Big Interview: Warner Cowin – part two.

Warner Cowin

We continue our conversation with Height Project Management Chief Executive, Warner Cowin. In part two we discuss his perspective on how to build diversity within the profession, how he runs as a values-based organisation and what the Diversity Agenda can do to continue helping our professions become more diverse and inclusive.

What’s the thing you would advise firms to start with to make their organisation more inclusive, to be more attractive to all diverse people and keep them in the industry?

Do I think we’ve got this right in our business? No, we haven’t. The reality is, it’s a work in progress for us on all those aspects. For us, first and foremost, it starts with values. When you’re hiring for your organisation the candidate’s and organisation’s values need to align. Is this person going to fit into our culture, our whānau, our business? That’s the first part in helping to determine the person we want.

What this means is this – it’s colour-blind and it’s gender-blind, and it’s even trade or competency blind! That’s how we’ve got a team member who comes from a creative dance background to run engineering projects – because her values aligned and she had the ability to learn.

I think this is also about challenging what as an organisation we need in terms of competency. If you go out looking for an engineer (because that’s the person we’ve always hired to do this job) then you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. We always start with the values first as an organisation.

How do you create a values-based organisation where the culture is really strong?

We create an environment where people aren’t afraid to be vulnerable. By that I mean, it’s okay for them to feel uncertain about a certain situation. Each day we start with something called a morning huddle where we talk about the last 24 hours, what’s happening in the next 24, and what we’re stuck on. As a leader, one of the things I need to do in this situation is to let my team know where I’m stuck or unsure. If the boss in stuck then it’s ok for me to be stuck. 

What that does is send a clear message to everyone that it’s alright to be unsure.

The other thing we do is share stories around values. This takes our values from being slogans on walls and brings them to life and makes them real. I’ll give you a good example – one of our young guys got a rates schedule from a client that included competitor rates. And he said, “Well if I apply the values…then I should delete that, not read it and just let the client know.” And that’s what he did. It’s just the simple things we can do as leaders to create an environment that’s not scary particularly and has a clear expectation of behaviour for young people, women, Māori and all our team.

We have a large range of amazing firms signed up to the Diversity Agenda, committed to diversity and inclusion. Where the real challenge for us lies is engaging with the firms that don’t see diversity and inclusion as a priority. Do you have any thoughts on how we can engage with these firms and get them on board?

I see having diversity as a force multiplier. I’d be really curious whether you could advertise a financial performance of those people that value diversity. Because I strongly suspect that organisations that value diversity are achieving better financial results than firms who aren’t diverse.

We were involved with an organisation – and they were really good people, don’t get me wrong – just because they don’t practice diversity and they fit the stereotype of the ‘typical engineer’ certainly doesn’t make them bad people. But they’ve had a terrible financial performance this year. And even in previous years.

It’s interesting, they’ve got the stereotypical person that most imagine an engineer would be – middle-aged, European, and gone to a particular school. But some of the business decisions they’ve made have put them in a dire situation. The executive and board were all the same type of people and what that does is reaffirms their bias. That’s just the way they operate – it’s the way they were culturally brought up, the way they went through their training, and the way their career has developed.

You could probably argue, if they had a woman or someone from a different ethnic group on that executive team or board who challenged some of their perceptions, maybe they wouldn’t have made the decisions they did. You need diversity to challenge your thinking.

It’s got to be good for New Zealand – when we have more women, more Māori, and more Pasifika on boards. What we’re talking about here are governance checks and balances. If we always look from the same angle, we’ll always see the same thing. If we have people who look from different perspectives then that’s got to be good for us. It’s going to challenge some big traditional thinking. It’ll stop us, hopefully, from making some of the dumb financial decisions some of our public companies have made.

What would you like to see happen from the Diversity Agenda and the wider engineering profession to make an actual change in the industry when it comes to diversity?

I think people are looking for a playbook. They’re looking for something with simple steps that’ll allow them to improve their diversity.

I’ll give you a really good example, at our business we’ve got core days. We’ve been remote working for a long time. People come into our business on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 9:30 and 2:30. If projects are going down where we need to collaborate people will be here. The reason that flexibility is important is one of the real secrets to our business is that working mums are a powerhouse of awesomeness. If they can manage a partner or a husband, a couple of kids, well they’re logistic maestros! I’ve noticed that the way they organise themselves and the people around them is super-efficient. But the reason they come to our business is that we offer them flexibility around things simple like school drop-off.

So when I think about things the Diversity Agenda can do to help businesses improve their diversity, something like a playbook would be great. Because there are dumb things we do as leaders such as send emails on the weekend or out of hours. So, I think there is a playbook to be had. I do think, how do we create vulnerability within the business that it’s okay for people to feel safe and express how they’re feeling. So, this would be my observation. I don’t claim to have this all sorted, don’t get me wrong. I’m no expert, it’s always a work in progress!

So you’re saying it’s about creating an environment where people want to come to work and they’re happy and free to be themselves? By doing this you’ll be an attractive organisation that people want to stay in.

Yes. For example, two or three years ago we were looking for a business manager. We used our values base process to help with our recruitment and we came across this amazing lady. She just was interested in just 15 hours a week and wanted to work in a place where she felt valued and had flexibility. She was operating our front desk and was our business manager (so was essentially the adult in the room looking after all of us) who just happened to be an engineer and a lawyer. She had this massive capability and expertise to a point that her skill set was far in excess to what you need as a business manager. The interesting thing is her family is grown up a little bit now and she’s stayed in our organisation and become one of our project managers.

Our current business manager is the barista that used to work at the café below us. The reason we chose her is that we saw her every day. Hospitality is a great mechanism. If you want to find someone good at customer service go and recruit your best barista! She’s amazing. She’s from Finland and what’s great about her is when we started to get to know her, we found out she’s got a degree in project management. We created an opportunity for her. So, again, if you go in looking for an engineer and you write a transcript or a job description which specifies a white male engineer, you’ll get a white male engineer.


If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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