How infusing DEI into their corporate strategy helps Mortenson broaden their talent pool, reduce turnover and even increase jobsite safety

How infusing DEI into their corporate strategy helps Mortenson broaden their talent pool, reduce turnover and even increase jobsite safety

Improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is quickly becoming a top construction priority.

Your people matter. Your clients and the communities you build in know that, and your employees certainly know that. According to a recent Bridgit survey, over 75% of US contractors consider tracking and improving diversity essential to their business.

Everyone needs to feel represented, but measuring diversity and taking action can be challenging.

Lauren Lake, Bridgit COO, and Co-founder, recently had the opportunity to talk with the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Mortenson, Joffrey Wilson. 

Mortenson (ENR #18) has greatly succeeded with its DEI efforts. This includes their Community Participation Program, LeadBLU leadership program, ACE mentorships, and co-launching of the inaugural Construction Inclusion Week in October 2021. 

You can watch the full recording of our conversation with Joffrey Wilson below. We’ve also included a full transcript. Interested in checking out the rest of our Behind the Builders series? Find the full episode lineup.

Lauren Lake: Why do you think diversity, equity, and inclusion are fast becoming a priority in the construction industry?

Joffrey Wilson: Well, there are a couple of reasons. I think about this past year, and what comes to mind first is the need for talent. Diversity, equity, and inclusion have proven to be a way to attract talent to our industry. 

There’s been a shortage of folks interested in construction, interested in STEM fields, interested in engineering, and focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion is a way for us to identify more qualified candidates and to bring them to our industry. Essentially, to grow. All companies in this industry need to find talent, and focusing on DEI is one of the ways we can do that. 

The second thing I think about over the course of the last year is social unrest. George Floyd was killed, and I think that more folks started to think about the systems that we have in place and if they’re equitable. I think it led many companies to look in the mirror and say, “Can we? Should we be doing more?” I think that’s why you’re seeing more focus on it.

The last thing that I would share is that decades of research show that with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, we can come up with better outcomes, better decision-making, more innovation, better employee performance, and less turnover. I think there’s more recognition of the benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion, including a better bottom line for companies that do it well.

“There are decades of research that show that with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, we can come up with better outcomes, better decision-making, more innovation, better employee performance, and less turnover. I think there’s more recognition of the benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion, including a better bottom line for companies that do it well.”

Joffrey Wilson, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Mortenson

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Lauren Lake: When discussing DEI in construction, what do you think success should look like for individual contractors? And what do you think success should look like for the industry as a whole?

Joffrey Wilson: There are three key pillars that I think about concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion, and those words themselves. 

  1. With respect to diversity, I think success looks like a workforce composition that mirrors the communities where we live and work. If women make up 50% of our community, they should be 50% of our workforce. That’s what success looks like, but I’d also say mirroring at all levels. That’s where Mortenson and many firms have work to be done. So, not only 50% of entry-level, right-out-of-school people join a company. What about managers? What about directors? What about the C-suite? I think that’s what ultimate success looks like. A workforce composition that mirrors what society looks like as well. 
  1. As I think about inclusion, the second thing is asking if everyone feels a sense of belonging. Does everyone feel like their voice is heard? Are people included in conversations that typically aren’t? If I’m on a project site, inviting the same people to the conversation just based upon habit, or the person is similar to me, but what if I’m the person who’s actually inviting everyone to be a part of a conversation? I think that we come up with better ideas and better timelines. We’ll deliver projects under the budget. All those different things result from leveraging all your talent on a project site. 
  1. As it pertains to equity, a word that we’ve added to our mix more so in this last year, I think you have to understand that each individual has different experiences. They may need different things to be successful. So instead of throwing someone just a hard hat and saying, “Figure it out when you get to the project site,” I think that we’re being more mindful of trying to understand each individual, what they may need to be their best, and understanding it may not be the same support that each individual needs.

