Creating a collaborative environment not only takes professional skills but personal clout as well. 15 years into his bridge engineer career at COWI, Assad Jamal is destined to connect people and make the most of it. Both when it comes to leading a team and building bridges.
It is believed that the Vikings saw the northern lights as a bridge between the Earth and the home of the Viking gods and named it ‘Bifrost’.
The myth adds an extra flavour to the adventure, Technical Chief Project Manager Assad Jamal and his team is at in Narvik in northern Norway. Here, they have designed and are involved in the construction of the second largest suspension bridge in Norway, the Hålogaland Bridge.
While managing the follow-up on the spectacular bridge construction, he has also enjoyed the region’s magical northern lights waving across the sky. Sometimes ice-blue, sometimes pink or fluorescent green.
To Jamal, bridges connect people in the real world.
“Not only in a very practical sense. They enable you to move mentally from one place to another. I think about that whenever I cross a bridge,” says Jamal.
Up until now, the impressive Hålgoland Bridge is the high point of Jamal’s bridge engineer career. Rising 179 metres above sea level with two elegant A-shaped towers, the bridge blends in well with the mountainous scenery.
Some local residents and engineering aficionados already call it “the most beautiful bridge in the world”.
“Everybody has a defining moment in their career, a project they are emotionally attached to. I have colleagues who can remember all the details about The Great Belt Bridge in Denmark. This is what this bridge is to me, it defines me and my career at COWI,” says Jamal.
Bridges connect people, not only in a very practical sense. They enable you to move mentally from one place to another.
After carrying out his graduation project at Cowi, Assad joined the company immediately after university. That’s 15 years ago now. Back then, he made the decision that he only wanted to stay in one job for 10 years, then he would move on in a different direction or to a new workplace. But he had a change of heart.
“I became so happy with my job here, that I couldn’t see myself working anywhere else,” he admits.
One of the reasons for staying on is how employees, even at a very young age, are given the opportunity of taking on big responsibilities. And although there is a hierarchy in the organisation, it’s not authoritarian, Jamal emphasizes. Equality is ever-present.
Jamal remembers a situation in his first week at the head office in Lyngby.
He was lining up at the coffee machine when a senior colleague appeared behind him.
Out of courtesy, he stepped aside to offer the senior person his place in the line. But the person declined by saying: “No, you go ahead, you were here first.”
Jamal smiles and explains that although the incident might also reflect his cultural background. He was born and raised in Denmark by Pakistani parents.
“My parents settled in Denmark to give me and my siblings the best possible opportunities in life. They told us that it was up to us to seize the opportunities and make a good living. So, this is what guides me in life and this is also what I try to pass on to others: You can show people the door, but they have to walk through it themselves.”
You can show people the door, but they have to walk through it themselves.
Leading a team of about 25 colleagues, Jamal has learned that successful projects do not come simply from meeting deadlines and having sound economy.
Most of all, it is about the people and the leader’s ability to giving them room to excel. Thus, his approach is to prepare people by talking and engaging with them – and then taking a back seat.
“To me, the process is the most important part of a project. What does reaching all the milestones matter if you wear down ten men and then pass them on to the next project? It’s important to remember the human factor,” he says.
In the Norwegian bridge project, this also include paving the way for good relations with external partners – in particular, the Chinese construction company. Many interesting situations occurred from the vast constellation of Chinese construction workers meeting Nordic bridge designers.
At the very beginning of the project, they held a festive event to celebrate the partnership. The Nordic team had arranged for a small excursion up the mountain where they were to serve glögg in a traditional Sami tipi, a local traditional drink usually made with red wine along with various mulling spices.
But the Chinese workers were not dressed for the occasion. They wore suits and patent leather shoes. On the snow-covered mountainside, they were slipping and their hosts had to hold on to them, pushing and helping them to reach the tipi.
“Creating these moments is so important, both in your professional and private life. They bring joy and a sense of purpose to the process. We as project leaders have the unique opportunity to connect our co-workers with a sense of value within our field of work. I take great pleasure in doing that.”
Head of Section
Major Bridges International, Denmark