Photo: Sean O'Brien in open plan office space

The leader of Boston-based BSC Group makes the business case for taking a company-wide, employee-centered approach to increasing diversity and inclusion

NORWICH RECORD | Spring 2022

When Sean O’Brien ’90 became CEO of BSC Group in 2017, the Boston-based engineering, planning, and consulting firm had a lot of good things going for it.

“What I [first] noticed about the firm was that it had very, very good people,” O’Brien says. “We had top-notch engineers, scientists, surveyors, landscape architects, and ecologists.”

But O’Brien, who previously served as a senior vice president for Arcadis, a multibillion-dollar, Dutch global engineering and consulting firm, also saw opportunities for improvement. One centered on diversity and inclusion (D&I). “There was an understanding that the firm was not diversified enough,” O’Brien says. “It was something that was on the things-to-do list at the firm when I got there.”

D&I efforts kicked into high gear when female employees at the firm approached leadership about forming a women’s group. “I said, ‘Of course, that makes perfect sense,’” O’Brien recalls. “But I said I think we should not limit it to just women. We are not diverse enough from any perspective.”

The firm launched a formal D&I program in 2019. Senior leaders on the company’s IDEA Council (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Awareness) direct the overall effort at BSC Group to foster “a listening and learning environment through colleague support networks,” according to the company’s website. Currently there are five employee resource groups (ERGs) with specific focuses: women, multicultural employees, working parents, new professionals, and wellness.

“These are essentially affinity groups where people share a common interest,” O’Brien says. “They’re given a budget, some time, and a platform. And then it just becomes its own thing … It’s not a top-down thing. I think it’s very organic.”

The ERGs have their own Zoom channels and chat groups where members can discuss issues of concern, share insight and information, or just offer support. Almost half of the firm’s employees participate in an ERG.

“We set our own agendas, goals, and things we want to accomplish and do,” says Jennifer Martinelli, an executive assistant at BSC Group, who co-chairs the multicultural ERG. “They’re kind of just organically doing what we need them to do, because they’re run by staff. And then it’s great to have the IDEA Council as the more senior leaders who are thinking about it in a more broad way.”

Despite the tumult of the last two years, the firm has continued its efforts to increase diversity and foster a culture of inclusion—and it’s been paying off. Women, for example, now hold 34 percent of BSC Group’s senior or executive positions, and 53 percent of the company’s interns are female.

“People have been really excited about the way that it’s been working out,” Martinelli says. “We’ve been getting much more diverse candidates and hires.” The support colleagues get from company ERGs is very good, she adds. “I honestly think we’re doing a better job than most places I know about.”

* * *

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, some BSC Group employees thought their company’s D&I efforts were going to be put on hold. “I was … told by the D&I committee that it was too bad that we were going to have to pause all of our D&I efforts,” O’Brien recalls. “And I said, ‘What do you mean?’”

“There were a whole bunch of assumptions that came out of not knowing, because when people don’t know something, they often run to their fears.”

The pandemic created great uncertainty, and O’Brien was the first to admit that he didn’t know what he didn’t know. “Nobody knew what was going to happen,” he says. “I surely didn’t. I didn’t know how it was going to impact us; I didn’t know how long it was going to be.”

When people don’t know all the answers, O’Brien says, their instinct is often to just stop. He didn’t want to do that. Rather, the CEO foresaw how concepts like inclusion would be especially important as the company navigated the once-in-a-century health crisis. The shift to remote work was likely to illustrate for everyone what it felt like to be excluded.

“I made a decision at the time that we were going to double down on it, because people were going to soon understand what it’s like to be alone and isolated or not included,” he says. “So there was no better time for this effort. It was absolutely going to be needed.”

O’Brien was confident he’d made the right decision, even though he didn’t realize the full impact his decision would have on the company. “What ended up happening was these ERGs ended up functioning as the place where people could meet and provide support. People used to come into the office and have their watercooler talks or have these causal random collisions of people. They could talk and interact and build trust and teamwork.” During the pandemic, O’Brien says, “all those things were gone—except in the ERGs. The ERGs functioned as those for us.”

