Diversity in Leadership - Part 2

Following our International Women’s Day article focusing on women in leadership roles across the infrastructure and P3 space, we now take a broader perspective

Diversity comes in many forms and developing the right environment for it to flourish can take time, especially in a market where the culture has often been traditionally skewed towards the ‘male, pale and stale’ stereotype.

However, things are changing and there are signs of progress around the world. Following our focus on the impact of women in our International Women’s Day special, we have now invited a further range of diverse leaders to share their thoughts and experiences.

  • How are you leading change and progress in the P3/infrastructure industry?

Shawn D. Wilson, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development

Leadership by example is difficult but certainly the most effective, particularly in the public sector. 

Recognizing the need to deliver many more projects of increasing difficulty, as a result of the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA) and potentially additional local revenue, I am advancing projects with procurement in mind. This means starting asking questions about delivery frameworks in advance of environmental clearance. Since 2017, we have made structural investments in the department, concentrating a new office of innovative procurement at the executive level of DOTD, and creating an office of critical projects to concentrate the strongest project management resources. This has facilitated IDIQ contracts to support this innovative delivery in terms of legal, financial, and technical advisors.  

We are also identifying state resources to leverage private investment. We have successfully led legislative changes to make this delivery more efficient and available to smaller, mid-sized firms. These projects don’t have to be just the billion dollar projects, in reality the need is much greater for projects less than $100m and can be multimodal in nature.  

I have also been a champion of the procurement model and its application benefits with legislative and local leaders.

Jeremy M Ebie, co-founder and managing partner, Phoenix Infrastructure Group

At Phoenix Infrastructure, impact, equity, diversity and sustainability are at the forefront of our inception and development as a firm. We are a minority-owned firm that seeks to invest in and develop positively impacting infrastructure with an opportunity to support communities that are underserved. We seek to drive this impact not only through our investments in these communities but also through empowering local and diverse contractors as we see the development of these capabilities amongst members within the community of a project has the potential of developing real generational wealth.

To that end, we take an active role within the equity team to drive local stakeholder engagement, contractor engagement, and communication within the diverse members of any community in helping to deliver a project that creates the most value in every aspect for the community. In addition, we seek to drive impactful diversity and progress at each vertical within our consortium in order to create the kind of opportunities that are value-add for all impacted by the project.

Jay Brown, chairman, Hayat Brown

At Hayat Brown, we are leading change in the P3/infrastructure industry by hiring and advancing women and professionals of color in senior positions and putting them in front of P3 owners, industry professionals, and transaction counterparties to not just demonstrate their P3 expertise and leadership, but to discuss openly and unambiguously how we have incorporated equity, diversity, and inclusion into P3 concession agreements, ground leases, and Project Development Agreements. 

Our firm focuses on the social infrastructure needs of urban and underserved communities and higher education institutions. To understand and address their needs, it is critical that the make-up and perspective of our professionals align with those of our clients and the communities they serve.

  • How important is it for there to be diversity at the top in helping to lead this progress?

Jeremy M Ebie, co-founder and managing partner, Phoenix Infrastructure Group

As an equity investor and participant at the “top” of project teams, we see diversity to be critical to driving our progress, the success of projects, and just as importantly the overall P3/infrastructure community. 

Most of the critical projects that we are engaging in are within very diverse pockets of the country with very diverse stakeholders, leaders and decision-makers. They want to support projects that benefit people within their community, that have lived and been personally invested, and will stay in their communities. We strongly believe that the path forward for our industry is to create more opportunities for the individuals within the communities of our projects to build their businesses and support their families.

There is a symbiotic relationship here to be developed - I don’t think that any community leader can or will proactively promote a project within his or her community that does not directly provide opportunity for their members. This is becoming especially true for communities of color within urban and suburban America. The recently passed Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act addresses these dynamics pretty clearly and I think that now is the time for our industry to seize the moment. We are in a unique position of being able to do well by doing good.