In terms of measuring those different points I’m talking about, we measure workforce composition and track it. In terms of inclusion, to ensure we’re being successful in that space, we do an engagement survey to understand how our team members feel. In terms of equity, it’s bringing in third parties to look at if we’re paying people fairly and advancing people fairly in an equitable fashion to make sure that we feel like we’re moving in the right direction.

Lauren Lake: We love how Mortenson views representation, “Realize that you cannot be what you cannot see.” Last summer, I was invited to speak at a conference with the CEOs of the 75 largest general contractors in the US. I went to speak about technology and some of our work at Bridgit, but I was the only woman in the room of 75 CEOs. Multiple people singled me out, pointed at me, and talked about how I was the odd one out.

If I were someone junior at one of those companies, I wouldn’t see a path to being the CEO one day because there wasn’t anyone in that role who looked like me. I think representation is so important. What do you do to make people feel represented or ensure they see a path to their career growing at Mortenson?

Joffrey Wilson: I’ll first speak to something we do outside of Mortenson, and then I’ll talk about some things we’re doing internally. So the first that I think about, and this applies to STEM in general, are little girls and little boys. Little boys are encouraged to pursue STEM fields, and little girls are not. That leads to the case where, over time, and not due to lack of capability or interest, we have a gap that exists in terms of women and people of color as it pertains to STEM fields.

One of the things we all have to do is figure out a way to introduce folks to industries like construction. To introduce them to computer technologies. One of the ways we do that today is through a program called ACE Mentoring. It focuses on bringing students to architecture, construction, and engineering. It’s high school students, and most students who go through the program pursue something in one of those three fields. I think every industry probably has something along those lines, but how do you plant seeds so that the gap that I described does not exist once someone comes out of school, whether it’s a two- or four-year institution?

Mortenson and many construction firms are playing a role in supporting ACE, mentoring students, and providing internships. That’s something that we do– partner with an organization outside of Mortenson. 

Within Mortenson, to that point of trying to be what you can see, we actually invest quite a bit in mentorship and sponsorship. I think that for one’s career to advance, you need three things in place. You need advocacy, you need mentorship, and you need sponsorship. Mentorship to help you be successful in the role that you are in today. Sponsorship helps focus on opening doors for the future. We’re pretty mindful of trying to place people with the right support systems so they can see successful people and have a plan to get to levels that they’re not at today.

Lauren Lake: People of all backgrounds are interested in anything with opportunity and purpose. It doesn’t matter if it’s a male-dominated industry or not. It’s really just showing that there’s an opportunity for people to be successful. I think that shows that programs like ACE Mentorship help show people the path they didn’t see for themselves before.

Joffrey Wilson: You know, interesting and related to that, there are different technologies we now use to find candidates nationwide. So the default will tend to be folks who aren’t interested, but that’s not necessarily the case. They are qualified folks who are interested, and technology has been proven to be a way to help us get there.

So one of the tools that we subscribe to I believe is called Handshakes. Our talent acquisition folks actually work with it and schools across the country. They enroll in the program, and it allows us, with a couple of clicks, to figure out women who are interested in construction or are majoring in electrical engineering and are in this particular part of the country. So we can get to folks who are interested in these spaces in ways that we couldn’t in the past. I’d say technology is also our friend as we’re finding qualified talent or folks who are interested in the spaces we’re trying to recruit in.

Lauren Lake: We were having difficulty hiring within the tech world. We would approach people from different industries to gauge interest, and a lot of the feedback we got was, “I’m interested, but I’m not a software developer or engineer.”

So we just ran an experiment and hosted an event called “Getting into Tech.” It was a free event, and people could sign up; we just walked people through what the tech world is all about, the opportunities, and all the different ways you can get involved. We sold out. It was free, but we sold out all seats within the first 30 minutes. That’s how much interest there was for people from other industries to learn. I’m sure it’s very similar in construction, people that feel like there isn’t a place for them, but the interest is there.

