A passion for people has always been at the center of Shannon Rowley’s career. Today she serves as chief human resources officer (CHRO) at MWH Constructors, but she originally trained to be an occupational therapist and worked briefly in the field before returning to school to study business administration.
She fell into human resources work when a family friend needed office help with a plumbing franchise. Initially overseeing payroll and invoicing, she eventually got connected to corporate staff and served as a regional human resources manager. She worked at American Residential Services for a total of six years, saying it felt natural, in a way that previous jobs never had.
“That work allowed me to stay connected with all levels of the organization,” she adds. “I got to know more about the employee base: what drives them, what keeps them engaged, and what information they need to do their jobs.”
In 2005, she got a call from a recruiter: MWH Global was looking for an HR generalist to contribute at headquarters in Broomfield, Colorado. Rowley was intrigued by the opportunity work at a corporate office in a new industry, especially after years as a lone HR professional in a field office.
But the first six months were rocky. Rowley worked alongside engineers for the first time and she had to adjust to a very different workplace culture. “I quickly learned that nobody was going to take my word for it,” Rowley explains. “I had to prove myself and back myself up with data—if you didn’t have data, you had no business talking to engineers.”
Once she got vocal about her capacity to contribute further, she stepped into a management role where she could expand her skillset and become more connected to the business. Those six months extended into six more, and now Rowley is in her seventeenth year at the company having served in a variety of roles across MWH Global’s many businesses, including MWH Constructors.
MWH Constructors is an integrated project delivery firm primarily focused on wastewater treatment. Its roots reach back over two hundred years across the United States and United Kingdom. In 2016, engineering conglomerate Stantec acquired MWH Global to develop a global footprint; two years later, in 2018, MWH Constructors was sold to private equity firm, Oaktree Capital Management. MWH Constructors now operates independently, with several companies under its management.
The 2018 buyout presented several challenges for Rowley and the administrative team. After operating under a parent company for her entire tenure, Rowley had to implement in-house systems across the organization. Her team had six months to complete that work while preserving and improving employee engagement, which was troubled during the uncertain period of the sale and the buyout.
“When things were moving so fast, we felt like we needed to have all-hands calls weekly,” the CHRO recalls. This led into a workforce engagement survey that helped direct those changes. “We took all the feedback and we created focus groups. We created very specific action plans and now, nearly four years later, we keep engagement in those calls, so we never lose sight of it.”
Another continuous thread in MWH’s approach has been a commitment to community integration. Over the lifecycle of a project, MWH ensures residents, businesses, and the community are at the forefront of the process. The company establishes outreach goals and develops additional methodology for delivery. MWH also provides workshops and presentations to provide transparency to the public.
Within the company, MWH implemented emissions reduction, water conservation, and waste reduction programs to limit the environmental impact of projects and administration. They define sustainability as “building clients’ projects with the most cost-effective materials and approaches that provide the best value over the facility’s lifetime.” That is, a sustainable approach is ethical as well as economical for all stakeholders.
Rowley has seen little turnover on her team and several of her colleagues have worked beside her for over ten years. Her leadership approach is collaborative and trusting, with an emphasis on talking through issues to arrive at effective solutions. As a CHRO, she trusts the expertise of her colleagues, and relies on open communication to develop everyone’s expertise.
“I find that when we talk things through, we often come to a better outcome,” she explains. “Often, someone will know the right answer but might not have the confidence or don’t want to make a mistake. If we discuss, they’ll talk themselves into a decision and they won’t need me to make it for them.”
The challenges of management can come as a shock to many, Rowley notes, and she was no different. Now, her seventeen years in managerial positions have supported ongoing growth as a leader and a professional.
“I’ve learned to have more patience and to ask better questions,” she reflects. “Early on, everything always seemed like a fire. Things had to be perfect. I have a lot more tolerance for getting things done right, as opposed to getting them done quickly.”