IWD 2021: Determined to lead the way for change

Rebecca reflects on her career and what it means to her on IWD 2021

As International Women’s Day rolls around again and I reflect on the past 20 years of my career, immersed in predominantly male-dominated industries, it is hard not to think about the challenges myself and many of my female colleagues have faced.

As a female leader in the severely under-represented construction and transport industry, it is probably best not to think too hard or long about all the times we’ve been overlooked for opportunities – excused by outdated beliefs about women’s leadership abilities; or all those times we’ve been blatantly paid less than our male counterparts for doing the exact same job – for some pretty shonky reasons, too (link to ABC article). 

Better still, best not go down the rabbit hole of our collective and shocking experiences of inequality in the workplace – the subtly sexist undermining of women, like at the beginning of my own career in television when I was required to collect my (male) manager’s dry cleaning and lunch – something that was not in my job description and certainly not something asked of my male colleagues at the same level.

It’s tempting to get angry; maybe a little bitter. And I must admit that is a very real feeling at times. But more than that, when it comes to gender equality and representation in the workplace, I’m inspired by how far we have come, motivated by how much further we have to go, and even more determined to lead the way for change.

Life is a collection of experiences and one of my own that had an especially pronounced impact on me – that later inspired my journey to start my own business – involved me sitting in a corporate conference of a major construction company listening to the male leaders on stage talking about recent company success and upcoming projects. One senior leader in particular spoke with pride about how revered and respected the company was within the industry. All very inspiring. During question time a female employee asked the leaders why there was little representation of women in the business. His response was a very dismissive “probably because the men like to swear and women don’t like swearing”.

If you’ve ever met me, you would know I love a good swear. So, the moment those words reached my ears I called, well, bullshit.

What a shame that, in what could have otherwise been an inspiring and exciting update from one of the most senior representatives of this massive company, instead of using his position of influence to address the gaping hole in the business and industry, this important question (and the woman who asked it) was dismissed, undermined and reduced to yet another sexist ideal.

There are so many things I wish he had said instead: that swearing had very little to do with the systemic sexism responsible for the lack of women in the industry; that there were almost no female leaders to model career progression on or to mentor other women; that major corporations such as this one made a habit of making redundancies of women on maternity leave; that the unnecessarily inflexible working hours of 7am to 6pm were inconducive to working parents (mostly women) faced with drop-off/pick-up responsibilities, or that almost none of the project roles outside of administrative functions are part time or job share, adding even more boundaries to parents wishing returning to work.

Of course, it would have been nice if he had said those things, but I wish even more that I was able to stand up and say it, because in his defence it is difficult – if not impossible – for someone to properly understand and articulate an experience that is not their own. Instead, I sat there in silence with my jaw on the floor. At the time, admittedly I didn’t feel able to speak out of fear that I would be met with eyerolls and deemed an emotional female in a room full of men.

Not being brave enough to stand up and speak out is one of my biggest career regrets, but also the beginning of a new career direction for me.

I interpret this year’s IWD theme of “challenge” as a polite way of saying “let’s use our anger and all of our experiences to drive proper change”. Equality cannot be achieved without the buy-in of both women and men. I strongly believe equality starts at home and as leaders we need to step up to ensure that all our people have the equal ability to share family responsibilities. Cultural change is only possible if both women and men are supported and encouraged to respond equally to the needs of the home.

I challenge leaders and business owners with these questions: do you expect and encourage your male team members to stay home when the children are sick or have a commitment just as you do your women employees? When a man comes to you and asks to work a part time arrangement, would you give him the same consideration as you would a woman? Are men in your business offered an equal paternity leave arrangement as your women employees? Do you consider out of the box alternative working arrangements such as job sharing / work from home / working school hours to hire the absolute best person for the role? Because if you are not considering these things you are not committed to equality – you are potentially missing out on incredible talent and your business is lacking because if it.

So, when I started my own business, I knew it was crucial that I create a culture of equality and diversity. Both women and men in my business are supported and encouraged to tend to life commitments outside of work; we have part time workers and equal parental leave opportunities. No one in my business will ever have to accept that they can’t contribute based on their gender, cultural background or because they have a family. We focus on output rather than hours and we challenge the status quo every time we hire talent.

We can turn experience into action and action into change – together.

5 steps to successful tendering

Helping our clients win work is one of our favourite things to do! Rebecca has been involved in some of Australia’s largest and most complex tender submissions for operations and maintenance, road, rail, ferries, power supply upgrades and major water treatment projects. Over the years she’s seen it all – wins, losses and everything in between. Below she has provided her top five tips for delivering a successful tender submission:

1. A ‘one team’ approach is the best team approach. These days most major projects are delivered as joint ventures or PPPs. As always, it comes down to leadership. Teams who haven’t attempted to merge together and develop a united identity really struggle from the start. It quickly becomes clear which JV teams are simply not on the same page. My clients who invest time and resources in developing a unified team generally become winners. It can be difficult, especially with short timeframes, but I strongly believe a winning formula involves a dedicated and experienced bid manager, clear responsibilities, a set of robust systems to communicate across teams, taking time to get to know each other and a set of shared goals that are developed as an entire team. 