Joffrey Wilson: Well, to that point, our CEO has a saying, and I don’t know where he got it from. I don’t know if it’s original, but he states the claim, “One company, many doors.” He is referring to the fact that Mortenson continues to evolve over time. We work in commercial construction and real estate development. We work in renewable energy and spaces that will continue to evolve. I think we do ourselves a disservice as an industry when we don’t tell the story of the various existing opportunities. I mean, we also need accountants. We need folks that are out in the field, executing work. We’re leveraging technologies like virtual reality. We’re doing so many unique and cool things. I don’t think we do the best job of telling the story of all the opportunities that do exist in this space. It’s something we’re going to continue working on.

Lauren Lake: At Mortenson, you’ve done some great things already, but for some other companies that may be earlier on in their DEI efforts or maybe just haven’t started yet, do you mind breaking down some of the initiatives that you’ve done into some smaller steps? What steps can people take today because getting to the place that Mortenson is in now might be several steps away for lots of companies?

Joffrey Wilson: I’d say one of the first places to start is with listening. There are likely various DEI stakeholder groups at whatever firm you’re at. So whether it’s the C-suite, affinity groups, business resource groups, or folks with a passion for the space, listen to employees to figure out what’s working and what’s not. Where you want to go can be really important. That’s where I started when I took on the job about a year and a half ago. Now, I’m just essentially listening.

A second thing you can do is take inventory of where you are today. There are actually tools available. One is called the Global Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Benchmark. You can use that to assess where you are versus best-in-class practices. You can also hire someone to come and do a DEI audit or DEI org assessment, but somehow, taking inventory of where you are versus where you want to go can be important.

Then a third thing is putting out a paper. A strategic commission, vision, and focus areas. But I think you have to start with listening before you can start to form anything like that, as it pertains to the three pillars we discussed with workforce composition. I think the starting point is, “What does your workforce composition look like? What has it looked like over time?” That’s a great place to start before considering where to go. 

Regarding inclusion, coming up with a survey to determine how team members are feeling. Do they feel included, that they belong, that they’ve bought into what you’re trying to accomplish? I think that’s an important first step as well.

Lauren Lake: At Mortenson, you have a leadership program that I know is called Leadblu. Can you tell us a little about that and what the results have been through that leadership program?

Joffrey Wilson: Leadblu represents our values and what being a leader here at Mortenson means. There are three pillars to it: 

  • Do the right thing
  • We before me
  • Inspire what’s possible 

Over the course of the year, not only this year but previous years as well, we’re exposing folks to different content. So whether that is through what we call “Team Talks”, where we facilitate conversations between team members, or whether it’s online training or toolbox talks, where we go out to our folks in the field and get them exposed to content as well. 

We want folks to consistently discuss the same topics and what being a leader here at Mortenson means. I’d say some of the program results have been that we’re seeing different activities taking place among our leadership teams. To a greater extent, they understand our expectations regarding what we’re looking for. 

I think it also is helping in terms of when we look at key populations; we’re seeing better numbers as it pertains to retention. We have the ability to recruit folks who come into our company knowing what we’re looking for in terms of their leadership over time, which is something we’re investing heavily in. I think that our LeadBlu team is doing is fantastic and very much connected to the work that we’re doing. Meanwhile, concerning DEI, we frequently weave those two things together.

Lauren Lake: Mortenson was one of six general contractors who launched the first Inclusion Week within the construction industry last year. Do you mind telling us a little bit more about that and how others can get involved for inclusion week next year?

Joffrey Wilson: Absolutely. We worked with five other firms to develop this inaugural construction inclusion week. Some of this is based upon seeing the impact of Construction Safety Week on the industry, so we wanted to create something similar. 

What it entailed was a different theme each day. On the Construction Inclusion Week website, any construction firm or anyone interested could pull down content on topics such as unconscious bias, supplier diversity, and so on and so forth. But we’re looking to make it even bigger this next year. It’s scheduled to take place again in mid-October, and everyone can go to the Construction Inclusion Week website to register. They’ll be able to get more updates there, but we’re looking forward to this continuing to drive the industry forward.

