The Importance of Female Leadership


Lakisha Woods, CAE, is President & CEO of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS). Woods is responsible for leading the organization’s dedicated team of professionals, enhancing its value, visibility and growing relationships with its members, clients, public agencies and partners. She Joins host and Compass CIO, Nancy Novak, to discuss the importance of female leadership in the construction and technology space.

Nancy Novak:                  So, hi everybody. This is Nancy Novak, Chief Innovation Officer for Compass Data Centers, and welcome to our second podcast for Breaking Glass. I have a very special guest, a dear friend and colleague of mine with Lakisha Woods, who is CEO of the National Institute of Building Sciences. And I want to have Lakisha give you a brief overview of her career, and what she’s doing for NIBS at this time in her career.

Lakisha Woods:               Well, thank you Nancy. As she said, I’m Lakisha Woods, and president and CEO of NIBS. I’ve actually spent my whole career in the construction space. I started working at the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association many years ago in marketing, and then went on to the Associated General Contractors of America. From there, I went to the National Association of Home Builders, where I spent a good percentage of my career, and then I tied it all together with a bow by coming to the National Institute of Building Sciences, where our job is to bring all the various stakeholders in the building industry together to find common challenges, and how to find solutions. And so it’s sort of interesting to look back on my career and know that I now work for an organization, or lead an organization, where all my former associations are now my members.

Nancy Novak:                  That’s so [inaudible 00:01:28]. That [inaudible 00:01:29] just imagine, imagine this to the audience. Here’s a female who has risen to the ranks of CEO and president of an organization that literally ties our entire industry together. And when you look at the ratio of women and men in our industry, it’s astounding how few women there are, especially the ones who get to this high level of a position. And that leads us right into our topic for Breaking Glass, and it’s the importance of female leadership. And I could not think of a better candidate to ask these questions to then Lakisha. So this is going to be a very free flowing kind of conversation, because like I said, Lakisha and I are friends. So I’m going to surprise her with a few questions and we’re just going to see what she throws back for a good conversation.

Nancy Novak:                  So Lakisha, being a female leader in industry, could you identify several key events in your career that shaped you as a person and a leader, and what was most important to you?

Lakisha Woods:               Well, what shaped me as a leader to be honest was actually my father. He was a business focused man his whole career. And he worked for the Army and Air Force Exchange Services, the lead for the retail side of business on base, but he would always come home giving these speeches about the customer is always right, and you have to pay attention to what the customer needs are. I would always tell dad no more work talk. And now I find myself quoting him on a frequent person. So I do value all that he taught me, but I also think what’s been really helpful in growth, specifically in the association space, have been great mentors, great people who have taken me under their wing, have provided guidance and feedback and support. And I think that all of us need those who will provide knowledge sharing and time for us to grow as individuals, and specifically as women leaders. I think everybody needs a mentor. I think it’s important to receive that training and also to give back to those that are looking for that same guidance. So we must appreciate those who will help us grow, and we must also offer our services to help others grow.

Nancy Novak:                  Yeah. Well, you do a lot of that. I mean, I joined you on some of the executive women panels that you discuss to kind of network and get some of the women leaders in our space to be able to collaborate. And I’ve noticed that with you, Lakisha, also that you seem to help people be able to see things through different lenses in order to kind of promote an agenda, a good agenda, one where we’re looking for meaningful change. And I just wonder, being a black female in the construction industry with is, you know, I mean, look at me, I feel like being a female alone is quite an anomaly at the chief level. And I just, I want to know when you are really looking at these important agendas that are going to help our business, how do you present this through different lenses based on your upbringing, and kind of not just your leadership guidance from your father and your mentors, but also just from being a black female in the industry?

Lakisha Woods:               Well, I am very passionate about the topic of getting more, encouraging more women to join this space. We learned very clearly last year that we are a critical essential workforce. And there were so many women who lost jobs in 2020. I think they said we went back 32 years, and it is so important for women to recognize their opportunities in this space, but also for other women to encourage and showcase those that are in leadership to showcase what they’re doing, how they’re leading, and to share that knowledge with others. I think that the industry’s number one challenge is workforce. We’re going to have millions of worker shortages in the coming years, and the only solution is for women and minorities to come into the space and help.

Lakisha Woods:               And that will help with so many things, not just having more bodies in the workforce, but also innovation. All the data shows that the more diverse your team, the more financially successful your team will be. And so if you want your company to grow and succeed, and having spent again, my whole career in the building industry, I want to see our industry grow. I want to see our industry be more successful, to be more efficient and effective. And for that to happen, we must have more women and more diverse people in this space. And so it is absolutely a passion project. It’s why NIBS, we created the Women Executives and Building a Leadership series that’s virtual right now. And we look forward to having it in person. And it’s why I’m here with you today, Nancy. And I’m so glad that I met you, and you helped drive that initiative with me. It means a lot.

