September 2023  -  Article

Could Working in a Megaproject be Good for Your Career?

By Claire Harbour and Antoine Tirard

This spring, when we started to hear noises about scores of graduates from our own and other business schools going to work in a highly visible megaproject in a country with controversial policies in the Middle East, our interest was piqued. It was beginning to sound like a modern-day El Dorado, and we wondered what could be going through the heads of those signing up for massive salaries, megaprojects and the career and personal reputation makers or breakers involved. Huge projects court colossal stakes: whether the Three Gorges Dam in China, which necessitated the forced resettlement of over one million people but brought renewable energy and better flood control, or the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, with its immense political and environmental implications, or indeed giant sports stadiums, mines, and so on.

There is much evidence that a substantial proportion of megaprojects typically don’t deliver on time, as intended, or even at all, as argued by a 2015 McKinsey study. And INSEAD professor Phanish Puranam has carried out research as to why such projects fail, including: poor timing of announcement of project targets; the use of contingency plans and slack; managing the composition of the core group of stakeholders; unclear management of decision hierarchy, and management of transparency with the media

This background gave rise to some questions on our part, about the risks and opportunities involved in pursuing a career fully or partially in megaprojects. They are singularly shiny objects, visible, often fancy, and sometimes fundamentally critical to a whole nation or region. The appeal and attraction are easily understandable.

So, we decided to talk to those who are, or have been involved in such megaprojects, serially or shorter term. The career and reputation stakes are definitely higher for these people, and we wanted to understand more about the attractions, the challenges, the tradeoffs, and other risk or success factors that may not be clear from the outset. For understandable reasons, some of the identities in this article are disguised.

Maria – Balancing career ambitions with environmental consciousness

Maria grew up in small town Germany, the daughter of elementary school teachers, who lacked the desire or sense of adventure to look far beyond the region’s borders. As soon as she was old enough to realize it, Maria knew she was after more in life. She chose to study engineering, and was admitted at only 17 to the Technical Institute of Munich. There, inspired by a “beautiful-minded” professor she became fascinated by both nuclear and renewable energies.

Her early professional wanderlust got her an internship in Spain, to work on solar electricity projects, and she then progressed to a first graduate role in the same field and geography. She loved her work, and changed company several times over the next few years, but began to sense a difference in her career trajectory and earning power, compared to her peers at more prestigious organizations. And so, at just 25, she decided she would study for an MBA, to increase her chances of success both in terms of leadership and finances. The MBA experience was life-transforming for Maria: “It put a brand-new stamp on me, and moved me into properly global contexts”.

A momentary hiccup in her job search turned out to have a silver lining, and a timely post for a job in renewables with a Saudi Arabian company in Dubai led to a rapid hire. Maria‘s excitement at being in a “proper” big company, with a United Nations of staff, was immense. However, after five years, burnout, and little further room for growth, Maria decided to move on and leave behind the cultural melting pot of Dubai. She moved to Shell, in the Hague, where she was able to replicate the multicultural environment, if not the climate.

After a few years, having been sent to manage a new acquisition in her home country, and frustrated by the culture she was met with, Maria became restless, and was on the lookout for her next big challenge.

One cold evening, on her way home, her bike suffered a flat tire, underlining her disgruntlement with the world. While waiting for the bike to be repaired, she noticed a post about the NEOM megaproject in Saudi Arabia. Her immediate thought was, “That’s not some cop-out tourist destination like Bangkok, Dubai or New York. That’s a hell of a challenge“. Her research, via the NYT suggested that the country was undergoing a lot of positive change: “If you’ve not been in Saudi Arabia in the last five years, you’ve not been in Saudi Arabia”.

Maria decided to take the opportunity as she felt she could afford to make a riskier professional choice. Her due diligence led to the conclusion that, “it’s not like a start-up that will die when the $2M funding runs out“. She recognized that the project could fail with political leadership changes, but equated the odds of that happening with the likelihood that Shell would collapse. She exited Shell diplomatically, in order to be able to boomerang if necessary.

