This is the first in create’s monthly ‘engineering outside the box’ series, speaking with engineers in interesting leadership roles. Is there someone you think we should feature? Get in touch.
With a goal of being 100 per cent powered by renewable electricity by 2025, supermarket giant Coles has lofty goals and noble ambitions. Managing this sustainability project is engineer Jane Mansfield.
While the Australian federal government has copped flak about not doing enough to combat carbon emissions, many of Australia’s corporates are taking up the slack. This includes the three major players in the supermarket space — Coles, Woolworths and Aldi — all of whom have committed to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025.
It takes an engineer to turn such a pledge into reality. At Coles, that is Head of Energy Jane Mansfield, whose passion for figuring out how things work is bested only by her love of communicating such information to non-engineers.
For the first several years after graduating from Chemical Engineering at the University of Adelaide (her 1991 to 1994 class was the first engineering cohort in Australia to contain more females than males) Mansfield was employed in a fairly traditional engineering role with Mobil Oil. First in Adelaide, and then in Melbourne and Wellington, she worked on optimising refinery supply chains.
In 2003, she made a move that added an entirely new and thoroughly enjoyable challenge to her remit. Mansfield accepted a position with FMCG business Asaleo Care, owner of such brands as Sorbent, Libra and Handee Ultra.
“I went from being surrounded by engineers to being surrounded by accountants and marketing people,” she told create.
“Most of the time, I was the only technical person in the discussion. That was wonderful, as I got to learn new things about business, and new skills in terms of communicating complex technical ideas to people who don’t see the world that way.”
It is a task Mansfield has carried through to her current role with Coles. The communication challenge, in fact, is one that engineers in all sectors are being told will become more vital in the near future.
With community engagement and other stakeholder conversations an increasingly core ingredient of the engineering function, skills such as those Mansfield has developed will be essential across all engineering roles.
create: What is the secret to the communication challenge?
Jane Mansfield: To achieve a certain outcome, you must adapt your language and become very skilled at summarising complex ideas in ways that are easily understood. You can’t expect people to understand all of the maths and science that underpins complex concepts. Their expertise lies elsewhere. It’s a matter of understanding who your audience is and then making sure you’re pitching your communication at the right level.
create: Is this difficult, as an engineer?
JM: It depends on who you are. There are people who are just communicators, then there are people who love technical engineering — I’m somewhere in the middle. But we all have a powerful foundation for problem solving. And we all have to be very good at the communication of technical imperatives.
create: How do you know when you’ve got it right?
JM: I see a light switch on in their head! Once I’m able to achieve that, I find I’ve got lots of little engineers around me, helping me toward my goal. And that’s what gets me out of bed, the idea of helping people be motivated by information they previously didn’t understand.
create: What is the engineering challenge of your work with Coles?
JM: My role is fairly targeted to energy procurement, to the buying of energy and the trialling of new technologies and other energy efficiency projects.
create: Are you seeing enormous change in the energy sector right now?
JM: We are definitely seeing significant change in the energy space, in the market and around energy regulations. Changes are happening as people address and take climate action.
I can’t speculate too much about what’s driving the change, but the fundamentals of the market are changing. We are seeing a lot more renewable electricity coming into the grid. Obviously, a big part of what we’re doing now is around what we can do to decarbonise energy systems.
create: What does that involve, for Coles?
JM: Previously, we would have been looking at things like LED light globes and simple things like that. But the game has changed. Now we have to think not only about what we can do to reduce energy use, but also what is the right energy source. And it is very important that we get it right. Frankly, it’s what our customers expect of us.
create: As engineers increasingly must learn to communicate with broader audiences and stakeholder groups, what advice can you offer?
JM: The first thing is to understand where the other person is coming from. Bringing empathy to the problem is very important. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have all the answers. Learn about what skills exist in people around you and leverage those skills.
In an engineering firm it really comes down to understanding who, within the business, has exceptional communication skills, and recognising and valuing them.
Finally, enjoy it! You’re meeting people who see the world a different way. You’re hearing diverse and powerful points of view. As a result, you’ll learn something from every conversation.