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WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Dean McGrail talks about embracing regional culture

Dean McGrail, director of property and buildings at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, manages over 500 people across the Middle East. After a quick yet diligent climb up the corporate ladder, McGrail has absorbed every experience as a learning lesson from his time in the university to working in the East and the GCC. He shares how culture should be understood rather than ignored for true success. Lorraine Bangera writes

By combining opportunity and hard work, Dean McGrail has climbed the ranks with WSP – Parsons Brinckerhoff (WSP | PB), over the last decade. Now in his late 30s, McGrail looks back at his life and subsequent climb up the ladder.

At the time, the young Brit from Leeds was sure he wanted to do something different with his life. While he was in university, he changed his major from geology and geophysics to fire engineering after having a look at its interesting syllabus. “Back then, the course was new – it had only been running for two years.”

This, however, did not scare McGrail; better yet it proved to be the right move for him, as when he reached graduation there were many companies lined up (particularly in the oil and gas sector), hunting for fire engineers. “That’s how I landed my first job in Manchester, as a fire protection designer for power stations.”

Even though McGrail bagged a great opportunity right after university, he craved for adventure in foreign lands. He jokes: “It was one of my major passions. I had a strong desire to work overseas but as hard as I tried, the furthest away I got to go was Newport in Wales!”

After shifting a couple of jobs, an opportunity presented itself in Hong Kong and McGrail promptly seized it. In 2001, McGrail made his way east to Hong Kong which embarked his journey with creating buildings.

Growing in the East

“A lot of things were very different at the time. China was growing,” he observes.

Not long after McGrail set himself up in Hong Kong, WSP came knocking on his door with a job offer. The company was looking to establish a fire engineering team.

Not only was McGrail still in his early 20s, he was also only in Hong Kong for three or four months. He recalls thinking what a huge step this would be for him, and an amazing opportunity. Without batting an eyelid, he sealed the deal and has been with the company ever since.

“WSP | PB has always been a very dynamic, young company,” McGrail reveals. “If you have value to add, they will give you the opportunity. For me, they gave me the opportunity, support, and structure to perform my best.”

Growing from strength to strength, and building a reputable fire engineering capacity in Asia, McGrail managed to get noticed over the years for his impeccable work ethic.

Things became even better when the China market began to expand tremendously.

“At the time, not a lot of people had experience. And even though I was young, the dynamic started to change, and I was sort of the ‘experienced’ one with international experience.”

McGrail used this time to move around, from Hong Kong to Shanghai and then Beijing. “We tried our best to establish relationships, helping clients to break into the region.”

He admits that there were a lot of pitfalls, but in return they educated him with more and more experience.

Moving to the Middle East

McGrail soon was presented with another opportunity to work overseas. But this time, it was the Middle East, with one of WSP’s first project in the region, after Rolex Tower in the early 1990s. McGrail and his team made their way to UAE to work on the Mall of the Emirates (MOE), a project that recently celebrated its 10 year anniversary.

The director was involved in MOE from 2003 until it official opened in 2005. WSP was also involved in a number of follow-up works such as the fashion avenue expansion, metro link’s extensions, a number of feasibility studies and upgrades.

McGrail has been in the GCC for over a decade now, and he thinks the market here is like no other. “There are tremendous improvements made every year.”

If anything were lacking, he says, it would be the number of talented professionals in the construction industry. “In the GCC,” he argues, “there are many talented people but there is also a great need and demand for more.

“People are coming in from all over the globe. I think the Middle East is in a position where it needs to try and put in some controls on who is working on their projects.”

He admits that in the beginning, people who made their way to the GCC were young, unmarried and had no family. “Basically, most of them lacked experience as professionals. But now, that is changing.”

He claims that before the financial crisis in 2008, there were a lot of people coming in but not necessarily experienced. And now, there is a better mix of people coming in and already settled here.

Regional experience could be extremely important while trying to find your feet in the GCC construction market. In fact McGrail says that he is happy about his prior Asian experience as it has helped him become more understanding of markets that culturally different than his own in the UK.

Leading a team

In the GCC, McGrail leads a team of 570 people working under him in the property and building department in the Middle East.

“I have a really good leadership team working below me and a lot of fantastic team members I would like to promote,” he beams. “As WSP | PB gave me the opportunity when I was young, I want to do the same for some of the brilliant people working under me. Especially the ones that are really passionate about what they want to do.”

He observes that most companies in this industry and region, tend to be age or qualification driven. “The process of a promotion tends to get quite bureaucratic which makes it tough for employees to grow within a company.”

What his team tries to advocate is that every employee has the opportunity to grow and be part of the leadership team.

He sees a lot of employees tend to leave a company when they look at leadership roles and think that they deserve to be there and cannot be.

McGrail discusses that most young employees come across a common adversary which is the perception of inexperience. “More than 25 to 30 years of experience, does not necessarily make the employee more skilled than someone with 10 years of experience.”

With the GCC being a new market, McGrail thinks it does push younger people to achieve more; quite different to Asia, as it was when he was there. “Asia is different now, but at the time, it very much focussed on age.”

Somehow that factor motivated McGrail to be better. He used his so-called limitation to drive him to be better. For instance, every time he went to a meeting, he made sure he was as prepared as he possibly could be to make sure no matter who was sitting at the opposite end, he would be more prepared.

In construction, McGrail says the key is to do your best. “A lot of it is about delivery, you have to deliver. If you win a project, you have to deliver. You’re only as good as your last project.”

McGrail stresses that age is not necessarily an important factor that helps you succeed, but drive, ambition, and the willingness to understand different cultures plays a bigger role than people realise.

Culture and other codes

He suggests that Asian markets and GCC markets are in fact quite similar in a lot of ways. In the last decade the GCC has grown in leaps and bounds, and McGrail discerns that this is the same dynamic that took place in Asia around a decade ago.

To demonstrate the tremendous growth Asia has witnessed in the last 10 years, he compared cities then and now. He says: “When I was living in Asia, Shanghai was a first tier city where all the growth was happening. Nowadays, our company is involved in super tall towers about 300 metres and 600 metres in what has been called third tier cities.”

He matches the phenomenal growth of both regions and conveys that they are truly very similar. “Both regions observe the rest of the world, learn, and then adapt it into their own markets.”

Another key similarity, McGrail points out is how Asians and GCC nationals are very proud of their culture and tend to push for what they want.

By observing the culture and the way a foreign market works, he has won brownie points while establishing himself in unknown territory. To be successful in any other market, he states, it is important to understand the cultural dynamics at play under the surface. “It is when you travel and work in different locations, that you broaden your perspective and unlock more learning.”

He explains: “When you go to a different country and be part of a different culture, you change your perception of it and understand how the local people work.”

For him, the Asian experience was key to his growth and prosperity.

He reasons, that in order to be successful in a region one mustn’t try to change the market but go along with it. He uses the Colloquial Colonialism podcast that plays in Emirates Airlines to further prove his point. “The podcast talks about the perception of going to another nation and telling them how to do things.

“Look out of your window… look at what this region has done in the last decade, how are you possibly going to tell them what to do?”

He maintains that the way to work well with a new culture is not by fighting it but adapting to it. “You cannot impose your views in this region, it just is not the way to establish relationships in this region, or any other.”

Grateful for his lessons learnt in Asia, McGrail admits that had he not gone to the East before GCC, he would not have had this sort of a perception at all.

For now, he says that the GCC has been his home for the last 11 years and he is very proud to have been part of building a nation – quite literally – with the team at WSP | PB.