Keasia Daniels: “Establish an inclusive team culture”

Establish an inclusive team culture. As the leader, your example will define and model the culture of your team. Understanding this, I work to perpetuate an inclusive culture based on collaboration, respect and trust, and I have made it clear that I expect the same from each individual on my team. As a part of my […]

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Establish an inclusive team culture. As the leader, your example will define and model the culture of your team. Understanding this, I work to perpetuate an inclusive culture based on collaboration, respect and trust, and I have made it clear that I expect the same from each individual on my team.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Keasia Daniels.

Keasia was born in Jacksonville, Florida, USA and graduated from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in 1994 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering. She continued her studies at Purdue University (Indiana) and graduated in 1995 with a Master of Science degree in Civil Engineering / Construction Engineering & Management. She is a Professional Engineer (exp) in the State of Florida, a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and the Association for the Advancement of Cost Engineering (AACEI).

Currently, Keasia is the General Manager Project Services Americas where her team delivers cost estimating, cost control, planning/scheduling, and risk management for capital projects executed in the Downstream Refining & Chemicals, Deepwater, Integrated Gas, Offshore Wind and Renewable Natural Gas lines of business. She manages a team of 50+ staff who are supporting capital projects from 50 million dollars to over 10 billion dollars.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

During my time in high school, I was often encouraged to pursue a career in engineering as I showed a high aptitude for math and science. Following this advice, my parents enrolled me the summer program, “M.I.T.E.” (Minority Introduction to Engineering), where I spent part of the summer on a college campus taking courses in engineering and experiencing college life. Wanting to gain exposure to all the different fields of engineering, as well as maintain the option of pursuing a military career, I decided to attend the program at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut.

While at the academy, we took a field trip to an active construction site for a civil project repairing and rehabilitating the foundation and structural supports of a local bridge. We were given hard hats and escorted around the site while our professor highlighted concepts of civil engineering. I could literally see engineering happening before my eyes. Something about the hustle and bustle of the construction site just resonated with me.

It was here that I learned two very important lessons: 1) engineering was going to be my career of choice, specifically civil engineering, and 2) I will do it as a civilian.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

This is going to seem more funny than interesting, but my first job after college was a field planning engineer role on a construction site in Sioux City, Iowa. Being born and raised in Florida, cold weather, especially an Iowan winter, is not something I was ready for. In fact, the cold was so brutal at times that any exposed skin was at-risk for frostbite. With that in mind, we bundled in so many layers of construction gear that I looked like the Michelin Man. Also, since it was a construction site, we were consistently in the elements and the bathrooms on-site were of the outdoor variety. Suffice to say, it was one of the most dehydrating times of my career.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Building off my previous answer, I would say that my “funny” mistake was taking a job in a state with unbearably cold weather. While I was completely miserable, it ended up being a blessing in disguise. While a normal capital project takes years to design and build, this one was on a fast-track construction timeline. We were set to rebuild the original facility, an operating chemical plant that suffered a devastating explosion due to poor maintenance, and we were designing, procuring and creating in real-time. So, my miserable/funny mistake became my masterclass of project management.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Shell is on the leading edge of the energy transition. I am truly excited about the work we are doing to move to cleaner energy. The energy transition is required for the health of our planet and the sustainability of generations to come, and Shell’s work in the area is both visionary and inspirational.

However, powering progress is not the only area where Shell is leading the way. A long-time advocate for DE&I (diversity, equity and inclusion), Shell has been partnering — some spanning decades — with a variety of NGOs like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), as well as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Spanning across Shell’s operations from the top-down, its employees — from engineers to general managers — are supporting a variety of programs and initiatives. These range from fostering an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) in school-aged students (K-12), to providing scholarships and mentoring for higher education and creating professional development resources for those in the workforce.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, digging into the specifics from my previous answer, my team is currently supporting several projects in the cleaner energy space including wind farms, renewable natural gas and biofuels initiatives. For example, we are working with farmers to collect agricultural waste (animal and plant) and convert it to natural gas. Similarly, we are partnering with cities to collect municipal waste and convert it to gas, which can then be utilized to power homes.

From reducing landfill waste to providing clean power and creating new jobs/revenue streams, these types of projects will advance society and help all living beings in the long run. It is exciting to play a part in this progression.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

While some may disagree, I am pleased with the increased opportunities for women pursuing STEM-related degrees in college, though there is still room to continue progressing. Women now represent nearly 40% of all STEM-related bachelor’s degrees in the United States, which indicates the STEM talent pipeline is nearing 50/50 gender balance. With the focus on early exposure and training in STEM education, I think we will achieve that balance soon.