Lauren Lake: I’ve heard many GCs discuss how DEI is “the new safety.” I’ve heard that comparison quite a bit in the sense that, going forward, it will no longer be okay not to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. It will become the standard, which is how Safety Week came together to set the standard for a safe workplace. Do you have any thoughts on that comparison? Have you heard the same thing from others?

Joffrey Wilson: It’s interesting you bring it up. I’ve heard it, and more so recently. I mean, we tend to talk about safety, and I’ve talked about safety very consistently. It’s ingrained in the industry in terms of something we need to be focused on. We’re seeing more and more companies focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. One of the links for me is that if you have a psychologically safe workforce, I think you will also have a physically safe workforce.

“One of the links for me is, if you have a psychologically safe workforce, I think you’re going to have a physically safe workforce as well.”

Joffrey Wilson, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Mortenson

So that’s one thing that does come to mind. The other reason I think it’s important to talk about both of these is that it was a journey to get to the safety culture that we have at Mortenson and that we’re developing in the industry. We will have to do the same with the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s a journey. It’s not something that happens overnight. There’s a parallel we talk about within our company in terms of getting to a zero-injury, safety-focused culture and knowing that journey we went on for safety, we’ll need to have the same stick-to-it approach regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Lauren Lake: Not every change or strategy works for every company. There could be different regions, different existing cultures, and different leadership styles. All these things may come together to make it hard to change. Do you have any advice you would give to someone who’s trying to make changes but might be struggling to see things happen?

Joffrey Wilson: There are two points I would make. One is that DEI has become politicized and polarized in huge ways over these last few years. That’s a challenge that we faced and that a lot of folks face. We can’t get too frustrated. That’s the world that we live in right now. 

So I would say two things: understand that it will be a journey. It’s not something that happens overnight; regardless of whether you’ve been working in DEI as a practitioner for 30 years or are someone new to it, we all have room to grow. 

On the topic of growth, that brings me to the second point – we really encourage all our team members to have a growth mindset. We don’t encourage them or expect them to have everything figured out, but we do expect them to be curious, ask questions, and want to get better in this space.

Joffrey Wilson: By reinforcing that growth mindset expectation, we have folks that show up for the voluntary Lunch and Learns that we have, where they learn about some different facets of diversity, equity, and inclusion once a month. And the choir is growing. When we first started these, maybe 30-40 people attended. Now, we’re seeing hundreds of people that actually attend these things. So a growth mindset is something that we try to emphasize, not only as it pertains to DEI but everything here at Mortenson. By leaning on that, I think it helps us overcome some of the politicization and polarization in the DEI space.

Lauren Lake: Just being able to put yourself in someone’s shoes and understand their perspective is important. 

I was talking to someone sharing her experience as a Site Super, and it has always stuck with me. I think it always will. She just shared what her morning was like. She gets to the site. She puts on her vest, which is five sizes too big. She gets her hard hat. She walks through the door that has a sign on it that says, “Mandoor.” She attends the “manpower” meeting and walks through all these daily steps. She said by 7:00 AM, there have already been ten things that have made her feel like she doesn’t belong.

Just her walking me through what that morning routine was like from her perspective was so powerful. I think sharing some of those stories and creating that culture where it’s okay to talk about your perspective and have that heard gets everyone on the same page.

Joffrey Wilson: That’s a really powerful story. I think storytelling can be a great tool for building empathy, which I think we need to get to equity, which we’re all trying to achieve.

Lauren Lake: This has been a really great discussion. We love to talk about what companies are doing with their DEI efforts. It’s a topic that hits very close to home with us and the work we’re doing at Bridgit. Thank you so much for sharing your insight, and congratulations on all of the hard work and success you’ve seen at Mortenson.

Joffrey Wilson: Thanks so much for having me. I look forward to keeping in touch.