The blank slate is what most inspires Maria with this project. Also, her love of working in chaos. She experiences it as a second college experience in which she has made more friends in three months then she would in three years in Germany or the Netherlands. People working are “on the fly” and they can talk about everything, and collaborate on how to contribute in their own way.

When asked about how she handles comments or criticism around the ethics of the project, she confidently explains her point of view, with a conviction that she can influence the entity from within and is not losing sleep. She opens the debate with “Is working for NEOM that much worse than working for Big Tobacco or the Gaming industry?” She does recognize that she cannot change all aspects, but she does not try to justify this, nor to twist the truth. She sees the gray between the black and the white. She points out that there are ways of giving and influencing all around her every day, and these range from spontaneous gifts to the poorly paid workers, to attempting to challenge the thinking of top leaders. Maria’s ethical position is that she is well aware of the realities of climate change, and is happy to take dollars from any source in the form of salary while working towards the future of renewable energy. In her words: “If I know I am working towards something good – climate change, species-preservation… — I sleep well at night knowing it has far more meaning and purpose than marketing yogurt!”

Maria’s advice for a young professional considering work in megaprojects brought a quote from the Rudyard Kipling poem “If—” (“if you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors, just the same…“). She explains: “It’s important to look at your own values and standards, as those make you who you are. Figure out what you are willing and not willing to change. And understand that your standards will be eroded if you’re not careful. An open mind and honesty are crucial. Avoid the mediocre, as that is the fastest way to have your values eroded, and instead, seek out the brilliant people, whatever they look like. And as for the chaos, if you think you can control it, you will burn out in six months. Some things you can change, some you cannot.”

Anasatasia – A journey of leadership, cultural challenges and resilience

Born into a family of Greek immigrants in Africa, Anastasia’s childhood  was marked by the shock of sudden departure. They had left behind their prosperity in a moment of crisis, and returned to Greece to re-invent their life. Helping out and being responsible from young age was an essential part of her upbringing. Before the age of 18 she was freelancing in the travel company where her older sister worked. By the time she had begun work on her Law degree, she was already transferring American tourists from airport to hotel, or accompanying them to excursions.

Her study choice reflected her love of justice and structure. However, her taste for the diverse challenges of the travel and event industry won over, and she was granted increasing responsibilities. By graduation, she was already involved in incentive travel across the globe, negotiating and building business from Asia to Latin America.

Being unusually young for her level of seniority, Anastasia often found it difficult to convince people to trust her capacities, but she was no pushover, and used her communication skills, and ability to remain calm in a storm, to climb the ranks. When Greece held the presidency of the European Union in 2003, she was seconded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and thrived, having more fun than either Law or Diplomacy alone would have afforded.

Early success spurred her on to obtaining a key role for the Athens Olympic Games. As a deputy of the Olympic Village Operations Centre, she was in charge of creating a great environment, keeping things calm, and also solving endless problems. She delivered impressively, while ignoring at the time the many emails that were arriving from Qatar, inviting her to consider a stream of opportunities in the small nation’s ongoing bid to become a giant player in sports events. She eventually decided to be adventurous and take one of these seriously.

Despite family and friends raising major questions about how she would be treated as a woman in the Middle East, Anastasia accepted a role as manager of the Athletes’ Village for the Asian Games, which is the world’s second largest multi-sport event. Her mother cried. Her sister told her “she would be eaten alive”. And her brother was speechless. With the wise reframe that “this is something from which I can come back if I choose to..”, it was actually the beginning of a long period, running megaprojects in a single country.

As she has navigated through the past 18 years or so, Anastasia has held many operational and strategic roles. Firstly, on the Qatar Olympic Committee, planning and delivering multiple and diverse world championships, multi-sport games and programmes, from Athletics to Arab Games to Schools Olympic Programme , and culminating in leading the strategy for a number of winning bids to host major events in Doha. Next, as COO of the Paralympic Athletics World Championships, and then onward into creating and hosting global healthcare and education summits with Qatari foundations and organizations. The peak of her achievement in Qatar was undoubtedly her role as Executive Director for the FIFA World Cup in 2022. Her career progress has happened organically, as she has become increasingly well-known to the powers that be in the Qatari economy. The inevitable political ebbs and flows have been tough, but she has invariably found ways to lift herself up. Even when the global pandemic threatened the FIFA World Cup, she pushed on through. .

