Member Spotlight: Ryan Pletka, Black & Veatch

By Kate Katz |  May 2, 2023

Even before Ryan Pletka’s title included innovation, he was innovating. Black & Veatch had 10,000 employees at the time, and Pletka, straight out of college, was the only person working on renewable energy. Every project and every client was new territory.  

Ryan Pletka, VP of Innovation, Black & Veatch

About 16 years later, the energy industry matured, Black & Veatch had developed a team of experts, and Pletka had taken on a higher management role. He felt removed from the innovation work he enjoyed, and when the company’s CEO set up an official innovation function, Pletka jumped at the opportunity. Today, he is VP of Innovation, and is in his 25th year at Black & Veatch.

Black & Veatch is an employee-owned engineering, consulting, and construction company focused on building sustainable infrastructure including energy, water treatment systems, and telecommunications facilities. The company, based in Overland Park, Kansas, reported 2022 revenues exceeding $4.2 billion.

As part of our Member Spotlight series, we caught up with Pletka on innovation strategy, key skills for an innovative leader, lessons on getting buy-in, and more.

What has been the effect of innovation on driving change within the company?

When I started working on renewable energy a long time ago, the company was still building fossil fuel plants, coal plants, and I just wanted to be heard in the company; I just wanted the company to actually recognize that [renewable energy] was something we could do.

Twenty years ago, our team was maybe about 10 people working on renewable energy. We were talking about a mission statement for renewable energy… and it was really about how do we make ourselves large enough to matter?… It made it really clear what the team needed to do — we needed to make a business that was both meaningful from a purpose level, but also meaningful from a business standpoint. 

The company has been very successful in renewable energy, with thousands now working in one of the largest and fastest-growing portions of the company. 

One of the factors that fueled growth is climate change. A few years ago in the innovation team we sought out other sectors where climate is a disruptive force. So we’re like, ‘What other sectors are being impacted by climate change that are even larger than water and energy? Can we get into those sectors in a disruptive way?’ So our innovation strategy was really about expansion into adjacent sectors [where there was] something that we could bring that was a differentiation. Because we didn’t want to go into food and beverage, as an example, and just be like all the other companies in that space. So, we decided we’re going to go into food and beverage, and focus on new food technologies with limited climate impacts.

What kind of skills do you need to be in your position?

[Creativity] needs to be part of innovation… but that’s almost the easiest part. You can just generate ideas and ideas and ideas. How do you filter those? How do you identify those that really hit and resonate with the customer? How do you understand how it transforms into value? And then once it has a value, how do you scale that and who are the right people [and] processes to put into place? It’s a… diverse range of skills, and it’s more than any one person can have. I think a key element is understanding teams: how to motivate teams and build teams that can bring all those capabilities that are necessary. 

There’s so much inertia for the status quo… Somebody has to be the one who has to say, ‘Why is it that this is the format? Why is it that it’s done this way?’

The other thing [that is] really important in a big company is mindset. There’s so much inertia for the status quo… Somebody has to be the one who has to say, ‘Why is it that this is the format? Why is it that it’s done this way?’ I think that the innovation team’s job, is to help challenge those conventions.

How do you get buy-in from senior leadership and your team?

That’s a continuously amorphous problem, spending enough time to get the right buy-in versus actually going out and getting stuff done. I think you’ve got to do some of both of those things. 

One shouldn’t assume that buy-in from the past represents a continuous license to operate.

We have an interesting opportunity to do that with our IgniteX startup accelerator program, which is in its fourth year. However, since the last time we ran it we have a new CEO; we have a full new slate of executives at the leadership level. We have a new innovation committee that oversees all innovation at the company. The program in the previous years started as an experiment under the cover of the CEO. We sort of assumed that it would just be ‘Yeah, sure, go do it.’ But no… we spent about six weeks educating all these executives about the program, what the benefits were, why we should do it, and how different portions of the company were going to get engaged. It was actually something we needed to do. We hadn’t done that in the previous [years] because like I said, we started as an experimental group. 

I think that was an important lesson in terms of getting buy-in from leadership at all levels across the organization. However, it is also a reminder that when there is a change in leadership or a person takes on a new role, you need to re-engage and educate them about the program and how it relates to them and the current state of the organization. One shouldn’t assume that buy-in from the past represents a continuous license to operate.