Many people have asked me why I decided to develop a Leadership Boot Camp exclusively for women in the construction industry especially given that I had never done anything specifically for women in the past. Just the opposite. I intentionally avoided any appearance of separating the women from the men in the industry. Afterall, it worked for me in my career when I stood toe-to-toe with my male counterparts—learning and growing from each encounter, both good and bad. However, I quickly saw the need to create my own company if I wanted to pursue better ways of doing business and therefore escaped the career inertia and stagnation that many women report experiencing in the construction industry today.
The Women Building Change Leadership Boot Camps have been growing and going strong since 2015 when my dear friend Shirley Ramos, Executive Coach and Consultant, and I developed a unique 3 ½ day experience to help women learn to stand in their own power. What prompted the development of the boot camp idea was that she and I started noticing marked examples of both deep frustration in the industry and extraordinary effectiveness in addressing these frustrations when women were leading at various levels within organizations.
(Sadly, Shirley Tyner Ramos passed away in Nov. 2018 after losing her fierce battle with cancer. I dearly miss my comrade in arms in our joint commitment to transform leadership and culture in an industry we love.)
I want to make clear that my Boot Camps have not focused on anything even remotely associated with an “us against them” or “women against men” or “me too” vibe. Absolutely NOT! My boot camps are about human potential and leadership effectiveness. The reason for the exclusive offering to women is that it works. The topics I teach, and activities I facilitate in the boot camps would be the same if I were working with a group of men. The difference is the process. Women tend to open up and share with other women in groups whereas men tend to hold back and not share in groups regardless of the make-up. Men appear to prefer working one-on-one, which I accommodate through leadership coaching. Often, boot camp alums tag one-on-one coaching onto their boot camp experience as well to further advance and accelerate their leadership effectiveness. The boot camp simply gives the women a jumpstart to do the work necessary for a successful coaching experience. And from my perspective, the group environment allows me to engage and influence more women, more quickly. This willingness to engage and be coached is precisely why women are such effective leaders—they can show their vulnerability more easily and thus create an environment in which people feel empowered to speak up and contribute, leveraging the value and performance of teams, and increasing the bottom-line for the business. There are tons of research backing up this claim.
One such research source I stumbled across to reinforce what Shirly and I had noticed in terms of the keen awareness and attempts to remedy issues that we were seeing in women we worked with came from a 1993 book entitled “When the Canary Stops Singing – Women’s Perspectives on Transforming Business.” The reason I found the book was because it featured an essay by a woman who was a Communications Course instructor that I encountered through my own professional development journey when I was leading my company, Design-Build Services Inc. from 1984-1996. This woman was such an influence in my own pursuit of leadership effectiveness that I wanted to reach out to her to acknowledge what a difference she had made in my career trajectory. In the book there are a series of 15 essays by a variety of women in business—entrepreneurs, consultants, and corporate executives. These women represented the “canaries” in the mine prior to 1993. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s inside flap:
“Early in the 20th century, miners would take canaries below ground with them. When the canary stopped singing, they knew the air was too toxic to breathe. Like the canaries, women who work in today’s corporate marketplace are serving as an early warning system to alert us that the business environment is becoming unhealthy, and we must make far-reaching changes.”
Today many women in our construction companies are like these same canaries—harbingers sounding a similar alarm and we need to listen and pay attention. They are not making noise simply for themselves. They are making noise for the industry itself. Their focus is on people and purpose, and not just process and profit. They are singing as loud as they can but unfortunately are often shut down and discounted as being “too soft, not tough enough, naïve, or inexperienced.”
There’s a reason we aren’t attracting new people into the industry, and worse yet, losing the ones we have. The air is getting pretty damn thin, and in my view, it would be wise for the leaders of our great companies to start listening and paying attention to the canaries. It’s time to consider that they may intuitively understand and know something about people that they don’t. And if they really believe that people are our greatest asset which many of our current leaders espouse, then it’s way past time to start taking action to address the issues that they are facing, and there are many. Just maybe the different approaches to management and leadership that the canaries are suggesting are what’s missing and needed to fill the gap between the leaders we have and the leaders we need to navigate and thrive as an industry moving into the future.
Barbara Jackson has written books, taught courses, and developed leadership boot camps to teach the skills needed to become an effective team member and leader. She regularly speaks at conferences, in companies, and at various professional venues across the US regarding the need to develop AEC professionals and provide next level leadership training and cultural change in the construction industry.