Nancy Novak:                  Yes, yes. We are both very, very passionate about that. So it’s great because once you do start making those connections and you connect the dots, it’s easier to then leverage the different, great initiatives that are going on in our industry. And I have to say this topics about women leadership in general, but honestly, when I look at the world today and I see construction as the major industry that it is, and the low ratio of female participation we have, and then I look at the whole digital infrastructure and how critical that’s become as a basic human need around the globe, I really like focusing on the construction industry and also, the science, technology, engineering and math aspects, because there’s such great careers to have.

Nancy Novak:                  And so, I guess one of the things I wanted to ask you, because I was always so confused growing up in my construction career about why we weren’t more inclusive. What is the deal? This is a fun job, right? I like building stuff. It’s interesting. You’re learning all the time. You’re meeting new people, all walks of life. And the only thing I could ever think of was just how difficult it was with the hours, or the commutes, or just the environment. And so I guess my question back to you is, when we talk about becoming more inclusive, it’s kind of the cart and the horse, right? Because if we become more inclusive, we’ll probably be more innovative about how we can become more inclusive, and getting the women at that leadership level could probably help us draw in more of that diverse talent. But how do you think the industry has to change itself in order to be embrace that diverse population?

Lakisha Woods:               Well, if there was just one thing, it might be easier to tackle. There are several steps that we must take. The one within our current spaces that we do have to be intentional about recruiting a more diverse workforce. We have to change our culture where we recognize that there are differences, there are differences and we don’t want to pretend that we don’t see the differences. We just have to work together and continue to share knowledge. I think the one thing that people say all the time, but don’t really retain in their mind is people fear what they don’t understand. And so by nature, in an organization, where you think of people recruiting people into leadership positions for the board, or for volunteer leadership, the board will often go recruit those leaders. And so they’ll recruit people in their own social circles and their social circles are often from work. But if you don’t have a diverse group of friends, then you don’t recruit a diverse group of people to come into these leadership roles. And it’s the same thing when people are hiring. Peoples often say that like breed like. So people will recruit someone that they’re familiar with it, that they have a shared story. And we have to look for people that aren’t just like us. We have to look for people that are different from us.

Lakisha Woods:               It’s often said in the leadership strategies that you don’t want to have everybody in the four compartments that everybody’s up in this one category or your business will fail. You need a balance in order of different personality types and ways that they process information just in order for all the areas of your business to be more successful. And so it’s important for people to sort of step back, recognize the biases that they may have, but then to look past them, to look at your recruiting process and ensure that your questions are inclusive. And also look at the people, there are many companies that have actually started, we’re going to be more intentional about diversity equity inclusion, and they’ll put a taskforce together, and everybody on the task force is white, or they’ll have white women and men, but there are no Hispanics, no Asians, no Black. If you’re not actually truly understanding what diversity means, and having all those people at the table to have the discussion, then you can’t make real actionable growth.

Nancy Novak:                  Yeah, no, I mean, obviously I hundred percent agree with you. I do think it’s fascinating though, when you said, let’s recognize our differences, and then I get the next step for me is, and then embrace those, right? Embrace them. I kind of think about my kids sometimes and how different they are. And I’m like, thank God they’re all different. Thank goodness because you don’t want them to be all the same, but it is human nature, to your point, to gravitate towards those that make you comfortable, and that you’re familiar with. So it is that has to be that intentional thing, I think to your point, to go out and say, how can I put myself in right on the edge to really go open my vision on learning more, putting myself in other people’s shoes. So I think that is probably the best advice, Lakisha, is to really be intentional about it. I feel like it also applies to once you’re in, affirm. It’s in that advancement rank, right? The promotion stuff. So probably very similar practices have to be carried over from recruiting, and then into the advancement, right, of employees? Yeah.

Lakisha Woods:               Yes. I agree. And just also for people to accept the fact that there are differences, not just differences in people, but people are treated differently based on their socioeconomic status, or the fact that their gender will reflect how people treat you, how they respond, and we need to just continue to look at what those challenges are, so that we’re aware, and we make better decisions because of it.

Lakisha Woods:               As you know, NIBS has launched a survey working with various associations across the industry, just to get a baseline of where we are, what does our breakdown of the construction industry look like. Male to female, race, everything. And what are people’s current perceptions of the culture in the industry? We just simply are trying to find out where our baseline is, so that we can say, okay, in three years, we hope to improve by X, but you have to know where you are standing in order to know how you’re going to improve.