So, how does Anastasia explain her success and ongoing enthusiasm for such massive projects? She surrounds herself with top-notch experts; and is not  threatened by their glow; quite the opposite. “People matter – it’s the people who make the events happen“. She remembers with humility the days when it was her rushing across a city with a lost suitcase, or settling a squabble in the village.

With regard to the potential downsides in terms of reputation, Anastasia is quite clear. She has seen plenty of discrimination and bias in her time as major events draw naturally public attention. She remembers the lack of confidence in the successful delivery of the Athens Olympic Games, with the Greeks eventually proving profoundly otherwise. She cites the global media focus on Qatari attitudes on matters involving human rights. She explains that it was more of  lack of readiness to deal with such matters that was at stake as opposed to fundamental bias. And with her courage, help and influence, things were much improved. In the end, success is measured by the steady progress , and she is proud of the progress she has fomented.

At the time we spoke, Anastasia had a senior advisor role at the upcoming Asian Cup, Qatar 2023 and was considering her forward options with increasing clarity. She is not under pressure to find the next project, either financially or emotionally, and is in search of meaningful and generous contexts in which to play next time. 

When asked to compare her old self with her new self, she explained that her old self is a climber, an explorer, and a risk taker, while her new self is a conqueror and only “halfway there ». Her advice to young people, considering a career in megaprojects: “They need to do the basics of the job in order to become a proper leader. She knows what it’s like to be on a bus going from point A to point B and how important it is not to lose the luggage. And, no matter how impossible things may seem, no matter how high the mountain might look, if it feels like the right mountain, then climb it. She also reminds us to have empathy and care about people, as it is people who make things work. “Policies are just constructions, and we need to have ethos and be professional. The power of knowing what we can do, what we could do, and what we don’t want to do is really important. So be conscious in everything you do”.

Carlos – a dreamer’s journey from nature lover to visionary entrepreneur

Carlos grew up in Mexico, deeply connected to nature, and with plans of becoming a biologist or a zoologist. His father was a neurologist and his mother, an entrepreneurial nurse, who “made things happen ». After a pragmatically-chosen degree in biochemical engineering, Carlos‘s first jobs were in biotech companies, already with a pioneering and visionary outlook on what might be the next great solution. His entrepreneurial side emerged when he worked with a friend in Paraguay on a plant which had properties similar to sugar, and he took out a patent. In the meantime, for family reasons, he decided to move to Venezuela. In this new context, his CV was impressive enough to score him a role in R&D at P&G.

Early on, Carlos detected that he enjoyed working with products and people, using his interactions with teams, not only to become a good marketer, but also to discover his passion. Once again, he was applying science to real user cases out in the world. Having had to pass through the hoop of an interview with the company president in order to move officially into the marketing function, Carlos went from strength to strength across national, regional and global roles, and never got bored as he switched challenges every two to three years.

After 12 years with the marketing giant, Carlos was again tempted to scratch his entrepreneurship itch, and set up a consulting and trading company with regional influence.

A former colleague had been involved with the innovative, public investment fund in Saudi Arabia. He strove to persuade Carlos to join the crusade into new ways of living that was to become the NEOM project. While he took a bit of persuasion and digging into the detail, ultimately, Carlos’s interest was piqued, and he did not mind the benefits that went with the role.

He was drawn by the massive ambition and the blank sheet of paper, and his idealistic, dreamer personality led him to wonder how he would contribute, and what he could learn. His major question was ”What can I do to make my role count?”

Convincing senior leadership of the significance of branding and global campaigns, and assembling a dedicated team, proved to be a formidable challenge for Carlos once inside. Managing “up”, and complex, tough negotiation were an essential part of his work, and the constantly shifting quicksand of politics, both internal and in the eco-system around the project, was a challenge to which he rose confidently. Much of the work he was involved with was done in stealth mode, and he and his team put together the DNA behind the brand, and so his skills as a visionary were stretched to their limits.

