Team Management Systems

Engineering a Better Future for Clients and Staff at SKM

By Libby Bell
Copyright © Libby Bell. All rights reserved.

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Global professional services firm Sinclair Knight Merz is not content to simply be a great engineering, sciences and project delivery business - its people have to be the best, too.

The technical reputation of Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) is unquestioned. As a world-leading engineering, sciences and project delivery firm, SKM is the mastermind behind projects such as Sydney's new desalination plant and the Eden Project, an acclaimed educational environmental centre in England. Its daily challenges are daunting - the logistical organization of major building projects, coordination of overseas aid activities and the delivery of strategies around mine closure planning and decommissioning.

However, SKM's management takes the view that technical skills are not enough in today's world. It is determined to hone the interpersonal and non-technical skills of its people. The logic is sound: SKM wants well-rounded team leaders who can better interact with clients and other staff to deliver better results for clients and the business itself.

Taking a team approach

To that end, SKM has opted to use Team Management Systems' (TMS) work-based assessment and feedback instruments to better understand employee work preferences and to help foster superior interpersonal skills. The Team Management Profile (TMP) approach has been instrumental to enhancing a people focused culture at SKM and fits the firm's people philosophy of "participative employee development to achieve each individual's potential".

As SKM's Group Learning and Development Manager, I have been one of the internal drivers of the Team Management Profile. When employees returned their profile questionnaires, the results matched expectations - the firm's workforce was dominated by Thruster-Organizers (individuals who are quick to decide, results-orientated and highly analytical) and Assessor-Developers (those who create ideas, are analytical and objective, and who thrive on project work).

When you look at the scale of the projects undertaken by SKM, it's not surprising that Thruster-Organizers and Assessor-Developers make up a large share of the workforce. After all, most of the professionals in the engineering and scientific fields are likely to be analytical pragmatists.

Developing better managers

To help maintain industry leadership, I believe it is essential to underline to SKM people the value of non-technical skills.

Managing people and relationships is critical to our success and I recognize that our professional workforce often requires tuition along interpersonal lines. The firm has a policy whereby all new managers attend a three-day Managing People Program (MPP) that focuses on leadership and interpersonal skills.

The Team Management Profile is a crucial part of both MPP and our Graduate Development Conference. It really helps us understand the capabilities of new managers and graduates.

Six basic steps define the MPP.

Step 1: Asking the tough questions

The managers complete the Team Management Profile Questionnaire online and do the required reading before they attend the MPP.

Step 2: Attending plenary sessions

On day one of the three-day residential program, SKM has a plenary session where it hands out the personal Profile reports and explains the concepts to participants. At this stage it is critical to demonstrate how the Team Management Profile can be of use to staff, otherwise the skeptics in the group may reject it as useless and undermine the program.

Step 3: Schooling the syndicates

After receiving their personal Team Management Profile report, team members are then assigned to syndicate teams and have three days to prepare a pitch to a 'client' (usually a volunteer from senior management). At the start of the session, team members introduce themselves to their peers and draw from their Team Management Profile result, with members explaining their preferred style of working and areas in which they may need help.

During the three days, participants attend sessions on selection skills, behavioral interviewing, coaching and ethical dilemmas. Throughout this stage, efforts are made to replicate the unpredictability of a normal project through the introduction of unexpected tasks, such as recruiting a new team member. At the end of the three days, each team does its pitch and the 'client' provides feedback.

Step 4: Reviewing team progress

At various points, each syndicate reviews its progress. Team Management Systems provides support through self-assessment material and activities that SKM can use to back up theoretical approaches. These tools are critical to ensure managers have the opportunity to put the skills into practice. Also key is the way in which the team coaches use the Team Management Systems concepts to assess how each team operates: the Types of Work Wheel is used as a project planning tool and a team SWOT analysis is done using a plot of the team's work preferences. The team plot highlights potential gaps in performance, and problems the teams encounter are typically consistent with their preferences, or rather with gaps in their preferences. This learning ties back to the objective of the program, namely to work as a team to deliver a project.

To finish off the program a senior leadership panel hears the participants share their commitments for self-development in a plenary session and the participants write a letter about the changes they want to make in their behavior.

Step 5: Embedding new skills

Six weeks after the program ends, each of the participant letters is sent to them. The letter acts as a reminder for the self-development commitments they made and it prods them to keep practicing the skills that will make them better leaders. Many managers also request to have their team members complete the Team Management Profile Questionnaire.

Step 6: Evaluating the program

Three to six months after the program, a cross-section of participants is sampled using semi-structured interviews. This feedback is used to evaluate the program and make any necessary adjustments.

A major component of SKM's continued growth is its focus on international expansion. With staff numbering about 6500, it has offices stretching across Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the Middle East, South America and Asia.

As the volume of overseas work grows, cultural differences become more salient. Given the diversity of the business, it is critical for employees to understand and appreciate different work styles across the firm's international operations. Cultures vary from country to country - even when people speak the same language. As we recruit people into senior positions we want to encourage understanding and accommodate the work preferences of different cultures.

Improving self-awareness

The Team Management Profile has helped people within the firm to better empathize with each other and adjust working styles as necessary.

Across SKM we are using virtual teams and alliances more and more. Sometimes a project can be short-term and we have found the Team Management Profile can help to establish good understanding quickly for these fluid teams. It also helps that the Profile and related materials are available in a number of languages, so we can roll it out to teams and leaders abroad. Ultimately, the Team Management Profile has given SKM the edge to ensure staff can improve their self-awareness.

The Team Management Profile is practical and insightful and it is underpinned by research which makes it credible. It encourages tolerance and diversity, which is important in our business. It gives people a common language to use when discussing team performance and it is now a widely accepted part of our business.

Accepting diversity

Aside from its leadership program, Sinclair Knight Merz also uses the Team Management Profile to help develop graduates. Graduates in their second to third year at SKM attend a conference and complete the Team Management Profile Questionnaire, after which a debriefing is held and the work preferences of graduates are plotted on the Margerison-McCann Team Management Wheel.

At SKM, Reporter-Advisers (helpers, tolerant, flexible) and Creator-Innovators (imaginative, future-oriented) are usually in the minority. After a debriefing at one conference, an innovative young professional approached his general manager to explain that he felt alienated and was considering leaving the team. He felt that his Creator-Innovator work preference explained why he felt like the odd one out in his team.

The revelation prompted the General Manager to make a special effort to recognize the preferences of more creative people. The continued shortage of world's leading skills and the increased scale and complexity of projects means creativity and innovation matters even more today. SKM is embracing a diversity of thinking - for the benefit of its clients and people, and ultimately its business.

Copyright © Libby Bell. All rights reserved.

Libby started her career as a qualified teacher training staff in a health insurance organization. She then worked in a range of organizations including Arnott's, Curtin University of Technology, and Lion Nathan with a focus on learning and organizational development. Libby set up her consulting practice in the 90's and worked with a range of organizations designing and facilitating learning and organizational development interventions. More recently she worked with Ernst & Young and has spent the past few years working with SKM heading up their learning and development team. Her work has ranged from designing and implementing SKM's Talent Management Framework and their global leadership development curriculum to the practical application of Team Management Systems and other models for developing team effectiveness. Libby holds a post graduate qualification in human resource development and is accredited in a range of psychometric instruments including the Team Management Profile.

For more information please contact Libby at or visit

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