Lakisha Woods:               And just sending the survey has received various responses, some positive, some negative. Some people just saying there’s nothing wrong, our industry is perfectly equitable, and the data shows otherwise. And so it’s sad to me. And how do we get people, if somebody thinks that everybody is free to have their own voice, but how do we get people to recognize those challenges that others have that they may never have run into a challenge, but just because you haven’t experienced challenge, doesn’t mean other people haven’t. And how can we as a people work together to improve?

Nancy Novak:                  Yeah. And to your point, that the stats are, they they’re loud, right? They tell us, you look outside your own bubble, because my next question was going to ask you, I was going to ask you what was the biggest barrier that you faced in your career? And it might not have been just one, but since you are president and CEO of a very large organization, you can be like, well, I didn’t have a whole lot of barriers. I’m where I’m at, but you might both, we look around and we say, but it’s very lonely up here for our gender, right? So if you wouldn’t mind sharing some of the barriers you faced in your career.

Lakisha Woods:               Absolutely. I think, well, the good news about barriers is that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And so if I didn’t have to face obstacles, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. So I don’t take that for granted. I do believe that, I’ve said before that a former boss told me on my performance evaluation you’re doing a great job. There’s nothing I would ask you to improve. Everything’s great. There’s one thing is that you’re going to just have people that dislike you, and they will be against anything that you say, even if it’s the right idea, and there’s nothing you can do about it. They just have their own biases, and I want you to just look past it and keep moving forward. And I appreciated that opinion and that feedback, because it was true. I ran into people that I would come up with an idea at a meeting and people would completely dismiss it. And then three weeks later, a gentleman who looks different than me would say exactly the same thing, and they’d be like, that’s amazing. And part of it is just that they did not want to accept an idea that came from someone who looks like me. Not just as a female, but specifically as an African-American female.

Lakisha Woods:               And of course, because I’m the only one at the table, and every job I’ve ever had, I’m always the first. The first African-American female in every role. And it’s so sad to me, because it’s pretty far advanced in society for me to be the first at every company. But it’s just you got to start with one to get to two and three. And so I do again, value the current role that I’m in, and the fact that the search committee saw me for my talents and my skills, and put me in this role and didn’t see that as something that would hinder me from being able to represent their company. And so that’s what you have to look for. Those people who will accept you as your authentic self, and know, and recognize the talent that you bring. You can’t let the negative feedback keep you down. You just have to learn from it, find ways around it, and keep pushing forward.

Nancy Novak:                  That’s why I’m so, so, so, so, so grateful that you are in these leadership roles that you have worked so hard for, because you’re looking behind you and you’re pulling the women up behind you as well. And this podcast is a great way to kind of mentor and offer this kind of advice. So we need more women who can spend the time doing it, and we have full-time jobs. So it’s not easy trying to solve for what I would consider a very large problem. And then also do our full-time jobs, which construction is a very risky business. It’s a business that requires a lot of attention, and our male counterparts would attest to that as well. But I do want to say the reason why I feel that I am so, so strongly passionate about bringing more diversity in is not just the demographics that we see today, where we are very short of our blue collar workers, and our management staff. Both in the industry of data center infrastructure and also in construction. And by the way, like having that be the case is for me, just all the more reason to make good change, right?

Nancy Novak:                  But I also just because this is a wonderful business that I love. I love dearly, and I’d like to go to share that more passionately with a more diverse group of folks, because we have a lot of work to put in place and we have good things to go do and to build. And so I want to make sure our industry is disrupted in a way that it never has been before. So one of the things I’d like to talk about, and you know this, is the modern methods of construction. I sit on the BIM council for the National Institute for Building Sciences, with that very idea in mind about trying to leverage the technologies in our business, to not only make us more efficient, but also make us more inclusive and therefore more innovative so that we can look at doing things that would invite more diverse talent to our industry, which we desperately need.

Nancy Novak:                  So, having said that, I just wanted to know, on the horizon, when you look at our business five years down the road, what would success look like to you, Lakisha?

Lakisha Woods:               Oh boy, five years from now. Success.

Nancy Novak:                  Not retirement. You can’t say retirement. That doesn’t count.

Lakisha Woods:               Not close to that, unfortunately, but I do think that for our industry to get to where it needs to be, it’s about baby steps. And so more women in leadership roles, more, again, diverse talent in leadership roles. People want to go into an industry where they see that there is a path to leadership. And so if we plan to recruit more women and minorities into the space, we must be very intentional over these next five years of putting women and minorities into leadership roles in the business.

