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Collaboration and construction: A dream I ​​​​​didn’t know ​​​​​I had.

Miranda Olsen walking on construction site

With Miranda Olsen, Stakeholder Engagement Advisor, ACCIONA

When I started a Bachelor of Business at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) I had very little direction and no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I definitely had no idea I would find myself wearing high vis and steel cap boots to engage and consult with key stakeholders on some of the biggest infrastructure projects in south east Queensland.

Since graduating from high school, I had been working in insolvency and assumed I was heading for a career in accounting. That was until I started my first marketing subject and was introduced to public relations. I was hooked, changed majors as soon as I could and learnt about everything from issues and crisis communication to industrial relations.

During my time at QUT I was lucky enough to intern at one of Brisbane’s leading strategic communication, digital and creative agencies, where I worked with another student offering support to a not-for-profit organisation. My internship turned into a fulltime position where I got the opportunity to learn from leading industry experts—working with clients across a number of industries.

It wasn’t long until I was seconded to an engineering and construction company to work in the Community and Stakeholder Relations team to help deliver a major road upgrade. It was here that I began to learn the fundamentals of stakeholder engagement and public participation.

Our scope included widening an arterial road, upgrading existing in-ground services (including water, power, sewer and gas) and public transport facilities, as well as enhancements to public areas such as iconic parks of historical significance to the local community. As I began to understand the impacts of the work we were doing, it became clear why the public, local community and impacted stakeholders needed to be involved in the decision-making process on matters that would directly impact them.

I quickly learnt public participation through stakeholder engagement is not a one size fits all approach—it takes careful planning, honest and open communication, and sometimes to succeed first you have to fail in one way or another. This tends to happen when balancing the internal and external priorities, establishing the negotiables verses the non-negotiables or when timeframes change because unfortunately, usually, something has got to give.

Thankfully, during this steep learning curve, I have been lucky enough to work in teams made up of not only remarkable engagement specialists but people with the same priorities and values, who pull together in times of high stress to lift each other up when we need it the most. Colleagues from all areas of projects become friends in the construction industry, working alongside one another as you face some very tough challenges and also being there to celebrate the wins, no matter how small. Their views and opinions are invaluable when you are weighing up different options and opportunities for public participation—I have found that some of the best ideas can come from the most unlikely candidates.

I have also been very privileged with the mentors I have had so far throughout my career, both the stakeholder engagement professionals and the technical experts. Developing new skills is one thing but trying to design the perfect stakeholder engagement strategy while learning the theory, technique and execution of upgrading a road or replacing a watermain definitely has its own challenges. Having people to support you through this process and bounce ideas off has, at times, kept me sane.

They say practice makes perfect but, in my experience, you can’t get it right every time, no matter how much you practice or how many years’ experience you have. The most you can do is design your engagement based on best practice, previous learnings and in consultation with those who you are impacting.

Stakeholder engagement is not for everybody, but I have found that if you take those people who don’t work in this area on the journey with you it helps them to understand what you are trying to achieve and how you are trying to achieve it. Having these key people then stand behind you and support your role and what you are doing makes all the difference. This process isn’t a one-way flow of information either—the best way to achieve an outcome that is suitable for everyone is a mutual understanding of key priorities. While we may not always be able to achieve the outcomes we advocate for, any change that we can create makes a difference. No matter how small, these changes also encourage the consideration of public participation in future planning from those outside of stakeholder engagement.

In my opinion, there has never been a more exciting time to be working in stakeholder engagement in the construction industry. Our role is evolving, and our influence is growing as the importance of public participation is recognised across all aspects of major infrastructure projects. From concept, throughout delivery to completion, stakeholder engagement is no longer a nice to have—clients now mandate it and the community expects it. This means that the ideas we have had in the past that didn’t seem possible are now becoming reality and we are able to see first-hand the positive change we can create for those we advocate on behalf of.

I owe where I am in my career today to a lot of people, particularly those who had faith in me when I was a fresh-faced graduate, and I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you.

Collaborating with engineers to develop and implement engagement strategies that echo the IAP2 core values was not where I thought I would end up, but I wouldn’t have it any other way—I would pick words over numbers any day of the week.