Martinelli joined the firm in 2020 and experienced this firsthand. “The ERGs have actually been a really good way for me to get to know people,” she says. “There’s no way I would know the breadth of people that I do if we weren’t doing this kind of stuff.” The executive assistant says she knows people at every office. “[ERGs are] an important connection for people, whether you’re an existing employee or a new employee.”

* * *

When O’Brien joined BSC Group, the firm had four offices, around 120 employees, and roughly $16 million in annual revenue. Today the firm employs nearly 160 people working in six offices across New England and has seen annual revenue grow in excess of $25 million. “That’s been all organic. We haven’t done any acquisitions,” he says.

The company’s board of directors gave him some directives when he was hired. “They asked me to grow the firm and improve performance,” O’Brien recalls. “Then I asked that I have a third goal, which is enhance the workplace. And those continue to be my three goals.”

The company’s D&I work applies to all three objectives. “I think when you have diversity of perspective and experience, it makes for a much better team,” O’Brien says. “If everybody has got the same experiences …[and] perspective that I do, they’re likely to have the same opinion that I’m going to have. Which means we’re going to be running through life and serving our clients and working with each other with blind spots.”

From his years of reading and studying—O’Brien has a BS in environmental engineering and technology from Norwich, an MS in civil-environmental engineering from Tufts, and an MBA from Babson College—he knows that blind spots can lead to trouble. “[They] will kill you,” he says. “It’s never the thing that you can see that’s going to take you out. It’s the thing that you didn’t see that’s going to do it.”

The chief executive says the diversity and inclusion work underway at his company is important for several reasons: “There’s a business-case rea¬son for doing it—to be a better firm,” O’Brien says. “My first job as a consultant or a problem solver is to seek first to understand. I say that all the time. If you can ask better questions—and that diversity of perspectives and experience allows you to ask those better questions—you’re going come out with better answers.”

Another stems from lessons he learned as an undergraduate at Norwich. “It’s just a responsibility of leadership or service to recognize that to he who much is given much is expected,” he says. “I got to go to Norwich. I got to meet a lot of really great people. I got to be exposed to a lot of really great leaders and a lot of leadership styles.”

“I look at my classmates, and I look at the things that they have done and are doing now, and it’s not an accident,” he notes. “We were all in that Norwich melting pot. We had very good, unselfish leaders. So as a leader in an industry or a firm, I think we do have an obligation to look [out] for those [who] might not have been given every opportunity that we had and to try to make it easier.”

“Sean is very giving and supportive,” says Jana H. Raymond ’90, a former Navy flight officer who’s been friends with O’Brien since their days at Nor¬wich. (Both now serve on the Board of Fellows for the David Crawford School of Engineering, which O’Brien chairs.) “That’s just his character and the way Sean is,” Raymond says. “He’s always helping.” That includes his frequent attendance at networking events and career-education panels for Norwich engineering majors, she adds. “He’s just really tak¬en the time to reach back and to give back.”

While O’Brien sees many ways to improve diversity and inclusion at BSC Group, quotas aren’t one of them. “Diversity and inclusion [are] an outcome of good behaviors,” he says. “It can be measured by quotas. But if you just go for quotas, it’s going to drive short-cut types of behaviors that are not going to be consistent with the culture that you’re really going after. So it really starts with culture.”

In parallel with its D&I efforts, BSC Group also set out to redefine its mission, vision, and values. Lee Curtis, a vice president at the company who recently joined the IDEA Council’s leadership team, led that work.

“I had been pushing for it well before Sean became CEO,” Curtis recalls. “It’s a gradual process and evolution to understanding for some firms how important your culture is. And it’s not just knowing what your current culture is, but the culture you’re aspiring to and then fostering that culture.”

Curtis says she knew it was important for BSC Group to “figure out where we were today to figure out where we wanted to go.” It took time to formalize, she says. “But now we’re really off to the races.”

