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The project leadership centre creating a new breed of executive

16 August 2019
Giving today. Changing tomorrow.
A one-of-a-kind institute is helping projects deliver and equipping leaders for success.
Photograph of Rachel Ardler from Aboriginal Affairs NSW, who completed the Executive Leadership in Major Projects program

Rachel Ardler from Aboriginal Affairs NSW completed the Executive Leadership in Major Projects program at the John Grill Centre.


In the first decade of this century, Australia had one of its largest ever resources booms. It generated significant wealth, but the benefits could have been even greater.

As CEO of WorleyParsons, one of the world’s leading engineering and project management companies, John Grill witnessed the missed and mishandled opportunities of the time. “Projects weren’t so much poorly managed – they were poorly conceived,” says the Sydney alumnus. “Governance associated with prioritising activity was shabby. The leadership of projects was poor. But there was so much money being made that these problems were overlooked.”

As Grill saw it, one of the biggest problems was the lack of investment in developing and supporting Australia’s future project leaders.

To help address these issues, he donated $20 million to support the establishment of the John Grill Centre for Project Leadership at the University of Sydney in 2012.

“I made my original donation to help upgrade and, where necessary, build new research and education capability in the realm of projects and their leadership,” says Grill.

When project leadership goes wrong

Research suggests that failure rates for major projects generally run from 50 to 90 percent. In arenas from technology and infrastructure to new social programs, projects regularly come in over budget, behind schedule, or simply fail to deliver.

Suresh Cuganesan, CEO of the original centre and a professor at the University of Sydney Business School, was part of the team that built the centre. It was a time of deep discussion and wide consultation, identifying on-campus collaborators in areas spanning psychology, social sciences and business. The team also consulted with government and private-sector organisations to understand their sense of the problem.

“At the time, the liquified natural gas projects in Western Australia were having huge cost overruns,” says Cuganesan. “The overruns were a symptom, but the core problem needed to be identified.”

One key issue that emerged was in the upfront planning of projects. Missteps at this stage can lead to cost overruns, delays, poor decisions and more. Clear problem definition and disciplined project governance are vital but often neglected aspects of project leadership.

A one-of-a-kind executive leadership course

The John Grill Centre’s flagship course, Executive Leadership in Major Projects, is a four-week program spread across a year and supplemented by coaching, mentoring and diagnostics. There is nothing else quite like it.

More than 250 executives have undertaken the centre’s governance programs, 100 people have worked with participants from other organisations to solve problems in real time, and 200 have attended programs for project teams.

Looking at it another way, the centre has helped shape more than 500 project leaders and executives across 12 government agencies and eight industry areas as they work on $60 billion worth of projects.

Photograph of Rachel Ardler from Aboriginal Affairs NSW

Rachel Ardler from Aboriginal Affairs NSW

A new kind of leader

It would be easy to imagine that everyone using the centre is building roads, skyscrapers and tunnels, but the benefits are more wide-ranging.

There are, for instance, no skyscrapers or tunnels on Rachel Ardler’s to-do list as director of healing and reparations at Aboriginal Affairs NSW. Her project involves rethinking how her agency and others build relationships with Aboriginal communities, taking into account the history of injustice, particularly that of the stolen generations. She works to build honest and collaborative relationships to create initiatives that happen with communities, rather than to communities.

Ardler completed one of the centre’s team-focused courses, then went on to do the Executive Leadership in Major Projects program.

“Having worked all my career in government, it turned on different lights in new rooms,” she says. “It gave me insights into how different sectors work, so now I’m a lot more open to mixing up teams – involving creative people with more technical people to come up with new ways of problem-solving.”

Elsewhere at the centre, collaborators from the University and external organisations are shaping the way we think about the future of project leadership. The Better Infrastructure Initiative is led by Garry Bowditch and supported by a number of Australia’s leading banks, investment bodies and infrastructure agencies. It is identifying practical ways to improve how large-scale investments in infrastructure are prioritised and managed – not just how they are built.

Having worked all my career in government, it turned on different lights in new rooms. It gave me insights into how different sectors work.
Rachel Ardler, Aboriginal Affairs NSW

Building a bright future for project leadership

This year, the University will launch the new, larger scale John Grill Institute of Projects. This will incorporate major aspects of the existing centre and draw on the University’s long-standing Project Management Program, previously based in the Faculty of Engineering. This program has more than 1000 undergraduate and postgraduate students, and is globally recognised for its excellence in project-management research.

The new institute will be the leading repository of university-based expertise in the domain of projects in Australia and, over time, in the world. Education offerings will range from PhDs to continuing education programs. Research will include comprehensive programs devoted to creating new scholarly and applied knowledge.

Governance will be based on an innovative combination of academic mechanisms for accountability, supported by an advisory board to help shape strategic direction. Grill will serve as chair, with Nick Greiner, Ken Henry, Kevin McCann and Stuart McGill as independent members. They will be matched by an equal number of academic members, led by the provost, Professor Stephen Garton.

In early 2019, Grill made another multimillion-dollar gift to the University. That donation, which brought the University's philanthropic campaign to its billion-dollar target, will support the creation of the institute. As the institute grows, it will help communities and individuals flourish by asking the right questions and building new organisational as well as individual capabilities.

“The University has just started on the long journey of helping Australia improve the leadership of projects,” says Grill. “The best is yet to come.”


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