It’s a corporate dilemma faced by many industries. What if you train all your staff and they leave? What if you don’t and they stay? To help answer such questions and promote the careers of young potential industry leaders, the Institute of Water in the UK organised an interactive weekend school for professional development. By Mandhy Senewiratne


In late September 2014, 26 intrepid but self-professed ‘introverts’ meandered into a hotel in England, daunted by the prospect of competing in traditional four-on-four debates, adjudicated by three senior industry members including head figure Neville Smith, MD of Portsmouth Water. Although high achievers in their fields, none of the young professionals had any prior formal debate training and believed they could not undertake anything as stressful or skillful as debating.

This was just one of the challenges delegates overcame as part of a three day event organised annually by the Institute Of Water (South East), to promote the careers of young professionals and potential industry leaders by putting them through an intensive and thought provoking professional development weekend. Professionals across the utilities were represented including those involved in sustainability, engineering, diversity, water, energy, waste and associated technical fields. The 2014 programme was supported by representatives and assessors respectively from the Society for the Environment and Engineering Council.

Lead organiser and MWH Global Sustainability Consultant Mandhy Senewiratne explains: "My own experience and facilitation of MWH communication forums showed me that even talented peers and skilled colleagues can gain confidence and presence by mastering softer skills. Whilst many excel in their technical fields, they lack confidence to give even simple presentations at work and dread public speaking; with most describing it as their number one fear."

Traditionally the long-running weekend school focused on improving presentation skills via conventional Powerpoint training, without the finer points of skill or confidence building and often not all delegates had an opportunity to present. Senewiratne changed the emphasis to 100% participation through debating – an approach that had already proved successful during the MWH communication forums. Her highly creative programme therefore promised to take delegates on a journey from the board room to the dining room, from debating to dressing. It was to address how to make the best professional out of delegates – as an integral team player and one day as future leader.

In the spirit of true demonstration and to facilitate observational learning, all presenters had to introduce and self-sell their skills to the delegates. As the school deliberately had no chairpersons, this established the presenters’ credibility as masters of communication. Senewiratne adds: "This is a key skill and often those in technical fields struggle to ‘sell themselves’, be it during job, professional registration interviews or performance reviews."

Enter the dragon…

Addressing their worst fears head on, candidates had to participate in a Dragon’s Den style series of debates, and engage in subject matter beyond their comfort zones. Teams consisted of four complete strangers, of mixed gender, with diverse technical skills ranging from graduates to managers; none with any prior debate training or experience. They had to work as a team and debate competitively against each other in less than 48 hours.

"My favourite part, and for me the most valuable, was the communication sessions, particularly the debating competition which concluded the weekend," comments Roxanna Snooke, Information Services Analyst for South West Water and Best finalist Speaker winner. "This allowed me to gain a lot more confidence in communicating my opinion effectively to a large group and challenging the decisions of others. It was also a great networking opportunity. In the near future I am planning to apply for a promotion to include line management responsibility for a team of 15-20 people, so the communication and leadership skills I have learnt will definitely be required."

Key sessions at the event included:

DAY 1:
Getting to know yourself through spiral dynamics (SD) and continuing professional development (CPD)

There are many tools available for personality profiling and increasing self-awareness. However, Mandhy says she selected SD over others tools because it represents systems of thinking in people, acknowledging the bio-psychosocial aspects which impact on them such as biology, psychology and social aspects. It is the only tool that extends beyond simple preferences and personality or behaviours.

"Often, we are expected to work seamlessly in teams with little to no information about our team mates, and even less self-awareness. How can we hope to understand others with little idea of ourselves?" asks Mandhy.

SD expert, Lindsay Ainger from Sareos explained how to utilise SD effectively in a team, leadership and communication context. Each delegate completed an online questionnaire and received individual and debate team feedback to optimise their performance over the weekend.

The importance of Chartership and non-technical CPD:
Neil Smith Assessor for Engineering Council and Dave Hampton from Society for the Environment highlighted the importance of building up non-technical CPD such as debating and networking as it is these skills that get candidates through their professional reviews. Presentations were given by Jason Ryall, Principal Consultant at PA Consulting, and Shelly Williams Southern Water’s Water Technical Manager, who were respectively the first (2004) and most recent (2014) winners of the prestigious Institute of Water CPD award.

A lesson in etiquette:
Co-organiser Sharna Richings, Project Manager at Veolia Water, comments that despite technical prowess, the harsh realities of the corporate world mean we are all inadvertently judged on our social interactions, which could hinder our progress. Yet corporate CEOs all seem to dress immaculately, speak eloquently, dine impeccably and are seemingly never caught out with forgetting the names of key persons. How did they get there? she asked.