The direction is apparent in the company’s mission statement, which now reads: To inspire and empower each other and our clients to cre¬ate meaningful change. BSC uses design, engineering, science, and technology to build, support, and connect with our communities. As a trusted ad¬visor, resident, and neighbor, our team is personally invested in every action we take, and we remain focused on diversity, sustainability, and social accountability in the services we provide.

Its vision is “to transform the human and natural environment through inclusive, responsible, and purposeful actions.” There are clear and obvious tie-ins to the D&I work that’s been taking place. “It turned out that the culture that we aspired to have is very consistent with the ERGs and acceptance and tolerance,” O’Brien says. “But it’s also a growth mindset.”

Curtis, for example, is also one of two women who are now part of BSC Group’s Board of Directors. She sees that position and her role on the IDEA Council as ways to continue to help shape the culture at the company.

“D&I is never a one-person effort,” she says. “The IDEA Council is not a one-person effort. It can’t be successful without the contributions of the team, and it can’t be successful without the support of leadership. The IDEA Council has always appreciated and still appreciates that Sean was thinking outside the box in working with [former BSC Group employee Lori Chicoyne, who helped spearhead some of the company’s D&I efforts] to prioritize this journey well in advance of the pandemic…They did help us get out in front of this before we knew we needed it. They saw the need and made it happen. Sean consistently continues to encourage everyone to participate.”

Susan G. Duffy, PhD, an associate provost and professor in the School of Management at Wentworth Institute of Technology, joined the BSC Group board in 2021. The management expert got to know the company after it participated in a program on diversity and inclusion put on by Babson College and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce for which she was the faculty director. Duffy says she was impressed by BSC Group’s approach to and focus on D&I.

“I was intrigued with this engineering firm that was functioning the way that we hope all organizations aspire to function when it comes to creating cultures that are inclusive and have a climate of belonging,” Duffy says. “What strikes me now is that the work comes up in every meeting.”

“It’s alive, which is a real differentiator in my experience to other companies that go through these guises and create some sort of phrase that gets hung on the wall, and that’s the end of its usefulness.”

In addition to diversifying its board, BSC Group has made other changes to foster a more diverse and inclusive culture. These include recruiting from schools in the communities the company serves and taking a hard look at its job descriptions and hiring practices.

“Traditional job descriptions read like you’re ordering something at Dunkin’ Donuts,” O’Brien says. “But they don’t get to the essence of what you really need. What you really need to do as a hiring manager is, start to think about the hiring process a little differently and what your requirements are a little differently. Rather than thinking about just certain credentials or skills, think about hiring somebody with the right mindset. And the right mindset means not looking to hire the best individual, but rather the best teammate.”

The company’s D&I work has gotten noticed by others. BSC Group was named Employer of the Year in 2020 by the Boston chapter of the Women’s Transportation Group and was recognized for Cultural Excellence by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce at its Small Business of the Year awards program in 2020.

“I think Sean is genuinely committed to creating a high-performance firm that people want to be a part of,” Duffy says. “And both of those pieces are equally important … . A high-performance firm that people want to be a part of means you’re creating something that’s sustainable for the future, and I think that every bit of who he is as a leader is working to achieve that.”

O’Brien says there is still work to do “but the benefits are there.” BSC Group will continue striving to push its D&I efforts further.

And for firms at an earlier stage in this kind of work, O’Brien has some advice. “As a CEO, we need to be the ones who ask good questions. We don’t need to be the ones with all the answers,” he says. “Just engage your firm. The answers are there. They’ll tell you what they need. They’ll tell you what they want. You just have to listen, and then set things up and empower others to execute it. Then stand behind it and support it and watch things improve.”

“Stick with it, especially when it gets hard,” he continues. “Ironically, it makes it easier to manage a team if everyone is just like you. You know what to expect. It’s much harder to manage diverse perspectives and diverse opinions. It can also be harder to get things done. But it’s worth it, because we’ll get the right things done.”

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