Interview with Middle East Consultant Magazine

This interview was first published in the May 2024 issue of Middle East Consultant.

What are the ‘touchstone’ qualities that have empowered TBH to build a notable presence in the dispute resolution marketplace? How is that sector evolving and in what ways will TBH seek to create a more proactive, transparent approach to dispute management? Middle East Consultant spoke to George Matta, Director & Partner, TBH, and Dina Dweik, Senior Associate, TBH, about the industry’s opportunities and new horizons…

As a background”, says George, “when people ask us about the company’s growing profile in dispute resolution, I explain that this has resulted from the fact that we are, at our core, a team of experts – one that has always come together to help our clients in whatever ways are best and necessary. We don’t just have expertise in the actual project execution. We benefit from a wide range of front and back-end skills – whether that may be planners, quantity surveyors, and so on – and it’s this broad mix of experience that means we can understand each and every factor in a project, and therefore be well-placed to lead a very detailed dispute resolution.”

“A great example of this”, explains Dina, “is that sometimes, we are working on a client project and then go on to help that same client with dispute resolution. For example, I’m currently working on a dispute resolution for a particular client, while my colleagues have been working on the same client’s project planning and execution over the last two years! So, this means there is an organic continuity; we know all the details about how the project unfolded and know exactly where any challenges have arisen.”

George continues: “That hands-on skillset is vital in terms of maintaining credibility. For instance, in court-room situations, there have been a few occasions when the judge has asked me: “Mr. Matta, when was the last time you actually managed a project?” You absolutely must have all the practical working experience, because otherwise your advice will be seen as purely theoretical. “Our background over the years has been all about having the in-depth experience of every aspect of project work, and therefore being able to plan contingencies for whenever problems arose. TBH started 59 years ago – at that time there was no programming software, and everything was done by hand, including the critical path analysis, in a completely analogue world. We rapidly learned that with any client project, the unexpected can always occur, and we evolved the most effective, proactive approaches to solve these problems.”

Building the skill sets of the future

If ever there was a primary ‘people skill’, it’s dispute resolution. So, what is TBH doing about hiring and training a new generation of professionals in order to build further market presence?

“In terms of our approach”, says George, “we have two streams. Of course, sometimes, like everyone else, we have to do lateral hires, but it’s not easy, because our expertise is quite unique. The way we are dealing with this is through hiring young graduates and then training them on the necessary key skills. Make no mistake: these young recruits are very clever and they’re keen to learn. In fact, sometimes they can do a lot of things better than the veterans like me!”

Dina adds: “When I first came to the TBH offices, I wondered why the company hired graduates without consultancy experience (or for that matter, any other kind of work experience!). But then, a manager said to me: “Dina, they are here because these people are our assets. They will learn a lot – and in a short time, they’ll become the key assets of our business’.

“I’m always surprised at how, generally, these younger team members can find better solutions: they are very smart and, of course, have strong IT skills and fluency with the key software packages. This means, as soon as they start, they can really expedite all the back-up, scheduling and analysis of project work.”

The role of mentoring

“I should add”, says George, “that while each level has its own contribution, we are a very open and flexible business, and there is a fluid pathway upwards through the company. A good example of this is how we utilise mentorship; we have really developed the role of mentoring as a part of company policy.”

Dina comments that: “When I joined TBH, I noticed that everyone had a mentor, and this wasn’t just for the technical parts of the job, but also for personal and career development, and the vital soft skills like cultural intelligence, and so on. The management encourages everyone not just to have a mentor, but to become a mentor. I personally have now started mentoring one of my graduate colleagues – and the experience I’m gaining as I mentor her is huge. I’m always strategising and thinking about how I can best guide her.

“During the mentoring process, we also place a lot of emphasis on aspects like career growth, not just the technical things, important though they are. I’d like to mention as well that while you are given a mentor when you join TBH, there is a review every six months, which gives you the opportunity to change your mentor if it seems that you’re not reaching your goals, or you’ve ‘topped out’ with everything they have to offer you. If you have reached a ‘ceiling’ with your mentor, you can change.

“I think that mentoring here at TBH makes it easier for people to develop their careers, get promoted and work towards achieving their goals. I’m actually an example myself: I joined TBH 18 months ago, and have already been promoted to Senior Associate. I could not have done this without the regular reviews and ongoing discussions about how things are progressing.”

“What’s also important”, continues George, “is that you can have more than one mentor. Perhaps one will advise on the technical side, the other on your development path, soft skills, and so on.

“Throughout this process, there is a very soft link with HR, monitoring how things are progressing, but this is very much a co-ordinating and administrative role. It’s tabulation about what is going on, rather than physical input into the dynamics of the relationship. We try to strike a balance between preserving the chemistry and confidentiality of the mentoring process while also ensuring that it links back formally into the career track and upward growth.”

New dynamics in the market

What about the way the market is currently evolving? Do we see more opportunity for expert dispute resolution?

George believes there is one very important sea-change in attitudes: “In the past, a contractor wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing a case against government, or a sub-contractor or smaller business wouldn’t feel confident to bring a case against a major contractor or developer. But now, the new generation of arbitration centres deal with things in a very open, transparent and clear way – they’re very approachable – and the expert forums they provide are definitely breaking down this resistance.”

“I can see”, says Dina, “that with our clients, they are more and more aware of how disputes management works, and the first thing they try to do is to stop disputes happening in the first
place. People are becoming much more proactive, and if there are claims, there is a lot of emphasis on ensuring they are properly managed. In my view, there is also a lot more willingness now to pursue dispute resolution at an earlier stage of the project.”

“I would say”, George comments, “that there is more maturity now with many clients. Increasingly, clients ask us to fairly assist all the parties involved. They recognise that the project needs to move towards completion, and the last thing everyone needs is to get locked down in format disputes. Inevitably, there would be more arbitration in 2-3 years. All in all, I think the future of dispute resolution is evolving; here at TBH, we want to encourage a tendency to have better discussion between parties before any difficulties arise.”

TBH and the future: putting quality first

“I often speak to friends and clients in the industry”, says Dina, and they say: “TBH, you are everywhere!” This is because we really believe in spreading the word about effective dispute resolution, and one way to do this is to take part in important industry events and occasions – as well as belonging to the accredited associations, in which we always try to play an active role.”

“Our main strength”, George concludes, “is our long-term relationship with clients. Remember that as a company, we are a team of private partners – we’re stakeholders in what we do – and when we plan our commercials and targets, those figures are based on our in-depth knowledge of the client relationship. So, the quality of that relationship is everything. We’re always, first and foremost, about providing quality; that’s why we want to offer clients the best in dispute resolution – and why we’re so fully committed to it.”

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