The whole journey is an education, an eye-opener, and gave me huge insight into the time, financial, environmental and people pressures that are on the shoulders of John and his team. It left me with a feeling of increased admiration.

John tells me that the work I have been doing with MYE for John’s team has had a real impact and he can see how it’s really helping members of the team. Even though I’ve been working with the team to build and enhance their leadership qualities, and effectiveness as a team, I didn’t previously have a full appreciation of the scale, the time, the money, the demands, the pressure that John and the team face, and that’s just this project! It has helped me really put into context how the work I am doing at MYE will have a direct effect on the performance of John’s team, and the success of this project.

UU are aiming for a 2021 finish, a year ahead of the regulatory date, and they have so far saved tens of millions of pounds.

Just shows, the more you understand your client’s world, the more in tune you are with what they need.

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