Many delegates didn’t realise how many rules of etiquette they were breaking daily! Appropriate dress and dining were the more obvious topics covered, but it was learning the art of introductions, starting conversations and how to break in to a large group of people at a formal business event that will prove the most useful additions to skills.

DAY 2:
Flip Flop Friday

Day 2 was declared a powerpoint-free zone and a day for flip flops in memory of the 10th anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. (The organizers were supporting Gandy’s flip flops and their Orphans for Orphans quest – founded by British brothers Rob and Paul Forkan who were orphaned in Sri Lanka during the 2004 Tsunami.

Speed Dating and Shakespeare
The morning of day 2, saw the delegates transform into a company of actors, role playing, testing their memory with games like ‘What’s my name?’ and ‘Just-a-minute’ as a pre-curser to debating. Mandhy; herself an amateur dramatist who has performed and trained with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) facilitated these sessions explaining these are the same communication activities utilised by the RSC to coalesce relationships between actors, hone vocal chords and build improvisation skills amidst hectic rehearsal schedules.

"Stage improvisation and role play vs debating, scripted theatre vs powerpoint presentations – to me are almost identical talents. Both require certain skills and require you to convince an audience – be they paying theatre goers or delegates at a conference. However, amateur theatre and certainly the RSC showed me the importance of voice warm-ups, continuous skill enhancement through games and interactivity rather than simply watching and most importantly rehearsing! All too often we expect our technical staff to be amazing presenters and orators without providing any adequate support or training. To retain staff, we need to show we value them and train, enhance and leave them better than we found them- which funnily enough is the RSC ethos," comments Mandhy.

Topics covered included debating etiquette – such as Point of Interest which enables the opposition to interrupt speakers; how to structure arguments using PEEL (Point, Explain, Example Link) methodology; and using effective and interactive games.

DAY 3 – Enter the Dragons part two…
The delegates approached these final debates sponsored by Z-Tech with the same trepidation as Day 1, but now with buzz of excitement and confidence. Neville Smith and Jason Ryall were joined by Steve Youell, an Inspector for the Drinking Water Inspectorate, supported by Rihcings and Senewiratne.

Debate themes ranged from social issues such as "This house believes that supermarkets should be penalised for food waste" to the more sardonic "If you don’t want to get flooded, you shouldn’t live on a flood plain". Each team prepared overnight for their first debate, but if victorious in Round 1, as per professional competitions, teams had only 30 minutes prep time for consequent debates.

By the final rounds, the once docile delegates had metamorphosed into confident, fiercely competitive strategic speakers who provided six rounds of energetic and highly jocular debating to a thoroughly entertained audience. The grand final was extremely close with the teams battling out for top spot and top prizes. The event concluded with every debater receiving individual feedback.

"Feedback is an important feature in any training course but its benefit is significantly increased when it comes from the MD of a water company," highlights Jason Ryall who says he’s benefitted throughout his career from being mentored and guided by industry leaders.

So why is debating and communication so important?

James McMillan Wastewater Modeller from MWH provided his thoughts: "I want to improve my ability to communicate with colleagues and to make myself better understood in the workplace. Debating skills are of particular relevance because the ability to articulate and justify your point of view can be critical to steering a project no matter what your role. How an idea is presented to your team can be as important as the idea itself, and I feel that the skills gained through debating will help me to put my ideas forward confidently to the people I work with."

Who says art and engineering don’t mix?

The combination of self-awareness through Spiral Dynamics, accompanied by lessons in corporate etiquette, definitive debating techniques, and stagecraft made for an event that exceeded expectations according to Mandhy Senewiratne. She suspects that all delegates would now support the motion: This house believes that performance art and spiral colours, enhances scientists and engineers.

"Prior to the weekend some thought the programme might be too esoteric because of our inclusion of etiquette lessons, self awareness and debating skills; seeing them as possibly irrelevant to leadership. However according to Spiral Dynamics, such a programme encouraged the delegates to consider how people should communicate to one another and more importantly to know HOW best to do so using the different levels of thinking. In today’s fast paced and competitive world," she said, "this approach has become more critical for leaders and teams working together to create outstanding results."

Katherine Leishman a Civil Engineering graduate from MWH concludes: "By the end of the weekend, we were all very tired and happy with what we’d accomplished. At the start I certainly felt that there was no way I’d be able to stand up in front of everyone and speak coherently, much less communicate a compelling argument. The Interactive Weekend School taught me how to be more confident, how to interact with diverse personalities, how to engage with different group sizes, and how to do all this whilst holding the correct knife and fork!"

Mandhy Senewiratne can be contacted on