7 Ways to demonstrate Leadership in EIA

In May 2018, Leading Green held the first of a series of international workshops to discuss Leadership in EIA.  This initial session attended by a series of influential and internationally recognised EIA and SEA practitioners and academics from the UK, South Africa, The Netherlands, Sweden and Estonia, has subsequently become known as the ‘warthog session’ due to the presence of these beasts running under the picnic tables where the session was being held outdoors in Mpila Camp within Hluhluwe iMfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal.


The initial session, now supplemented by qualitative data from other sessions sought to identify the areas where EIA practitioners could exert the greatest influence on projects, and where their contribution had the greatest impact on the sustainability and residual impact of the future development.  The following 7 areas have subsequently emerged as the focus areas of experienced EIA leaders and what they perceive as the areas of greatest added value to the client and wider engineering/project management team.

1.   Influential in promoting environmentally inclusive design

Regarded as the No.1 contribution repeatedly within these sessions, the promotion of inclusive environment design seeks to raise awareness of, and to emphasis the benefits of, to the project’s decision makers about the importance of designing infrastructure or large development project  that seek to meet the needs of the people and the environments that they inhabit.  A belief that many held central if we are to create a fair society and have any chance of a sustainable future.

“Designing developments to fit their receiving environments, rather than retrofitting environments to take development”

The crucial EIA leadership skills to these are: internal and external stakeholder consultation, influencing skills, visioning, ecosystem service analysis, with a technical understanding of engineering design and investment risk benefit analysis.

2.  Embedding sustainability /Environmental/Social Impact thinking into the project team’s decision-making

By acting early to exert influence within the project’s leadership group, it is clear that many experienced EIA practitioners seek to enable all members to participate in and solve the likely impacts of development, and offer up their insights into ‘How’ the project will interact with the receiving environment.  They recognise the important role that engineering forms as an interface between the design (i.e., the idea how to provide a  solution to a technical problem) and implementation of a sustainable option that forms an optimal solution to all members of the team and their respective interests.


Promoting Sustainability Approaches in Engineering

  • Helps the team considers the whole ‘system’ in which the development will operate, rather than just considering the object (ie road) or process (oil refinery);
  • Places on the project table options that consider both technical and non-technical issues synergistically, as opposed to just on technical issues;
  • Raises awareness of how the development could address wider sustainability issues or problems (globally and locally) rather than solving the immediate problem (flood risk);
  • Considers the local ecosystem services and community context, as opposed to just addressing the engineering context (i.e. crossing a river);
  • Instills within the decision-making team an acknowledgement that they have a responsibility and accountability to address/implement more sustainable solutions, rather than assuming it is the role of the client or regulators

The crucial EIA leadership skills is through communication approaches based upon a sound sustainability mindset that allowed them to creates new opportunities, to deploy creative (visioning) and problem solving skills within the project leadership team as a proactive as opposed to reactive approach early within the team’s establishment, as well as dealing with challenge.


3  Holds courageous conversations when EIA elements are impacted on

Ultimately the purpose of EIA is to bring to the decision-maker attention issues of environmental or social significance attached to the proposed development if consented.  In most models of global EIA this statutory responsibility lies with the consenting or approving regulator.  Experienced EIA professionals fully recognise that if these facts are left to such a late end point, the process is valueless.  Instead they seek to raise the issue as early as possible and to often place them in terms of opportunity to avoid, reduce or remediate the impact or its ‘show stopper’ potential.

As has been stated in an earlier blog.  The EIA budget is often a small element of the entire budget – <0.25% during financing and <4% during construction delivery, yet its contribution is ultimately critical to success:

  • No statutory approval – No Project!
  • If the project is pushed through by governments for political reasons, the objection of its citizenry and the verification of adverse environmental impact can still terminate the project on appeal.
  • Even when they are pushed through regardless, the life and efficacy of the asset can ultimately be compromised – e.g. siltation behind dams, reducing energy production, secondary impacts to other national industries and interests, reductions in agricultural productivity, etc can all mitigate against the ROI.
  • Too Climate change adverse – Future stranded asset!