Lakisha Woods:               Leadership is what’s key, because once people see that, then they think they can achieve more, they know that they can achieve more, and they try to come into our space. It is one of the comments that I hear so often from others around the industry. The numbers are staggering. I think it’s 5% of architects are African-American. The acceptance level of, just again, minorities and women in the roles. It requires a culture change, and culture change does not happen overnight. So it will require more podcasts, and panels, and talking about where we can improve. And then again, companies like Goldman Sachs that just recently invested $10 billion into this space, and Bank of America. And a lot of firms that see the numbers, that see the financial success by backing up women and minorities.

Lakisha Woods:               And so we need to recognize that if they’re putting their money there, then that is an area that clearly is going to be a financial success for the industry. And how can you not love an industry that keeps us safe, right? My members build every place where we live, work, learn, and play. And if you don’t have safe walls around you, it’s something the home is an American dream, and we want to continue to see innovation within what they do, and again, that innovation comes from having diverse people, and diverse thought and putting all those spaces together. And so I think five years from now, just more leadership, more diverse leadership will lead us to where we need to be as an industry.

Nancy Novak:                  I couldn’t agree with you more. I think the advancement of diversity is the catalyst for making change, right? I love the story about when Mary Barra took over GM and her coworkers came to her and said, “Diversity is very important to us. If we want to stay relevant, and innovative, and profitable in the future, we have to become more diverse. There’s a strong business case.” And so her comment back was, well… So they were going to put a steering committee together and she said, “Well, if it’s that important, the steering committee needs to be the board. We don’t need someone reporting to us.” And sure enough, she was the first Fortune 500 company to achieve parody on her board, which was astounding. And I love sharing that story because it was very intentional. And she put the [inaudible 00:22:25] stop where the decisions were being made and on the board level, because I’ve always, truly believed that in our industry, if we really understood that business case, if we really embrace it, if we really felt like this was, the stats were all treated, which they are, we would make the change happen, right?

Nancy Novak:                  And that’s what I tell a lot of the firms that asked me, how can we get more diverse? I’m like, if you believe in it, you’ll make it happen. Just like being safe on the job site, if we know safety is paramount, because it’s what keeps us, you know, our trades people coming to work, going home healthy, and it keeps us competitive. All of those things, we put a lot of emphasis into that because we know what’s important.

Nancy Novak:                  Becoming diverse is no different. I do have some tips too. I was going to say, Encompass, we have 100% of our CMs in the US are female. And we find that they have advantages over the men, and how they relate to the trades and report back to us. So we really, really, really enjoy those different sets of lenses, and their careers have been very fulfilling and wonderful. So I like the fact that we have the attitude of, hey, it’s been a hundred percent men for all this time. Why can’t it be a hundred percent women, if that’s the talent that’s coming to us. And then also, some of the intentional thing an owner can do is we can encourage our trade partners and our contractors to become more diverse by giving them incentives, and recognizing them when we see more diversity. And that’s something that we’re very much trying to be intentional about, whether it’s through contract language or just through the different ways that we recognize folks on the job, not just for safety and quality, but also for diversity and innovation, and the different views for thought process.

Nancy Novak:                  So I love throwing that out there because so many times I get people who say, it’s such a huge challenge, I don’t know what to do. And to your point Lakisha, we fill the pipeline. We have lots of women in engineering classes. We hire them in at a lower level and we make an improvement, but then we kind of fall off the cliff at that mid-management level, and we have to solve for that if we want to solve for the whole thing. So that’s awesome.

Nancy Novak:                  So what advice would you give to the next generation of a female leader?

Lakisha Woods:               The advice I always give is constantly stay at it. Don’t let anybody tell you what you can’t do. Ask for forgiveness, don’t ask for permission. I think that it’s important to be determined. And I will say often be the general you’d want to follow. So you have to be competent in the decisions that you make, trust your thoughts and your opinions, and know that you’re moving the way you need to, and lead. You always keep learning, but when you make a decision stick with it and go, because you don’t need to sit back in hope, and well, and maybe, and I don’t know, are you sure? People want to follow a competent leader. So be that.

Nancy Novak:                  Yup. Great. That’s fantastic. And network, network everybody. Join the Women’s Executive Network for NIBS, but networking helps, because then you get this kind of great advice. So I just really appreciate your open dialogue and your astute way of putting things, Lakisha, because it makes so much sense to me. And I really don’t know what other advice we can offer other than reach out on LinkedIn. Connect with us. Join the organizations that we belong to in this space and in other spaces. I mean, I belong to industries that are not construction related that are also about advancing women. And so, make sure to look us up on social media, and just let us know if there’s any questions that we can answer via another venue.

Nancy Novak:                  So again, I think we’re getting ready to wrap up, but thank you so much, Lakisha, for being my guest on Breaking Glass.

Lakisha Woods:               Thank you so much, Nancy. I appreciate you having me, and just always encourage everybody to keep leading each other forward.

Nancy Novak:                  Yes. Ten four. Thanks again.