Leadership Q&A: Cotton McNutt, Head of Health, Safety, Environment & Quality

Head of Health, Safety, Environment & Quality

Cotton McNutt

What is your role at Katerra?

I am responsible for health, safety, environmental, and quality for Katerra’s US Operations. 

You have a background in engineering and safety with experience in the oil industry and manufacturing. What interested you in construction?  

Both of my degrees are in Environmental Engineering, but my undergraduate degree was basically Civil Engineering with a focus on water, so I had some exposure to construction in college by spending a semester building a Habitat for Humanity home with my classmates. Most of my friends in school went into design roles, but I wanted to travel and that is why I hired on with ExxonMobil. My first interview they asked if I had a passport, and I was like, “sign me up.” I honestly had no idea what I was going to do for them, but luckily, I was assigned to the projects group in construction.

All of my 14+ years in oil and gas were all in construction building different industrial projects: offshore platforms, production lines, chemical plants, and refineries. I was a bit concerned when I moved to Arizona without a job, what was I going to do? I taught at Arizona State University for a year in the construction engineering department, and thankfully one of my contacts told me about Katerra. I wasn’t sure what to expect jumping from industrial to residential and commercial, but it has been fantastic. Bottom line, the construction might look a little different, but it still about planning, executing, and people.

What brought you to Katerra?

With my background in environmental engineering, Katerra’s vision of sustainable building was inspiring to me, as was the challenge of transforming safety in residential and commercial construction. My vision is to not only make Katerra a leader in residential and commercial safety, but to be the company within industry that others are striving to emulate.  Also, the opportunity to build a HSE program from scratch was exciting, but I also knew it would push me.

“My vision is to not only make Katerra a leader in residential and commercial safety, but to be the company within industry that others are striving to emulate.”

Katerra is known for innovation in the construction industry.  Can you share a little about how you have worked to innovate Health and Safety policies and practices at Katerra? 

Our response to COVID on our job sites is one recent example of how we deployed technology to quickly adapt to our world that had changed almost overnight. In one weekend, IT and HSE worked to develop a plan to train subcontractors online, sign-in electronically at our job sites, and let people notify us electronically if they were not feeling well onsite or at home. This allowed us to continue to operate at our sites, while also proactively managing federal, state, and local COVID requirements and reducing our COVID exposure.  QR codes are not a new technology, but the way we used them was new and was shared across Katerra. Our COVID approach was complimented by OSHA in several states, and several GCs and subcontractors asked if they could use our program. We gladly shared, because maybe our tools will help others stay healthy and get home safely. 

“I believe the real game changer is using technology to consider safety at the earliest stages of a project rather than as a specific challenge isolated to the manufacturing and/or construction phases.” 

I believe the real game changer is using technology to consider safety at the earliest stages of a project rather than as a specific challenge isolated to the manufacturing and/or construction phases.  Technology is not only helping us work smarter, but it is helping us work better as a team across all our business lines. We are leveraging our own technology resources and VDC in the Katerra Building Platforms to solve for safety issues at the outset and then build it into every step of the process from design to final delivery. We are using 3D modeling to identify and correct potential safety issues before they even become an issue in manufacturing and/or construction.

We then use this information to create Individual Work Packets (IWP) that break each discrete activity into a set of instructions that lists the steps of the task, tools, equipment, material, and how to execute the job safely. Designing and planning with a safety mindset will not only keep our teams safer but will help us deliver higher quality projects more quickly.

Were there particular challenges you faced in building a career in traditionally male-dominated industries?

When I hired on to ExxonMobile’s team in 2003, I was one of three women in a group of more than 200 employees worldwide, a decade later I was leading a team of 450.  When I first started out everyone who trained me, everyone I worked with and reported to was a man.  And, I learned so much from these early mentors and colleagues about construction management and safety. On site many of my early role models had a commanding, male leadership presence, one of command and control.  It took me 5 years to find my own style of leadership and my own voice.  I realized that I could take the learnings from my male mentors and lead in a different but equally powerful way.  One of the ways being a woman in a male-dominated industry served me early on was in my ability to surprise and disarm.  My name isn’t clearly male or female, and I remember arriving on site in one of my first leadership roles and being greeted by one of my team members, “ah, you’re our new admin.” “Nope,” I said, “I’m your new boss.”

The advice I give women in construction, and any industry really, is–have mentors. Find like-minded peers.  I seek to always have mentors, men and women, within my company, outside my company, and outside our industry. These people are my sounding board, my inspiration, and key to my success.  I also work to stay present. The more I can self-reflect on each moment, the more I can learn on where I want to be better, professionally, and more importantly, personally.

Why should women consider a career in construction?

There are so many different options and opportunities in construction—there are so many paths to choose from and so many different experiences to gain. There are roles in design, finance, safety, construction management, sourcing, sales, marketing, and each of these paths leads to skill building that can serve a woman across different types of construction and different industries.  I’ve personally really enjoyed the sheer breadth of choices and the opportunity to move across different roles.  I’ve worked in construction management, design engineering, construction engineering, and, of course, safety, quality and environmental.  I’ve worked in 25 different countries on projects of all shapes and sizes.

“There are so many different options and opportunities in construction—there are so many paths to choose from and so many different experiences to gain.”

I personally find the tangible results of construction very gratifying. We get to see our efforts become something beautiful…our affordable homes are positively impacting individuals, our communities, and the world.

What advice would you give women interested in working in construction?  Is there particular preparation, skill set, or training that you recommend?

Always continue your education, no matter where you sit or what your level of experience. Always be open to new experiences and challenges.  Lean outside your comfort zone and seek out ways to expand your knowledge and skill set.

And finally, whether you’re applying for your first job or leading a team, be yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Embrace who you are.

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