What makes a good PM or QS? Thoughts from a public sector client

The third article in our client views series is a discussion with a director at Sheffield City Council about his thoughts on the role of project managers and quantity surveyors


  • Nalin Seneviratne

06 February 2020

© Nalin Seneviratne

Q: What is your experience of working with project managers and quantity surveyors? 

NS: I have worked with project managers and quantity surveyors in the capacity of client and contractor for 35 years. I have also worked in both roles over the course of my career. As a client for the past 16 years, I have commissioned both in-house and consultant project managers and quantity surveyors.  Currently I am responsible for Sheffield City Council's Heart of the City II project – a £470m mixed-use city centre regeneration scheme. The council has taken on the developer role in a fully commercial environment, and office and retail lettings make up a large part of the project. The first phase of this project has been completed successfully: on time, on budget and to the required quality.  The council is working with in-house consultant and contractor professionals, and it is through exceptional team working and collaboration that we are able to achieve this success.

Q: Which qualities and skills do you look for when appointing or working with a project manager?

NS: The role of the project manager is to be clear about the strategic direction of the project, yet also able to change tack or use different tactics as the project progresses and circumstances change. Ultimately, a project manager ensures that the final desired outcome is achieved. Understanding tools and techniques for project management is important, but this needs to run alongside a clear understanding of people management principles and stakeholder engagement and management.

Leadership is therefore a fundamental attribute for me when I am looking to appoint a project manager. Someone could have all the technical knowledge and qualifications, but if taking responsibility and being able to lead the team is not a characteristic they possess then their work becomes more about project administration.

The ability to step back and see the bigger picture is also important. When I was cutting my teeth as a project manager, my mentor always made sure I took a step back and tried to look at the whole project and reflect on how things were taking shape. I've never forgotten this simple piece of advice.

Q: Can you give any examples of good or bad practice?

NS: The project doesn't usually work out so well if the project manager is too focused on process. People skills are key. In my opinion, understanding each stakeholder's objectives and using soft skills to stimulate those involved to meet the project objectives is an example of good practice. Being able to understand fully the nature and objectives of the client and how the project relates to these objectives is a key part of being able to apply these soft skills.

Q: How do you see the role developing in the future?

NS: People skills will continue to be crucial. As projects become more complex in terms of, for example, funding, stakeholder management, politics or market forces, the leadership role will become more important for managing all relevant stakeholders.

Technology is beginning to automate some of the processes that help project managers manage time, money and quality more effectively. This means a project manager's role will become more about ensuring that software and technology offer the right output, rather than calculating the outputs themselves.

A project manager's skill set should therefore be based on a solid foundation of knowledge about the stages that comprise a project.

Q: Which qualities and skills do you look for when appointing or working with a quantity surveyor?

NS: I have always believed that the quantity surveyor leads on cost management and contractual administration. The much-used term cost manager seems to reduce the role to only one of these responsibilities and doesnt respect the understanding quantity surveyors have for contractual arrangements and the appropriate commercial terms for a project.

Having been responsible for design development, I think it's important that the quantity surveyor is involved with the project from the outset, as they have a key part to play in advising on design cost decisions. This helps generate efficient designs and ensures budgets are managed through sharing information with the design team. On the contractor or supply side, I think the role is critical for managing effective supply chain administration – and is key to project cost and time risk management.

"The quantity surveyor of the future needs to be thinking about the value of projects not just the cost"

When appointing a quantity surveyor. I look for good financial and contractual technical skills. I also look for assertiveness, so their advice on cost and budget issues is heard and any degree of risk is understood by the team. This calls for the soft skills I referenced earlier.

Ultimately, I try to hire quantity surveyors who can lead the project appropriately. This requires strength of character based on a solid foundation of technical knowledge.

Q: Can you give any examples of good or bad practice?

NS: An example of best practice is when there is a seamless relationship between the quantity surveyor and the project manager, allowing them to support the client fully in achieving the project objectives.

Collaboration with others is also extremely important – quantity surveyors who reach out to everyone in the team and supply chain and seek best practice from specialist contractors play their part in a successful project.

Q: How do you see the role developing in the future?

NS: With reference to quantity surveyors frequently being referred to as cost managers, I believe there may need to be a change of job title. It may be better to move away from both quantity surveyor and cost manager and towards a term that better reflects the full range of professional skills, so clients can fully appreciate the service available to them.

A change of title would also mean the role is more relevant to the current business environment. With less of a focus on traditional bills of quantities and more on issues of efficiency, sustainability, carbon and climate change and supply chain management I think the word value is missing from the role title.

The quantity surveyor of the future needs to be thinking about the value of projects, not just the cost. This means an increased focus on social and environmental capital and a greater understanding of the relationship between cost and economic value. This, in turn, ensures understanding of long-term issues and whole life-cycle matters.

All of these elements, combined with the expertise around commercial contracts, should mean the quantity surveying role  whatever name it takes occupies a critical position in the development of the built environment.

Nalin Seneviratne FRICS is director of city centre development at Sheffield City Council

Related competencies include: Leading projects people and teams

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