Innovation, Inclusivity and Supportive Leadership: How to Save the Construction Industry in South Africa

August 22, 2019

Gavin Taylor & Joanne Walsh

Chief Operating Officer – Grinaker LTA & Managing Director – IDG South Africa
Graphic of a lightbulb with lots of business-related words and graphs coming out of it

Innovation, Inclusivity and Supportive Leadership: How to Save the Construction Industry in South Africa


Gavin Taylor
Chief Operating Officer – Grinaker LTA


Joanne Walsh
Managing Director – IDG South Africa

For the last 15 years, Gavin Taylor has served at the coal-face of the “building and construction business”, in executive operating positions across the African continent and Europe. Gavin’s international project experience spans Africa, North America, UK, Europe and the Middle East.

He attributes his “on-time, on-budget” success, to his proactive “community” approach when working with teams and willingness to learn. His track-record evidences an exemplary health and safety record, putting people first, despite the engineering, strategic, organisational, financial and risk complexities under his watch.

In this guest blog, he sets out his thoughts on the future of the construction industry in South Africa. 

My premise suggests that the future of the construction industry relies on enough people, in the private and public sectors, embracing the real-life cycle cost of construction projects, to govern all strategic planning and decision-making to ensure maximum value is achieved. Despite the current down-turn in the industry and the “snail’s pace” in the delivery of transformation, opportunities exist within the built environment where one can achieve enhanced economic value. By leveraging the available skill in the industry and advancing these through technology and innovation, value can be realised long after the contractors have left the building.

Simply said, innovation is key. Innovation in the ways we build, both “things” and people. “Bricks and mortar thinking” limits the opportunities to build sustainable and effective smart infrastructure, with a community of talented and committed individuals wanting to make a difference.

Science, Technology, Standards & Red Tape

Building sciences are ripe for the picking. By applying biology, science and a dollop of common sense, aligned to engineering principals, we can embark on a new trajectory that will define; the way we bid for work, deliver long lasting quality and develop people that will, in time, become the custodians of a robust industry that is capable of sharing in the rewards of social capitalism.

With a slow uptake thus far in implementation, the construction industry has extensive scope and potential for making rapid progress in the adoption of new technology. There are myriad new technologies begging attention. Design codes and standards are slow to turn-around, and in many cases, these are still locked in the 1960’s and 70’s. It is for this reason that forward-thinking companies who embrace new technology, are committed to increasing the longevity of their builds and are at the forefront of environmentally sound solutions, find themselves prejudiced when it comes to competing on price.

Procurement, Pricing & Prejudice

The pricing pressure to tender and compete for work, lacks a qualitative approach. The 6 – 12 month building objective takes precedent with the prize going to the lowest bidder. 4% margins or less dictate detrimental consequences for the longevity of the built environment. Innovation comes at an initial premium, despite evidence to show it will reduce the full life-cycle cost and add value.

Patriarchs, Millenials & Women

For whatever we may say and feel, the “old guard” have been remiss in transferring skills. A patriarchal society has delivered self-serving leaders, perpetuating protectionism, and failing to give youth an opportunity to grow.

The construction industry, particularly, lacks appeal to millennials and women. The same is true for the industry on a global scale. The rigid “CLOCK IN – CLOCK OUT” work requirement is viewed as restrictive to millennials. There are appropriate platforms to accommodate millennials in our industry. In Europe, the UK and the States, construction work has become manufacturing work. Much of the construction work is done off-site with “plug and play” modular units manufactured in facilities with access to skill put to work in a factory environment, negating the need for migrant worker low tech construction models. This forward-thinking has fulfilled long-term job creation objectives in locations with a healthy talent pool.

Companies that see technology as a priority, stand a better chance of winning over the hearts and minds of millennials and women.

Skills Development, Inclusivity & Sustainable Employment

BEE scorecard expectations are widely considered as unrealistic and are failing to create sustainable job opportunities. Government projects dictate 30% local content in their tenders. This is not necessarily a long term sustainable job creation solution.

It has worked in the mining industry, with a typical 30-year life-cycle, but does not hold true for the construction industry. With large construction and infrastructure projects, few and far between, particularly in less developed areas, construction companies will find their project time served after 6 – 12 months (perhaps 18 months at a push), this is not enough time to train local tradesmen thus leaving half-skilled construction workers unemployed in the longer term. A handful may find opportunities in facilities maintenance.

Now, if we look at the real operational life-cycle value of the project, we should consider the skills associated with the purpose of the building/infrastructure project. It is these skills that create long term jobs and deliver valuable services for the whole life-cycle of the building. When building a school, train teachers; a hospital, train nurses, and so on. In this way these people remain employed long after the contractors have downed tools.

It is for this reason, I suggest that government take a longer view and consider an innovative approach to skills development, partnering with construction companies who value the transformation agenda.

Leadership, Community & Social Capitalism

A business needs to see people as a highly valued commodity. Self-serving leaders don’t promote the future career choices of individuals. It is time to make the development of others a performance metric for middle managers upwards, and a minimum requirement for them to be considered for promotion. Budgets need to be allocated for personnel development at the planning stage by both the public and private sectors and the cost burden carried throughout the development cycle.

Leadership has evolved. Old school leaders need to own up for failing to develop the skills industry needs. They see themselves as accountable for the project delivery, rather than the people they need to fulfil the needs of future projects, and more significantly, they have not been held to account for inadequate succession planning.

Whilst “servant leadership” has been widely adopted, and welcomed, in the world of work, I believe it requires yet another evolution to what I call “supportive leadership”.

Some of the supportive leadership principals that have served me, my teams, and my shareholders include:

  • Seek out the people with potential to grow.
  • Give your people career path assistance, mapping alternatives, managing expectations and aspirations. Discuss how much time it will realistically take to achieve their goals, what tools they will need to collect along the way and afford them the time and opportunity to grow. Most of all, give them ownership of their self-development.
  • Develop great followers and foster “thoughtful disobedience”, not following instructions blindly, but understanding the outcomes and deciding how best to get there safely, efficiently whilst meeting the delivery requirements. Frame the outcomes and allow them to get there. Create an environment so they can speak out without fear or favour, with appropriate persuasion and communication skills to articulate their ideas and solicit support, for their bold and audacious thinking.
  • Communicate up and down the line and revisit these conversations time and time again, to make sure you have been heard correctly.
  • Become a self-correcting and agile leader. Question yourself, revisit your decisions, consider their validity over and over.
  • It is better to develop a community than a team. A team delivers on objectives; a community builds on objectives, inspires and commits to the people around them. A community needs to be sustained with generous doses of inspiration.

Supportive leadership is all about being “custodians” of a community or organisation that aspires to being better today than it was yesterday, with a social conscience that contributes to personal growth and economic freedom for all.




IDG South Africa supports and applauds Gavin’s thinking. His drive to deliver on projects and create shareholder value is not diminished by his commitment to lead better, create a community of discerning followers and urge leaders in the industry to become custodians of emerging technologies, extraordinary talent and sustainable transformation, even under trying circumstances. Followership, partnership and collaboration govern our ethos and our client interventions, delivering impactful business results.

Joanne Walsh, Managing Director, IDG South Africa



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