“We’re making the world a better place through infrastructure”


Interview with Robin Greenleaf, the first woman to chair the American Council of Engineering Companies.

As infrastructure is redefined following the pandemic, Robin Greenleaf, CEO of Boston-based Architectural Engineers Inc and current chair of the American Council of Engineering Companies, spoke to Infrastructure Global about being the first women to chair the organisation and a whole lot more besides. So how does it feel to have such an influential position in such a leading construction industry organisation?

“I feel good about it,” says Greenleaf. “My history with ACEC is very long. My firm joined ACEC in 1992 and since then I have served both locally and nationally at a lot of different levels. For me it’s always been an organisation that I am comfortable in. I’ve been on the membership committee, the planning cabinet and I served on our executive committee from 2009-2011 and I have an understanding of how the organisation works.”

Inspiring change

At a time of change, Greenleaf hopes that her role at ACEC will inspire others to step up to leadership positions too. “We’ve undergone many changes in the last few years, especially since Linda Bauer Darr came in as the new CEO and she is pushing the organisation in a lot of great ways. I’m hoping that other women who are interested will see someone who looks like them in a role that they might not have thought about and consider it. That is what diversity is about. There’s not enough women or minorities in engineering at senior levels – the numbers are slowly growing and I hope that this will be reflected in leadership positions too,” says Greenleaf.

Interestingly, her company, Architectural Engineers Inc, describes itself as a women-owned company. What is the significance of that? “Some of that is about marketing. In the US, for businesses that are run by women and minorities it helps create opportunities for finding partners for projects and involvement with projects. We are women-owned – there’s myself as CEO and the president of our firm is also a woman. It’s something that we are proud of and we feel it’s important to point this out, including on our website too,” she says.

So, does Greenleaf think that there is a different approach with female leadership? “I can only speak for myself but my temperament is pretty even keel and I like to bring people together to find solutions and discuss issues collectively. With large groups of people, you need to get them involved, you can’t be a dictatorship. We try to market ourselves as being openminded and wanting to use our engineering common sense to find a solution that is the best and this applies to the technical side as well as the more ‘political’ side of what we do,” she explains.

So turning to the challenges of a world slowly emerging from the Covid pandemic, how does she view what comes next? “ACEC has worked very hard to provide value for all its members – large and small – during the pandemic. We are now having a lot of conversations about returning to the office, flexible working and hybrid working. The way our businesses have adapted throughout Covid has been different and there will be different challenges going forward too. We will need to stay close to our members to ensure we are able to provide what they need as they emerge into this post-pandemic world,” she says.

Importance of political engagement

A key feature of ACEC is how well connected the organisation is at the highest levels, including politics, with leading government representatives being regular speakers at ACE conferences over the years. So, how important is this political engagement to ACEC members?

“It’s the single most important issue we have. Our membership is very diverse with different views and as an organisation we have to remain impartial politically. Infrastructure is always the driver behind ACEC and our advocacy programme is second to none. We have been encouraged by the current administration’s infrastructure plans and we are very plugged in with US secretary of transportation Pete Buttigieg and chair of the house committee on transportation and infrastructure Peter DeFazio and what they are doing. We continue to monitor the infrastructure bill legislation for unintended consequences and this takes time. We engage with our members and ask them to lobby their representatives and have a great staff organising all that,” Greenleaf says.

Redefining infrastructure

Given that many governments around the world are viewing construction and infrastructure as crucial in rebuilding their economies in the wake of the Covid crisis, how does Greenleaf view how infrastructure is being seen as a driver of economic and social change?

“The traditional definition of infrastructure is changing,” she says. “The language being used is treating infrastructure as much greater than roads and bridges – there’s social infrastructure, broadband, electrification of cars and green energy – and its both very exciting and challenging for our sector. There will be a lot of adjustment required to position the sector so it’s well placed to make a difference and ACEC will have a key role in this,” Greenleaf says.

“Our industry is having to look at wider issues, beyond just engineering. It’s a big conversation. How do you provide social equity through transportation networks? That’s something that my company is very involved with and it’s exciting. Infrastructure is being seen in a different light now. It’s a huge opportunity and a feelgood opportunity for our sector. It’s really important for people to become engineers because you get the opportunity to make the world better through technology. The pandemic has changed the way that people think and we need to recognise that,” she says.

With infrastructure being seen as more than important than ever globally and a key driver for economic prosperity and social development, Greenleaf believes that it is vital for organisations like ACE to continue its strong and long-standing involvement with its global federation FIDIC going forward.

“So many of our members do international work so the connection with FIDIC is hugely important. We are part of a global economy and it would be very short sighted not to engage internationally. We are not alone and we are part of the greater good and that’s how it needs to be,” says Greenleaf.