By the time Carlos had got his feet under the table the global pandemic struck. With family in both Venezuela and scattered over Europe, he held on until a friend, who worked closely with the WHO, advised him to get out immediately. He did, and monitored his team from a distance for a further six months, but in the end it became untenable, and it was impossible, logistically to exit the country and return, so he left the project to keep close to his family.

When reflecting on the reputational aspect of his work at NEOM, Carlos describes how he put on metaphorical armor while working there. He never updated his LinkedIn profile and was very quiet on social media. He was neither bragging about his lofty role and workplace, nor hiding it. He was highly motivated, but not public. He used his natural introversion to be a little enigmatic and even more discrete. He was encouraged by the fact that, in the early stages, major individual players and companies were involved. When KSA had frictions with the global community, Carlos continued to focus on what he could control from within, and had all kinds of frank discussions with suppliers, offering them the opportunity to step away. His primary focus was not politics but the higher order vision of the project and how he could contribute towards that vision.

What advice would Carlos give to one of his own young adult children if they were keen to join such a project? He would expect them to reflect on the destination, country and culture, and whether or not principles were in opposition with their own. When evaluating a project, “If the opportunity is one that will change the world, then take that opportunity and create step change. It’s worth it.” NEOM was a roller coaster, and not just pink flowers and unicorns, but he would do it again with no hesitation. 

About a year ago, he was invited to return to a similar megaproject, this time as a consultant, which Carlos considered, albeit only briefly. While he is extremely happy, creating a growing sustainable real estate development business in a burgeoning tourist destination, one senses that he still has at least one big visionary global project in him. If it has significant scope and scale, ambition and vision then he will be on the next plane.

In the realm of giants – considering a career and thriving in megaprojects

Our three El Dorado players bring us much to reflect on. Do you have to be a dreamer? Do you have to compromise your values? Will your reputation be marked? And what extra skills or mindsets does it take? How easy is it to move in and out of such a context?

One thing that seems to stand out is the attraction of staying in such grandiose scales. Not only our subjects, but many of those we researched as we prepared for this article seem not to return to more humdrum scopes, once they have tasted the richness of the largest of projects. And they all seem to have figured out how to square away the ethical jungle in which they play. With some reason, we see, as they compare their situations with the tradeoffs involved in any business career.

As the world continues towards ever more ambitious projects, with huge goals in mind, there seems no end to the flow of offers of fame and fortune within. Now, we turn our attention to recommendations on how to survive and thrive on the ride, along with advice to those thinking about building a career in the biggest of the big projects across the world.

Tips for Surviving and Thriving in Megaprojects

1 – Understand your values and set boundaries; stick to them to maintain your integrity throughout the project.

2 – Embrace the unknown and adaptability: develop a mindset that embraces uncertainty and learn to revel in chaos.

3 – Surround yourself with top-notch experts: these are massive enterprises, and building great teams and advisors will enhance your problem-solving capabilities and contribute to the success of the project.

4 – Foster strong relationships and teamwork, embracing the quality and diversity of people around you, recognizing, if you are far from home, that the best talent may not come in the shape or size you expect.

5 – Maintain a global perspective: embrace diversity and seek to understand different perspectives.

6 – Stay focused on the project’s mission and purpose: understand how your contributions align with the larger vision and find meaning in the positive impact you can make through your involvement.

7 – Take care of your well-being: taking care of yourself will help you sustain your energy and perform at your best as well as navigating the “letdown” phase that inevitably sets in on completion.

Advice for Young Professionals Considering a Career in Megaprojects

1 – Research and understand the project: Learn about its goals, scope, potential impact, and any controversies or ethical considerations associated with it.

2 – Assess your skills and readiness: Consider whether you have the necessary expertise, adaptability, and resilience to thrive in a high-pressure and fast-paced environment. Identify any gaps in your skills and determine if you are willing to develop them.

