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The Future of Leadership for Construction Industry Women

Liz Evans, AGC of Washington Northern District Manager

Liz Evans, AGC of Washington Northern District Manager

BY LIZ EVANS
AGC OF WASHINGTON NORTHERN DISTRICT MANAGER

Certainly no one can argue that construction is a male-dominated industry. Women do not tend to grow up with big dreams of leading teams to construct skyscrapers, hospitals, bridges and power plants. According to John Schaufelberger, chairman of the Construction Management Department at the University of Washington, many of the women majoring in construction management degrees enter the field because they either have some connection with construction through a family member or originally intended to major in architecture, but eventually gravitated to project management. Whatever the reason, women are increasingly getting technical degrees in fields that will lead them into the industry. Schaufelberger praises the accomplishments of his female students. “The majority of women in the program at UW are at the top of their class,” he says. John also points out that women do well in the field because they are very good at attention to detail and interpersonal skills, which are critical skills to being a successful project manager.

As more women build their careers in the construction industry, some will undoubtedly be looking for top executive leadership opportunities. The pathway to leadership positions for women will be important to retaining top talent and creating an inclusive and diverse leadership group. However, the industry has a noticeable leadership gap when it comes to women in top executive roles. One company taking notice of the gap is Turner Construction Company. Karen Sweeney, vice president for diversity and inclusion at Turner, is leading the charge to help women learn critical strategies and skill sets necessary to move into key executive positions.

Sweeney recommended Turner invest in hiring Susan Colantuono, a high-profile consultant who supports corporate initiatives to advance women, to facilitate a program on leadership development. Colantuono has an impressive list of corporate clients including, Pepsico, Pfizer, Kimberly-Clark and Prudential. Turner’s pilot project was launched last year, and included 21 women selected from the company’s Washington, Oregon and Vancouver B.C. offices. Attendees committed to a nine month program and met three times in Seattle for in-person meetings, while the remainder of the program was delivered via webinar.

According to Colantuono, in order to advance to the executive levels of leadership, women must continue to develop their business acumen skills. Working with the Turner group, Colantuono stressed the importance of learning the “business of your business” and the four outcome categories that gauge company success: cash, growth, return and customer. Participants learned that delivering sustained outcomes involves a keen understanding of developing and implementing organizational strategy, and understanding the business story behind the financial numbers to drive decision making.

Char Kaufer, northwest director of human resources at Turner Construction and attendee of the program, believes that much of the leadership development training is focused on soft skills, but ignores the critical business acumen piece of the equation. According to Kaufer, another important component of leadership development for women is finding the right mentor who can coach on business acumen and provide insight into understanding what drives decisions at the top level of the company. Colantuono talks about the traditional mentoring many women experience as rooted in encouragement and confidence building advice. Colantuono suggests that what is even more important to learn from a mentoring relationship has to do with the performance of the business, what makes it tick, and what its key indicators of successful outcomes are.

Kaufer is very excited about Turner’s program to help women understand the necessary skills to meet the demands of executive leadership. “Not everyone chooses to strive for leadership positions – it’s not easy, but we want more women to know it is possible,” she says. The initial group has developed into three workgroups to continue their work on leadership training and further their company’s understanding on how to help women advance their careers to the executive level.

Recently the AGC Education Foundation brought together a handful of high-level construction company executives from area firms to discuss industry leadership training needs. Foundation Director Diane Kocer reports the group identified specific categories of desired leadership classes:

  • Oral/written communications
  • Team building management
  • Safety quality leadership
  • Financial management
  • Technology management

Like Colantuono, Kocer believes that great leadership requires a balance of soft skills and business skills. “The Foundation is moving toward providing leadership classes women can use to hone their leadership skills earlier in their careers,“ she said. “We are talking with key executives to make sure the training we provide is in line with the needs of the industry.”

At Seattle law firm Oles Morrison, Attorney Meghan Douris has launched Women Leaders in Construction with the goal of filling the leadership gap. The group, which meets several times a year, offers a platform for women to network and have access to educational and professional resources. Women Leaders in Construction is open to all women in the industry or who support the industry, from project level to executive tier. The group recently launched a Women Leaders in Construction LinkedIn site to promote discussion and encourage participation.

The talented women in construction who are top performers deserve the opportunity to advance their careers to the highest level of management. Bridging the leadership gap is good for women, but even better for the industry.

Susan Colantuono Books and Website:
No Ceiling, No Walls
Make the Most of Mentoring
www.leadingwomen.biz