Two areas where we can continue to improve include:

  1. Pay disparity in STEM — women in STEM are paid just under 81% of men’s annual earnings, while women of color in STEM earn less than 15% of all STEM-related degrees in the US.
  2. Female representation in corporate leadership — a hot topic — is clearly an issue we need to continue working on.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Shell recently conducted focus group discussions on this very topic. One of the key themes that resonated with me was this concept of women being caught in the “not ready yet” trap. There is a tendency to judge a male favorably on his potential as a measure of readiness for more challenging roles. On the other hand, the women shared stories of being told they were “not ready yet” and are more likely to be moved into lateral roles to gain experience. This results in women’s careers stagnating while their male counterparts move upward. We attribute this to the bias of discounting female educational and job experiences.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

There is a perception that because STEM careers are male dominated, the careers themselves are “male” careers. This is a myth that is perpetuated at a very young age in our society and results in society steering girls toward classes like literature, art, humanities, etc., while boys are directed toward math, biology, robotics, etc. As a mentor myself, I even hear young girls mention that “math is for boys.” I want to break the myth that any career is male or female — they are just careers, and no gender should be assigned either way.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Lesson 1: You are your best advocate and cheerleader. Since performance does not always speak for itself, it becomes necessary to be comfortable with tooting your own horn and making your desires known.

Lesson 2: Trust your team. It is impossible to have all of the answers, all of the time, and I have learned (sometimes the hard way) that not only do I not know everything, but my team often has better ideas than I do. Therefore, as a leader my job is to empower and enable them to thrive, then get out of their way.

Lesson 3: Reward those who do the work. After all, recognition is a great motivational tool and, more importantly, it is the right thing to do.

Lesson 4: Your gut is usually right, but don’t be afraid to ask for advice to get confirmation. It is vital to have a trusted mentor, coach or colleague to bounce your ideas off in a safe space.

Lesson 5: Don’t take too long to pivot. It is often hard to change directions when a plan does not work out as you intended, but delaying only worsens the damage and often impacts your own leadership and brand. While pivoting tactics is almost never the popular choice, it is necessary to reach your goal.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

With technology advancing at a rapid pace, no matter what industry or line of business you are in, digitalization and speed of technology will either move you forward or leave you behind. With that in mind, my advice is to continually look for ways to help your team become as efficient as possible and stay relevant. Leaders should always be open to and encourage ideas to improve and digitalize work processes, automate data and keep their team members developing competencies in the digital space.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Leading large teams can be a bit overwhelming. I believe my approach will help not only other women leaders, but leaders in general:

  1. Identify the “thought leaders” and “executors.” The “thought leaders” are the team members who are visionaries, think outside the box and see the big picture, while the “executors” are the action-driven members of your team who keep you focused on delivery, quality and achieving goals. Both are necessary in order to create a successful team.
  2. Establish an inclusive team culture. As the leader, your example will define and model the culture of your team. Understanding this, I work to perpetuate an inclusive culture based on collaboration, respect and trust, and I have made it clear that I expect the same from each individual on my team.
  3. Demonstrate care for your team. Teams are most effective when individuals are pulling in the same direction, with a sense of trust, care and loyalty to each other. I believe the strongest work relationships are built on trust, and “care” is a key ingredient to building trust. You can only build trust by investing time to get to know your team care about each individual on a personal level. Personally, I enjoy truly getting to know my team members — at every level — so I like to know about their families, their passions outside of work and their motivations. In turn, I’ve been able to build strong relationships with each member of my team.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many who have been “in my village” to help me along the way, with each of them coming into my life at just the right time to help and encourage me on my path. Without their combined efforts, I would not be where I am today.

However, if I needed to pick one person, it would be Wendy Wilson. She was my manager when I took on one of my first team leadership roles, and she was an excellent coach.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I sure hope so!I am very passionate about encouraging young girls/women, particularly from under-represented minority groups, to pursue STEM careers, which I’m happy aligns with Shell’s long-time advocacy within diversity, equity and inclusion. It is my hope that they will be able to experience the same “ah-ha” moment that I had that summer in the MITE program at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. However, understanding that not everyone has access or opportunity to those experiences, I am using my success to help close the gap that exists for many in our communities. Specifically, I have served as the volunteer chapter advisor for a local National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Jr. chapter, where we expose participants to guest speakers and field trips across all aspects of STEM. Most recently, I volunteered with the planning effort for an event called “STEM Exposed,” a virtual workshop for middle school students. It was so much fun watching over 800 students conduct a science experiment in their “kitchen labs” over Zoom.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to start a movement to encourage more kindness and compassion. As a society, we tend to group ourselves in boxes and borders, which makes it hard to solve the big problems. However, kindness and compassion work well to melt borders and protective shields. Every time you witness mistreatment or read a bullying social media comment, you should intervene with kindness and compassion. Let’s empower everyone to intervene with viral kindness!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…” — Matthew 7:12

I truly believe that everything in life comes back to people and relationships. How you treat people is an indicator of your own morals, ethics and authenticity. My previous answer about managing a large team featured the phrase, “care for people.” This scripture is also similar to the quote by Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would absolutely be delighted to dine with Ursula Burns! About seven or eight years ago, a colleague was retiring from Shell and as a parting gift, he left a magazine on my desk with a personal note. The note said, amongst other things, “one day you will be her.” Ursula Burns was on the cover of the magazine as one of the most powerful women in business. Both flattered and encouraged, it made me curious about what my colleague saw in me that could bring me to that level. If I could dine with Ursula, I would like to ask about her story and her accomplishments.

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