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 fast becoming a top priority in construction.

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 seen great success with its DEI efforts. This includes their Community Participation Program, their LeadBLU leadership program, ACE mentorships, and co-launching 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 is 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, to me, is just the need for talent. Diversity, equity, inclusion has 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 by focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion, it’s a way for us to identify more qualified candidates and to bring them to our industry. Essentially, to grow. All of the 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 a lot of companies to look in the mirror and say, “Can we? Should we be doing more?” I think that’s the reason that you’re seeing more focus on it.

The last thing that I would share is 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 performance by employees, 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 performance by employees, 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 Diversty, Equity and Inclusion at Mortenson

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Lauren Lake: When we talk about 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 with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion, and it’s 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. I think that’s what success looks like, but I’d also say mirroring at all levels. That’s where Mortenson and a lot of firms have work to be done. So not only 50% of entry-level, right-out-of-school people that join a company. What about managers? What about directors? What about C-suite? I think that’s what ultimate success looks like. A workforce composition that mirrors what society looks like as well. 
  1. The second thing, as I think about inclusion, 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 that’s actually inviting everyone to be a part of a conversation? I think that we come up with better ideas, better timelines. We’ll deliver projects under the budget. All those different things are results of leveraging all the talent that you have on a project site. 
  1. As it pertains to equity, which is a word that we’ve added to our mix more so in this last year, I think you have to have an understanding that each individual has different experiences. They may need different things in order 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 make sure we’re being successful in that space, we do an engagement survey to understand how our team members are feeling. In terms of equity, it’s bringing in third parties to take a look at if we’re paying people fairly and if we’re 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 the work that we’re doing at Bridgit, but I was the only woman in the room of 75 CEOs. Multiple people singled me out and pointed at me and talked about how I was the odd one out.

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

Joffrey Wilson: I’ll first speak to something that 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 puts a focus on bringing students to architecture, construction, and engineering. It’s high school students, and the majority of those students that go through the program actually end up pursuing something in one of those three fields. I think that every industry probably has something along those lines, but how do you plant seeds so that gap that I described does not exist once someone is coming out of school, whether it’s a two or four-year institution?

Mortenson and a lot of construction firms are playing a role, 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 in order for one’s career to advance, there’s kind of three things you need 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 in terms of trying to place people with the right support systems so they have the opportunity to see people that are successful and have a plan to get to levels that perhaps they’re not at today.

Lauren Lake: There are people of all backgrounds that are interested in anything that has 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 just goes to show that programs like ACE Mentorship really do help show people the path if they maybe didn’t see one for themselves there before.

Joffrey Wilson: You know, interesting and related to that, there are different technologies we now use in order to find candidates all across the country. So the default will tend to be folks who just aren’t interested, but that’s not necessarily the case. They are qualified folks that are interested and technology has been proven as 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 that 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 that 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 that are interested in the spaces we’re trying to recruit in.

Lauren Lake: We were having a hard time 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 we hosted an event called “Getting into Tech”. It was a free event and people could sign up and 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. I mean, it was free, but we sold out all of the seats within the first 30 mins. 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 just 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.” What he is referring to is the fact that Mortenson continues to evolve over time. We work in commercial construction and we work in real estate development. We work in renewable energy and spaces that are going to continue to evolve. I think we do ourselves a disservice as an industry when we don’t tell the story of the various opportunities that do exist. 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 are some steps that people can 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 that exist at whatever firm that you’re at. So whether it’s the C-suite, whether it’s affinity groups or business resource groups, or whether it’s folks that just have passion for the space. Listen to employees to figure out what’s working, and what’s not working. Where you want to go can be really important. That’s where I first started when I took on the job about a year and a half ago now, just essentially listening.

A second thing that 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 were talking about 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 you can start thinking about where you want to go. 

As it pertains to inclusion, coming up with some form of a survey to figure out 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 bit about that and what the results have been through that leadership program?

Joffrey Wilson: Leadblu represents our values and what it means to be a leader here at Mortenson. 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 be talking about the same topics and what it means to be a leader here at Mortenson. I’d say some of the results of the program have been that we’re seeing different activities taking place among our leadership teams. They understand our expectations, to a greater extent, in terms of 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’re having the ability to recruit folks that 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. Whereas with respect to DEI, we weave those two things together very frequently.

Lauren Lake: So just last year, I know that Mortenson was one of six general contractors that came together to launch the first Inclusion Week within the construction industry. 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 come up with this inaugural construction inclusion week. Some of this is based upon seeing the impact that Construction Safety Week has had 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 in mid-October again and everyone will have the opportunity to go to the Construction Inclusion Week website in order 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 also heard a lot of GCs talk about 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 to not be focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. It will become the standard, which is very much how Safety Week came together to set the standard for what a safe workplace looks like. 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, inclusion. 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.

“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 Diversty, 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. It was a journey to get to the safety culture that we have at Mortenson, and that we’re developing in the industry. We’re going to 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 that we went on for safety, we’ll need to have the same stick-to-it approach as it pertains to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Lauren Lake: Not every change or strategy works for every company. There could be different regions, different existing cultures, different leadership styles. All of these things may come together to make it hard to make a 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 DEI has become politicized and polarized in huge ways over these last couple of years. That’s a challenge that we faced and that a lot of folks face. We just can’t get too frustrated. That’s the world that we live in right now. 

So two things I would say is one – understand that it is going to 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 someone that’s 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 of 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, it was maybe 30-40 people attending. Now, we’re seeing hundreds of people that actually attend these things. So a growth mindset is something that we try and emphasize, not only as it pertains to DEI, but everything here at Mortenson. By leaning on that, I think it helps us get over some of the politicization and polarization that exists in the DEI space.

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

I was talking to someone who was sharing her experience being 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 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 goes to the “manpower” meeting and she walks through all these different daily steps. She said by 7:00 AM, there have already been 10 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 what your perspective is 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 in terms of building empathy, which I think we need, in order 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 that we’re doing at Bridgit as well. So thank you so much for sharing your insight and congrats on all of the hard work and success you’ve seen at Mortenson.

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