Leading from the top

By Megan Berger

It seems like common knowledge these days that in order for policies and efforts to really stick, an organisation needs to implement these from both the top down and the bottom up. There’s a plethora of articles and industry perspectives that support this idea, but how often do we really see it in action? What are leaders actually doing to drive these important changes, and who are they?

Enter: James Bones. As the Operations Manager for the Building Services team at Beca, James oversees several teams across Australia and New Zealand, while also interacting with client teams around Asia Pacific and beyond. In James’ own words, his role is being “the person running around with the glue” trying to connect people, fix problems, help people and generally keep things going across the division, which is dedicated to developing the infrastructure of buildings, from schools to hospitals and everything in between.

After beginning his career at Beca in 1993 and working there for six years, James decided to take an opportunity abroad to work for a firm in North America. Originally intended to be a temporary move, James and his wife wound up staying for over 17 years. When it came time to come home to New Zealand, James found himself back at Beca with a new perspective. His time abroad helped James build crucial skills in managing an increasingly global workforce, influenced by international talent, clients and projects.

“There’s an intrinsic need for awareness and respect around different cultures and the way people function and operate.”

“We have many people in our New Zealand offices that are working and collaborating with teams based overseas, which presents a number of opportunities and challenges” says James. “The work culture in Indonesia is quite different from a culture in Singapore, which is different from the culture in Australia and so on. There’s an intrinsic need for awareness and respect around different cultures and the way people function and operate.”

Such awareness doesn’t come out of thin air. It needs to be nurtured through open conversation, care, and respect. In our increasingly global marketplace, having the right people who can accept and embrace these differences is critical. It’s why James, and Beca as a whole, place such a focus on finding the best people they can. “In order to ensure our that our net is cast as wide as possible, just to keep up with the rest of the world – or even better, to stay one step ahead of it – we need to find the most talented people. The folks who can look at a problem from a different angle, the people who can relate to our clients, and understand their needs,” says James.

Creating the ideal environment

Beca’s flexible working initiative has been designed to explore the issues that many employees – not just women – face as they try to advance professionally. In James’ view, “it’s about creating an environment which is more responsive and more respectful of different needs that people have, which also enables progression within the organisation while at the same time ensuring we can deliver to the needs of our clients.”

“I have been quite vocal in terms of encouraging people to not just show up for the sessions, but to be taking a personal approach in having conversations around tough topics and allowing people to share their stories and views.”

We’ve previously addressed some of the tactics Beca has implemented to drive change, including re-assessing their recruitment strategy and language used in job ads, career development programmes and rolling out a new ethics policy.

Part of these efforts includes working in partnership with the People and Culture team to understand what development they can provide to help influence change, including unconscious bias awareness. “I have been quite vocal in terms of encouraging people to not just show up for the sessions, but to be taking a personal approach in having conversations around tough topics and allowing people to share their stories and views,” says James. “This helps to influence and advance the cultural shift that’s currently happening in the industry and our society.”

When it comes to increasing rates of diversity, James is clear to note that it’s not just about gender. “I feel there’s plenty of room for improvement, and it’s not just about focusing on gender, it’s quite broad,” says James. “It’s about experiences, outlook and attitude. Gender is one part of this, but different nationalities, different communication styles and points of view also feed into it.”

In addition to more conversations with People and Culture teams, Beca is trying to focus more intently on how they engage with professional development. In James’ Building Services team, there is an emphasis on the importance of quick catch-ups between managers and employees. “It sounds so pedestrian and simple, but having a quick conversation between manager and employee to say, ‘hey, here’s how things are going and here’s a reminder of what your career aspirations are’ is such a helpful move for people to develop stronger connections.”

Giving a boost to those in need

While gender certainly isn’t the only important aspect of diversity, James recognises that by supporting and enabling women to succeed, you enable the business to achieve even more. He notes that his team is looking more closely at rates of gender diversity within the Building Services business, as well as Beca’s business as a whole. “Particularly at the most senior levels, there’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of the gender mix. I find myself engaging in a lot of dialogue and setting expectations with many in the business about how we can provide extra support for our women engineers,” says James. “I’m definitely somebody who feels quite strongly about the need to provide a step up so that people can see what the opportunities are, so that there’s transparency around what people can bring, and what the prospects are here.”

The role men play

There are plenty of male advocates in the engineering and architecture industries that are working to level the playing field for women, including one of our members, Stephen McDougall from Studio Pacific Architecture. The problem is that there’s simply not enough out there promoting change, speaking out about the disparity and taking a hard look at the policies they’re creating and how they could be inadvertently putting women at a disadvantage.

“All leaders, including men, need to model and encourage behaviours that will support this cultural shift to greater diversity.”

To male leaders feeling like they don’t know where to begin on the journey, or perhaps not realising the crucial role they have to play, James’ message is clear. “Men have to participate. We won’t be able to create a truly inclusive and diverse culture if a large proportion of the population is not engaged in the process,” says James. “All leaders, including men, need to model and encourage behaviours that will support this cultural shift to greater diversity. It’s not just the moral thing to do, it’s also the right business decision.”

Driving change can be as simple as striking up a conversation with someone in the office you don’t know well, attending training courses on unconscious bias or other diversity and inclusion topics, or being a mentor to someone who’s looking for guidance. Most of all, James encourages men to stay calm. “Don’t panic! It’s natural to be uncomfortable with the unknown. Start talking to other people about diversity and inclusion and reflect on times that you might have been left feeling excluded because of your own gender, race, skin colour or sexual preference,” says James. “As a small step, there’s a lot to be said for simply talking with people that you don’t normally engage with. It’s okay to say hello.”

Future success

There’s certainly more change happening in the industry these days, and there’s even more to come thanks to leaders like James who are using their position and influence to effect change. “There are so many powerful reasons why we need to advance the diversity conversation beyond it being the right moral choice,” says James. “I’m increasingly aware of the need to provide different types of support and training to different people in order to help them realise their potential.”

On the importance of dedicating time and resources to things like diversity and inclusion, James’ perspective is clear. “One size does not fit all. The benefits of having a truly diverse workforce where everyone can contribute are enormous, which is why diversity initiatives are so crucial,” says James. “I feel as though I’m on a journey, and really only just getting started.”

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