2. A dedicated tender team is a winning tender team. Too often I have tried to work with a subject matter expert who is doing their day job while also attempting to throw together a tender schedule for a major project in their spare time. Most times they end up failing at both.

3. Make it original. Cutting and pasting from previous submissions is a lazy way to develop a response – and it stands out. My clients who invest in tender resources (strategy/management/writing/SMEs) are often the most successful ones because they truly understand the requirements and tailor a submission based on the specifics of each project. 

4. Understand who your competition is. What are their strengths and weaknesses? Can you offer something unique that will differentiate you to your competition? Once you know who they are, then it’s time for your team to focus on your solution and all that it will offer.

5. Understand who is going to be reading your responses. So, you know who you are up against, but do you know who will be reading and assessing your submission? What are their drivers? What is their understanding of your subject area? Understand this and your response will hit the mark every time.

Protests, picket lines and personal attacks.

So, you’ve heard about burnout – but what exactly is it? How does it affect you? How can you avoid it? As an engagement practitioner, a leader and someone who has been affected by burnout I have dedicated time to finding out more and starting an honest-but-critical discussion about burnout within the community engagement space.

The best description I’ve come across that sums up burnout explains it as a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion, caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel emotionally drained, overwhelmed and unable or unwilling to meet constant demands. Eventually, you feel disengaged, distressed, or simply like you have nothing more to give.

My symptoms of burnout encompassed all of the above.

A metaphor that describes my burnout experience involves me running a race too hard, too fast, for too long and placing too much pressure (on myself) to win. My focus on the race came before other important things in my life. One day, I couldn’t and no longer wanted to keep up the pace, but I didn’t know how to get off the track.

The end of my race came after a decade of being a public-facing engagement practitioner, working a high-pressure job on a high-profile project, all while juggling being a mum of two small kids and commuting four hours a day. My mental and physical well-being had deteriorated and so had the tolerance of my family, my friends and my colleagues.

But get this – I wasn’t the only one. In a recent survey of community engagement practitioners conducted by Becscomm, it showed that 82.2% of respondents had experienced burnout. I started noticing a trend amongst colleagues in the industry; and it became clear there wasn’t just one factor that can cause burnout. It is due to a number of factors; both external (unrealistic job pressures) and internal (cumulative, personality, wellbeing). This article is going to briefly address the external pressures and what you can do as an individual to stay ahead of burnout

As practitioners, we act as the front line; the public face of the project while managing the lines of communication between the project and the public. It’s our job to deliver news of significant and sometimes permanent impacts of a project on the lives of others. We manage complaints, feedback, talk to all walks of life and turn the complex world of technical project information into bite size morsels fit for public consumption.

We often find ourselves comforting and counselling communities. We are the first line of people confronted with their frustration, anger and their abuse. Sometimes we do all of this at 2am over the community hotline before we have to be onsite at 7am to start the day over.
All this can lead to burnout.

Surveying colleagues, peers and through my own experiences, I have found that other key external influences that contribute to burnout include:
– Companies under resourcing
– Not investing in training
– Not valuing the function’s value

I have found the under resourcing of community teams a major catalyst of burnout and job pressures. This factor doesn’t discriminate between the size of projects – from small projects with one community representative to mega-projects that have a high level of community and media backlash. Not enough numbers on the ground to deal with complaints, protests, media scrutiny, complex issues, negative feedback or to take the 24/7 community phone home each night leads to exhaustion and burnout.


Another factor is when teams are not adequately trained to deal with the severe pressures that come with this job. This coupled with government agencies not equally prepared or equipped to classify, handle or closeout unreasonable complaints or constant communication from vexatious complainants.

As a profession, community engagement on projects is no longer a ‘nice to have’ – the function is written very tightly into the contract and we must maintain legislation as well as adhere to the extremely tight approval and notification timeframes. Significant pressure is placed on practitioners to ensure deadlines and contractual obligations are met and costly mistakes are avoided.

It’s important that as an individual you take responsibility to proactively practice self-care and know your warning signs when burnout is approaching. There are a number of strategies that you can put in place every day. I have put together a list of my top tips to stay ahead of burnout:

1. Understand your personal triggers and warning signs that you are fatigued – then put in place a self-care plan to reverse these.

2. Understand and accept the circle of influence. Avoid getting wound up about something that is simply out of your control. Gain perspective and influence what you can and let the rest go!

3. Strive for a balance between work and personal life, focusing on personal care. This might include exercise or an activity that you enjoy outside of work. Make time to fit it into your schedule.

4. Get a mentor or coach to help observe and critique you (or just listen!). They can be your external eyes and ears and judge your performance and wellbeing objectively.

5. Gain buy-in and support from above. Speak to your manager about the issues and agree on an individual strategy to help you move forward and stay engaged.

6. Know when to push back. It’s never ok to have to put up with abuse, threats or inappropriate behaviour. It is your right to stop the conversation, hang up the phone or walk away – always look after yourself first and foremost.

