What makes an exceptional commercial director?

5 min read

Entrepreneurial, collaborative and central to any construction project, the importance of a commercial director’s role can never be overstated by those in the industry. Christian Moffatt, Mace Director of Recruitment, explains the skills that mark out a truly exceptional commercial director. 

With a challenging market making sensible margins harder to achieve, a more claims orientated environment and an increasing focus on innovation, the best commercial directors are responding by adapting their skill sets and inspiring their teams to do the same.

I have spoken to a great many commercial directors in my time and the one thing that is universally agreed is that, outside of taking on the financial responsibility for a project, the greatest role they play is one of bringing together an entire team.

1. Build relationships

That leads me to the first skill of an exceptional commercial director which is the ability to build strong relationships, after all every client, consultant, project manager and subcontractor work with, respond to and engage with the commercial director. 

In my experience some of the greatest leaders I have worked with have started out as commercial directors. At Mace at least half of our Group Board come from a commercial or financial background and now run our company in a variety of roles. That is not because they have proved themselves in their disciplines, it is largely about their ability to engage with and work successfully with everyone they come into contact with. 

2. Collaboration is key

As with many other disciplines, a strong network of contacts is key to success, but to be exceptional at this role it must go further than that. The second key skill is the ability to introduce a culture of transparency and collaboration into your team. 

This is so much more than just choosing the right sub-contractors and team members to surround yourself with, working closely with the project director, and making sure you get along with your own commercial team, creating a culture of collaboration is about ensuring that lines of communication are open and easy for these team members, that they understand key aspects of the contract through financial direction and instruction, and that they can raise concerns and air their views knowing that their opinions are listened to and acted upon. 

3. Encourage development

Being a good commercial director is not just a balancing act between the bottom line of a project and the satisfaction of a client, it is also a balancing act of effectively leading your team from the front while avoiding a ‘master and commander’ approach. Because after all, any commander is only as strong as the team they surround themselves with, and that brings us to the third skill of an exceptional commercial director: encouraging professional development. 

For any director, hiring good people is key to success, but the effort doesn’t stop there, the best leaders work hard to keep these people by treating them fairly, investing in them and ensuring they reach their potential. 

4. The early bird…

Building relationships and fostering collaboration are very important but let’s not forget the ultimate function of a commercial director. Having full control of the financial aspects of a project means that the financial buck quite literally stops with them. 

Sometimes projects do not go according to plan, and in these situations being a commercial director can often feel like a juggling act between the client and the project team. Avoiding this situation isn’t always easy and managing risk can be harder still, but many commercial directors would say that a positive step towards this is to get involved right from the very start of a project to understand the risk, minimise it and ultimately avoid those claims that can prove costly, risky and potentially damaging to all-important relationships. 

To put it simply, exceptional commercial directors are looking to add value for their clients, just like the rest of us, and the best place to do this is from the front end of a project. 

So there they are, my four key steps to being an exceptional commercial director. In an industry that is changing at an unprecedented rate, it is good to know that these four key skills always have been and always will be the key to success for commercial directors everywhere. However these changes shouldn’t and can’t be completely ignored, and the fact is that this very traditional discipline needs to adapt and react to the world around it. 

One thing that our current commercial directors agree on is that this change needs to happen at the grass roots, and that universities are the places to look to to give future and aspiring commercial directors the tools they will need to lead the revolution of the discipline. 

Commercial management is not just about technical application anymore, it’s about reading the market, thinking beyond the discipline and a belief that truly innovative solutions are made through continuous learning and the sharing of ideas. 

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