At its heart, project management is really about people

From the outside, project management often looks like little more than a box-ticking exercise: a step-by-step process from feasibility study to completion. In reality, the experience is much more complex. It relies on a host of technical skills and expertise, and, above all, a skill many might ignore: the ability to work well with people.

Tumelo Malefahlo, a project manager at Leoka Engineering, an engineering, project development and management services company based in Johannesburg, knows this all too well. In 2018, Malefahlo and his team started working on a major electrical infrastructure replacement project for Anglo American Platinum’s Rustenburg Base Metals Refinery. In addressing aging electrical infrastructure, the project aimed to prevent unplanned plant shutdowns and high production losses.

“From the very beginning we realised that, in order to make this project a success, we had to walk side by side with our client,” Malefahlo says. “We had to understand what keeps them awake at night. Once we established that, we began to come to grips with the complexity of the problem and to develop an appropriate, long-term solution.”

Ultimately, the team proposed building a new motor control centre building – no small task. Convincing the client of this approach took some doing, and the Leoka team had to complete extensive field work and analysis to defend their position. “We had to help our client understand the reasons for our way of thinking,” Malefahlo adds. “But we know that this was the best and most sustainable option available.”

The project is still underway, with the construction work nearing completion. The project has involved multiple disciplines, from civil and structural teams to those responsible for mechanical, electrical, and control and instrumentation work. Leoka has also overseen the management of Anglo American Platinum’s contractors and has had to deal quickly and effectively with unexpected challenges and pressures. “Clear communication and open engagement with every stakeholder and contract involved was critical,” says Malefahlo. “These relationships are all that matter.”

Kwenza Ndlovu, another project manager at Leoka, agrees. Ndlovu and his team recently assisted Arnot Opco with a mine rehabilitation project, providing project management expertise that served as additional capacity to the limited resources that the company had internally at the time. “A big part of our work was helping our client in improving their project management and procurement systems,” Ndlovu explains. “We filled multiple gaps and helped to capacitate the team at the same time.”

This process had to be carefully managed. It depended on the open communication and trust that defines Leoka’s relationship with its clients. “Over the years, we’ve learnt to put stakeholder engagement first,” says Ndlovu. “We understand that every project has different stakeholders, each of whom has different needs and expectations, and different ways of evaluating a project’s success. I believe that, if everyone feels included from the start, and is equipped with information that is relevant to them, the process will run smoothly. And in the case of Arnot Opco, it certainly did.”

Leoka’s work with Arnot Opco transcended traditional project management and involved both an environmental component and community relations. “The work we did with nearby communities wasn’t originally part of our scope,” Ndlovu adds. “But we were asked to assist with it based on our work on site. Once again, our ability to work well with people stood us in good stead.”

Ndlovu also used this project as a mentoring opportunity, working closely with a new junior civil engineer who had no previous project management experience. Among other skills, he focused his attention on teaching her how to read people, how to communicate, and how to anticipate and address different people’s needs. The young engineer concerned is now a junior project manager running projects of her own at Leoka. “Effective project management comes down to people,” Ndlovu concludes. “Without people, there wouldn’t be any projects in the first place.”

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