It can be difficult for individuals working closely in a project team environment to go against the ‘group think’ mindset, as no one wants to be the bearer of bad news, or risk project success.  Project groups are also adverse to hearing news that threatens the agreed design that has been proposed and costed for the client, or the introduction of potential time delays, risks or added stakeholder objections.   The EIA leadership professionals talked openly about how they often had to raise and lead on difficult project centred conversations on issues that impacted on wider social, environmental or sustainability issues.  Issues that on occasion other project team members did not wish to consider or raise up to the client.  They knew that they needed to have it, that what they had to say need to be said, and they knew that they were taking a risk at times in their relationship with other senior project team members we.  In mitigation they sought to use emotional intelligence and situational awareness to prepare, assess and gauge what the reactions might be and how these conversations could end.

The crucial EIA leadership skill was communication, in particular being assertive in their message, ensuring that they were focused (ie clear on what they were trying to achieve) by holding the conversation, and what gave them the leadership right to initiate the conversation.  These required preliminary preparation, making sure that their information was accurate and backed up by fact.  They are prepared to discuss the “undiscussable” or ‘disloyal’ but also clear about how the issue effected them personally, the work that they were responsible for delivering and how the issue if unaddressed would impact ultimately on.   Many were fully aware of the Emotional Intelligence skills that were needed to manage relationship conflict and used these accordingly – they were raising the issue because they couldn’t deal with the problem alone, it needed a group approach, the issue was too big for it to be ‘parked’ and left.  They also understood the emotional reactions that such a conversations could result in and tried to prepare accordingly to handle the expected push back, challenge and alternate perspectives..

4.  They ensure that the voices of the EIA team are heard

In addition to often managing the EIA team and ensuring the agreed deliverables outlined in contracts, many are pro-active in ensuring that the team is well-integrated into the project team’s other disciplines.  This often undertaking a systems based approach to the anticipated environmental and social impacts and aligning them with particular disciplines and arranging for the EIA and the respective engineering / design / procurement specialists worked together on the issue to resolve matters.

They also acted as a ‘direct voice’ into the senior project team to ensure that issues were raised and addressed (see above).  They all clearly understood the linkage between leadership and leading a team, as opposed to managing the EIA process often practising strong negotiation, assertiveness and problem solving skills.

5.  Safeguarding stakeholder interests

Stakeholder consultation in EIA is often regarded as a time-consuming ‘cost’ in infrastructure development, with pressure placed on EIA project managers to limit activity to a minimum.  Its value was fully appreciated by many of the experienced client-employed or consultant EIA leaders as a valuable risk management tool and essential in addressing and avoiding potential risks early in the design process.  Utilised as a design tool as well as a statutory obligation it was deemed cost beneficial to the project by reducing delay, re-design, loss of stakeholder confidence.

Most considered in some form an external  stakeholder management or consultation strategy to increase the support and minimize the negative impacts of these community, environmental or governmental stakeholders.  A successful stakeholder management or consultation strategy when carefully planned and followed accordingly was strongly believed to identify issues early, address concerns through transparent action by the design team, raise confidence in the projects communications and build stronger working relationships with external parties.  Anticipating issues in advance of the proposed design allowed for adaptive management, mitigation, access to critical views and information available locally and allowed discussion regarding trade offs.

Few however had considered the benefits of developing an internally focussed stakeholder strategy aimed at the client organisation, seeking to directly consult  with the Client Organisation’s Sustainability Manager, CSR or Environmental Director seeking to bring:

  • their input & influence into projects, or
  • or to understand the dynamics within the client organisation’s CSR goals or SDG objectives?

This was surprising as 80% of Project Managers know how their projects align with the company’s business strategy, and is a valuable tool in bringing influence for sustainability, social and environmental policies to the Project table.