3 – Assess your values and alignment: reflect on your own values and determine whether they align with the project’s mission and goals. Consider if the project’s potential positive impact outweighs any potential ethical concerns. Be honest with yourself about what you are comfortable supporting and contributing to.

4 – Consider the long-term implications: how this experience will shape your professional trajectory and whether it aligns with your long-term goals. Evaluate the potential benefits and drawbacks of being associated with such a high-profile project.

5 – Seek mentors and advice: Reach out to experienced professionals who have worked on similar megaprojects or in related industries.

6 – Network and build connections: Networking can provide valuable opportunities for collaboration, learning, and future career prospects.

7 – Be prepared for trade-offs: Megaprojects often involve sacrifices and trade-offs. Recognize that working on an El Dorado project may require you to make personal sacrifices, such as long working hours, travel, or being away from loved ones. Consider whether you are willing to make these trade-offs for the potential rewards and impact of the project

Navigating the seas of megaproject leadership: insights from a senior project director

Rémi, a career-long manager and project leader in the oil and gas industry, currently Project Director on an international megaproject, answers some questions about his experience of project leadership, how it impacted his career and advice for early career professionals considering a career in big projects.

1 – What makes the project leadership roles you have held stand out from the more ordinary ones?

Our megaprojects are now typically over $1B in value, so we need executives to run them, not just traditional project managers. It’s not for everyone. The Project Director has to manage all stakeholder relationships, whereas Project Managers manage the day-to-day of a project. I use up to half of my time in client or internal board meetings, with JV partners as well as key subcontractors and suppliers, focusing on risk management by always being on the lookout for what could go wrong and adjusting & tweaking the strategy and tactics while ensuring that we get and keep the access to resources and assets we need. In addition, I have to keep tab on everything from digital initiatives, human rights, ESG, local content, cashflow, regular reporting and deciding which issues I need to escalate for resolution or arbitration.

2 – What do you enjoy in your current Project Leadership position?

Winning an enormous project is fun, really fun. Executing the project is a blast. Of course a project with scale and a value which includes many digits is thrilling – but the really exciting part is the people – developing the team with whom you are executing and delivering the project. I’m quite fortunate to have access to fantastic people, partly because the project is unique, and partly as a result of my track-record as a project director. Creating structure and processes that work is gratifying, as is being able to promote people as a result of their dedication, efforts and unique work. It is wonderful to get out of the run of the mill stuff, and we do have a little more latitude to create our own project processes within the global setup and guidelines. The flip side is that the “gap” at the end of any project can be really hard to manage, both because of emotional issues linked to “moving on” and practical issues linked to “what’s next”. It’s part of my challenge – and responsibility – to help my team members transition in and out well.

3 – What does a project leadership role do to affect your career, positively, negatively?

In a company like ours, where projects are centerstage and our bread and butter, it is strongly recommended to have participated in a few projects, from tender to completion. This not only gives visibility, but credentials. In the early (first 10 years) of your career, you probably will have to chose between following a technical career ladder or a more project management one. But in both cases you will need to derive technical expertise as well as people management skills. Projects are exciting and varied, but also laden with hiccups. It’s not a comfortable ride, so you need to be able to deal with surprises and uncertainty.  I like to say that we’re going to war together on a project, so we need to thoroughly understand all our stakeholders, internally and externally – but most importantly we need to trust each other! If and when “shit happens”, we will sort it out as a team – and my commitment is that I will not feed anybody who’s made a mistake to the lions. And, one final anecdote: even on a mega project like my current ones – not a single team-member reports hierarchically to me. It’s all about leadership through influencing.

4 – What advice do you have for early career professionals who are contemplating a career in or around big projects?

Here are my five top pieces of advice: First, remember that big projects should equal big opportunities, challenges and profits. Second, go for fun when you are studying and when you are working – if you’re not motivated you won’t be able to sustain the pace, nor be successful. Third, try to choose the right project, the right context, the right people, and you’ll be great. Fourth, ask yourself how this project and your role in it will broaden your career, and make sure to keep doors open. And finally, don’t forget sometimes to deep-dive in some basic tasks – and try to learn the ropes from the old, seasoned experts: there is no better learning!

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