Rebecca presented ‘Feel the Burn – Managing Burnout as a Community Engagement Practitioner’ at this year’s IAP2 Australasia Conference in Sydney. You can access Bec’s full IAP2 presentation and find out more about how to manage burnout on the Becscomm app – download here: https://www.becscomm.com.au/becscomm-app.

Five rules every project manager should understand (& practice!) for effective community relations.

It is difficult to put a dollar figure on the true value of good community relations; but the cost of getting it wrong can mean big dollars in delays, design changes, mediation and damaged reputations. But what happens if you don’t have the luxury of your own dedicated “comms team”?

We’ve put together a simple cheat sheet for project managers and construction professionals to build a foundation for good community relations, even if they find themselves flying solo in the realm of comms. Bonus: most of these tips can also be used to improve internal communication with your project team too. #winning

What is good community relations?

Good community relations is exactly that: good relationships with the community.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to community relations in construction, which is both exciting and annoying. I say exciting because I love the thrill of immersing myself in a new project and community; getting to know their unique challenges and coming up with creative ways to solve them together. I say annoying because construction can be such a fast-paced and contractual beast that we end up spending so much of our time trying to meet our regulatory obligations or responding to complaints, questions and media enquiries instead of really getting to know the people we’re impacting. That’s where a blanket ‘best practice’ approach starts to sound mighty appealing.
With that in mind, there are a couple of golden rules that can help to put you in good stead with the impacted community and your key project stakeholders.

Note: this is a guide for community relations in practice, and assumes that a level of stakeholder mapping and analysis has already been done and you have a solid engagement strategy in place.

First up: Listen (properly)

This is the simplest, most important and hardest rule of all.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down with someone to address a complaint which has stemmed from that person feeling like no one is really listening. And it’s so frustrating, because often the original issue was relatively minor, but has escalated because they’ve been fobbed off or ignored or someone has given them an answer to a question they never asked. The worst part is, it is so avoidable.

It’s like getting your quality control sorted on a concrete pour; if you don’t do things properly the first time, you’ll end up wasting time and money on rework. If you don’t listen properly the first time, you’ll end up wasting time and money responding to community complaints or explaining yourself to your client or the media later.

Here’s how to do it: stop assuming, anticipating and thinking about what you want to say and try to really understand what the person is saying to you. Then (here’s the kicker) check with them that you heard it right. Then, and preferably only then, respond to their question and/or come up with solutions, together if possible. Even if the answer is not what they want to hear, I promise you that if you’ve invested the time to really listen and understand their question or concerns, you’ll be light years ahead and on the road to a better, stronger, more meaningful relationship with the community.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” – S Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).

Two: Be Honest

Chances are if you tell porkies to avoid conflict or cover your ass, the truth will come back and bite you, so you might as well be upfront about it. Good relationships are built on trust and respect and those two things are not possible without a good measure of honesty.
Bonus tip: apologise when you’re in the wrong. Making mistakes is what makes us gloriously human and there is immense power in admitting when we are wrong. Worst case scenario, you look like a bit of a goose and need to spend some time fixing your mistake (which you would likely have to do anyway). Best case, you gain more street cred as a decent human being and get to hit the reset button on a relationship or situation.

On a side note: contrary to popular belief, saying sorry does not equal admission of liability. Even in criminal law, an actual confession doesn’t automatically create guilt. So if you’ve done something wrong or made a mistake, own it, apologise and move on.

Three: Follow Through

Question: Is there anything more frustrating than when someone says they are going to do something, and then they don’t?

Answer: No. It’s this simple: if you say you’re going to do something, then do it.

Four: Pick your Battles

Sometimes arguing for the sake of making a point or getting all defensive (yes, even when you KNOW you’re right) can make a bad situation an absolute nightmare. I’m not suggesting that it is ok for a community member to abuse or accuse you of something when they don’t have all the facts, but trying to provide facts to an irate person is futile. Facts don’t matter to a person who has just been woken up at 2am by one of your workers throwing metal plates onto the back of a truck outside their bedroom window at the end of an already loud and long night shift. They don’t care if you have approval to be there or that your asphalt is looking slick.

In this kind of scenario, you’re best to just cop an angry phone call on the chin, don’t argue, then refer to steps one, two and three above.

Last but not least: Stay Flexible

Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the right way or the only way. Every project is different, every community has different priorities and every person in the community experiences impacts differently. Learn from your mistakes and from lessons other people share with you – soak it all in and always be ready to adapt. That doesn’t mean you have to get on board the latest, most innovative and expensive communications tools either. It could be as simple as trying a new format for a community event that removes the opportunity for grand-standing and allows everyone to have a voice. Or it might mean asking the community how they would prefer to be contacted instead of sending out the same old paper notifications that never get read. The key takeaway here: if something isn’t working, try something different.
Don’t assume. Ask questions, keep an open mind and have fun. Or just bring in a professional to help you out.

Amanda is a senior communication and stakeholder engagement consultant at Becscomm. With almost 10 years of experience in the civil construction and mining industries and a previous 6 years in finance and investment banking, Amanda draws on a variety of experience to deliver high-level communications and stakeholder engagement support for major projects and tender submissions.