The crucial EIA leadership skills often demonstrated revolved around stakeholder management, strategic thinking, communication, and engagement skills

6   Leads thinking regarding operational and decommissioning phases

It can be a risk in project engineering teams that they focus solely on the design and construct phase of a development.  Forgetting or lacking a design brief to consider the operational  and eventual decommissioning phases.

Life cycle analysis is an important component in EIA philosophy and implementation and EIA practitioners often take a systems based approach to considering the wider changes in environmental and social interactions during subsequent downstream phases.  These often include but are not limited to:

  • Utilities.  The material costs of Water, Electric, Natural Gas, etc, and their subsequent efficiency or contribution in respect of the developments carbon footprint and contribution to climate change.
  • Future Operational parameters including maintenance needs, repair and retrofit design accessibility.
  • The environmental and social impacts of eventual demolition or asset disposal, notably in respect of sustainability and the risk of ‘stranded assets’.
  • Pollution remediation systems and their resilience in respect of future statutory developments, energy policy and environmental risk.

The environmental professionals were aware that the Operational phases of a development can be up to 3x the cost of construction, with management costs equating to 60-80% of a development’s life-cycle costs.  Having such a profound impact on a developments financial outlay and environmental life-cycle, many recognised that it was important that operational and environmental management considerations were discussed by the project team during the design phase and before construction designs became fixed.  Increasingly they felt responsibility for leading project group discussions on ways the team could optimize the life-cycle of developments.

Core skills demonstrated and flagged up as essential for success were a sustainability mindset, visioning, appreciative inquiry, facilitation skills and systems thinking.


7  EIA information influences PM decision-making

Building a strong working relationship with the Project’s Leading project manager was identified by many as an important leadership skill.  It was accepted that the EIA project manager often had a more holistic and wider worldview of how the project integrated within society, communities and their environments.  EIA project managers often worked across a variety of projects during their careers often being intimately involved with a Project Manager who could spend several years overseeing the design and construct of a development project.  This exposed them to a wider range of project scenarios within specific sectors and adaptive approaches.

This made them adapt at spotting potential pitfalls early in the design phases of projects and mentally mapping geo-environmental, social and natural environmental impacts as potential constraints.  However, the skill seemed to lie in:

  • presenting these issues or problems in terms of ‘solutions’ to project managers.
  • identifying non-technological or low tech solutions rather than relying on increased engineering or higher construction costs, whilst recognising their own engineering limits
  • Helping project managers thinking through short-term and long-term impacts
  • Presenting scenarios and the decisions that they would have to make offline and outside the pressure of project review meetings
  • Mentally mapping statutory delay and presenting it is a structured form for reflection and consideration, clearly highlighting the timeframes, gateways or decision nodes which decisions had to be made in respect of adverse social and environmental impacts
  • Alerting the project manager to significant enviro-social impact findings early (supported by sufficient data for verification) and the pro-actively identifying the next possible steps.
  • Help in selecting ‘optimal’ (solves many problems) as opposed to an optimum solution in terms of buildability, cost and even environmentally preferred.

The key leadership skills identified as important were creating positive relationships, building influence, holding leadership conversations, and problem solving.


Remember, that for any EIA scenario you encounter there are always multiple perspectives to the issue, so be empathetic of how other professions and project managers will view the problem.  A key influencing skill is to retain an open and unbiased curiosity about how they see the situation and be aware of how your own worldview with its associated judgments and prejudice may impact on what you observe and how you act.  One of the great strengths of a mature project management team is the diversity of experience, and the different perspective that exist within it.  When seeking to drive greater sustainability in design, better stakeholder relationships, risk adaptation and overall project vision, it is clearly advantageous to appreciate personal and professional decision-making through the eyes of fellow team members, allowing you to take a more focused, strategic and informed decision-making approach to issues of note to the EIA and sustainability agendas.


Leading Green offer a bespoke series of Leadership in EIA & SEA talks and training courses. Courses that address specific CPD leadership and team development issues. They incorporate the sustainability practitioner goals of the UK’s Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA), and the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA). Contact us at http://www.leading-green.com or email ross@leading-green.com to discuss your particular needs.







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