Jay Brown, chairman, Hayat Brown

Diversity without power and authority is meaningless and offers no long-term or sustainable advancements toward equity. It’s window dressing.

Shawn D. Wilson, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development

Diversity, equity, and inclusion in this space is essential. The industry is far ahead of where governments are on this issue. Clearly the P3 space is global, and as a result very diverse.  

Mirroring the private sector is a goal of mine for DOTs. The issue of a lack of diversity is much more prevalent and I believe is a contributing factor to the workforce challenges of our transportation industry.

  • What more needs to be done to improve diversity within leadership roles and what would have helped you?

Jay Brown, chairman, Hayat Brown

Simple - hire and promote women and diverse professionals to positions of authority and get out of their way. The rest will happen organically.

Shawn D. Wilson, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development

States, and some in the industry, have to be more intentional in recruiting and placing leaders. This includes seeking out diverse promotional opportunities for young professionals with different disciplines. This may mean being non-traditional compared to what is conventional.  

Investing in a comprehensive capacity building and workforce development effort can help, as opposed to expecting a critical mass of qualified diverse applicants to spontaneously appear. 

Additionally, challenging our peers and confronting this issue head-on is important.

Jeremy M Ebie, co-founder and managing partner, Phoenix Infrastructure Group

I believe that there are two major sides to the way that more can be done to promote diversity within leadership roles in our industry. One is at the government side and via procurement, the other is through corporate initiative and action. 

We have seen improvement over the years - there was a time not long ago in which this discussion was not being had, and within procurements the discussion of diversity at the top of bid teams was not a defined priority, and the look of teams at the time was a lot more monochromatic. Owners, public figures and agency leaders have been more vocal about wanting diversity; I can go down the list of leaders that have expressed the need for diversity, and now you are starting to see that in requests for qualifications. 

For project sponsors that have been slower to act, I believe this has been a significant signal to take action. Furthermore, there has been more and more effort in that direction every day that I think has not only been inspired by the social reckoning that the United States is going through starting in 2020, but also in the fact that it is difficult to procure, develop and execute projects of any significance over a long period of time, without providing clear representation at the top of these teams that reflects the diversity of the communities that they operate within. Sophisticated lead developers and investors have noticed this as well, and you can see that they are taking heed and are finding ways to meet that call from owners, not only because it is the right thing to do but also because it is critical to getting deals done.  

  • Innovation is a key driver for the P3 market - how does increased diversity help that?

Shawn D. Wilson, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development

Diversity brings to the forefront new ideas and perspectives to consider in making strategic decisions that can be integral to successful business ventures. Having a diverse workforce participating can bring a different understanding of needs and impacts which feed into a project.  

Most importantly, having diverse perspectives will make greater progress surpassing ESG standards.

Jeremy M Ebie, co-founder and managing partner, Phoenix Infrastructure Group

There is a common theme within any business school case study that diversity of ideas produces more thoughtful strategy, higher returns, and mitigated risk in any enterprise. It is easy to get decisions agreed upon within groups of the same thought and background, but those decisions are more susceptible to groupthink and thus limited in the long-term value of their return and highly susceptible to critical mistakes brought forward through failure to identify blind-spots. 

This is true for innovation within the P3 market - there is no doubt that diversity is the easiest road to innovation and identification of new ideas and that ultimately will drive value within our industry. While this applies to all types of diversity within disciplines and industries, because of the dynamic of infrastructure and its immense ability to affect communities and economies, social diversity is the most important innovation right now for the industry to take on in order to bring the full value of the industry forward.

I expect that as an industry we will get there soon for no other reason than the fact that we have to in order to succeed.

Jay Brown, chairman, Hayat Brown

Innovation requires understanding and addressing the unique needs of everyone impacted by a P3/infrastructure project. There is no way to fully understand the broader needs of impacted communities without diverse perspectives and a real understanding of the values, culture, and interests of those impacted. 

Innovation means doing things differently. Albert Einstein said “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. Innovation without diversity is insanity.