Paving the Way for Women in Skilled Trades with Kabri Lehrman-Schmid

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In this episode, Nancy is joined by Kabri Lehrman-Schmid, Project Superintendent at HENSEL PHELPS, to discuss how improved team dynamics can break down barriers and pave the way to a brighter future.

Kabri’s journey from her early career to her current leadership role provides a captivating backdrop for our discussion. Her insights into leadership principles and strategies offer invaluable lessons for both aspiring and seasoned leaders.

Throughout their conversation, they explore the multifaceted nature of leadership. Delving into topics such as effective communication, team dynamics, and the importance of fostering a positive work environment, Kabri’s leadership philosophy emphasizes the significance of mentorship and continuous self-improvement.

Read the full transcript below:

Nancy Novak:                Hi everybody. This is Nancy Novak, Chief of Innovation, for Compass Datacenters. We are here to do the next episode of Extending the Ladder. And we’re so fortunate to have Kabri Lehrman-Schmid, with Hensel Phelps Construction, as our guest speaker. Kabri, welcome.

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here this Friday morning.

Nancy Novak:                Kabri, tell us a little bit about you and your career, and what you do for Hensel Phelps.

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        Sure. So I’m a Project Superintendent with Hensel Phelps. That means I have the honor and privilege to be able to run large projects. My current project is $104 million, here at the University of Washington. And over the course of my career, I’ve spent the most time in aviation and large campus higher education projects, that are really focused on how to make sure we build relationships with our ownership teams, and support our trade partners through a majority of design build and alternate delivery projects. It’s been 16 years. I’ve spent my career spanning coast to coast. And I just love being able to problem solve face-to-face in the field, which is why I ended up in the role I am now.

Nancy Novak:                I am so excited, because I just love this industry so much, and I think it’s so fantastic that we are starting to see women in the superintendent roles. Because as you stated, it’s really where all the action is. And what I’m really interested in is just how the diversity of thought and diversity of your experience and your lenses has… I want to say changed, or enhanced, or somehow made different the results that you’re seeing from your management style.

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        It’s interesting. I spent seven years on an airport as my last project, and I ran a lot of night shift. Because the critical path work ran through major changes in the passenger pathways, and working in and around them. When I would see the rest of my team in the morning, and I would relate what had happened the night before, let’s say my scaffolding crew, they had a sick crew member, or they’re really concerned about something with another crew. I was told once, “Kabri, you shouldn’t listen to that drama.”

                                    And it’s made such an impact on me over the last five years, to consider that that isn’t drama, and I’ve never approached it as drama. I’ve been able to leverage and build those relationships to serve people, who then want to serve the project team, who want to be able to share the information of where they’re flexible, and how I can help them achieve success. And I think that just comes through me seeing my role as a responsibility to use what I have to serve the people that are either in my contract or hold my contract. I’m here to deliver a product to them.

Nancy Novak:                I got goosebumps. What you just said, I got goosebumps. And the reason is because… For those who have worked in and around superintendents, this is a new way of leadership. And I’m not saying that all men have these same skills, but it is not a typical set of skills that you would think about. I just came back from an event in London, where we were talking about how diversity drives profits. And it really is through that innovative way of thinking, and having a different lens on what the strategy can be. And I love that personal touch.

                                    So I just have to ask you, so on your trajectory in your career, the insights on how to change this point of view, how to be that leader that others can see and then be, what are your insights on that, Kabri?

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        The impact of how I talk to people and manage my work… And these are technical responsibilities, not that I’m trying to do some additional effort on the side. How I communicate my schedule, how I invite people into the conversation during pre-con meetings. You can see a tangible difference in how my people talk to each other, on the project. I was out here till 9:00 PM with our drillers last night, and we’re just high-fiving that the tremie is not clogged, that we’re getting this last bit of concrete in the hole. And as I’m sweeping up debris to make sure that we have a clear pathway in the morning, I get “Good nights” from the entire crew. And it’s just because I’m out there serving people information that they need.

                                    So when you structure your management style… Or your work style, you don’t need to be a manager. Where you’re saying, “I’m here to give you information. Here’s the information. Let me go get the other information I’m hearing you need.” Or, “Tell me why you need that, because I might have other information you care about.” It changes people’s perspective, because you’re tapping into what they believe to be the core values of the industry, and I’m recognizing that pride of work that they have.

Nancy Novak:                Yeah. And that is an example of leadership. And what I like what you said there, Kabri, was that it’s catchy. So that when people see the way you interact and react, and the results you get from building those relationships, then they aspire to do that, and then they mimic that, and then you get kind of this really holistic team, that’s a high performing team.

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        Yes. And what’s interesting, and the reason I really like to talk about my role and my opportunities is, field leadership has such an opportunity, and really an obligation, to be a bridge of information between ownership, design team, and the people putting the work in place. I have the opportunity to inspire people with what the final product is, to give them that bigger picture, and to use the resources that I have to make them successful. And if I’m not doing that, who is? Especially in the design build world and integrated delivery, I hold the contract, I set the expectations, I invite people to speak, and make sure they know they can speak at any time. And I see that as a really important responsibility to uphold.

Nancy Novak:                I love that. I wanted to pivot a little bit on the folks that you work with. Because one of the things I love about the industry is that it’s all walks of life. It’s the skilled trades, all the way up to the architects, engineers, the owners and so forth. I know that you have a high regard of respect for the skilled trades. And the industry, we struggle to get enough skilled trades. And there’s an aging problem, right now. There’s a lack of perception. There’s a bad perception, basically around that. And I speak sometimes about trying to become more diverse in that area, since such a small percentage of skilled trades are female. I was wanting to get your perspective on that, and how that relates back to this relationship building that you’re talking about.

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        Yeah, it’s a great question, because… I’ll talk about it in terms of how one advances in their career. So, it’s regional. In some regions of the country, superintendents are split between having schooling backgrounds and having backgrounds in the trades. Here where I am in Washington, it is predominantly superintendents come out of the skilled trades. What makes it tough is when there’s not a lot of women or diverse people in the skilled trades to promote into leadership, so you’re perpetuating a problem there.

                                    We already have a problem in our industry. One of the key risk factors that psychologists identify for mental health risks of our industry is promotion without preparation. So what that means is we’ve promoted field leadership, based on their ability to produce. We put the most wall in place last year. If you’re promoting people because they’re producers, and not because they’ve been trained to lead people, you’re completely looking over the skill sets for leadership. You’re also, because you have historical biases where the men are promoting the white men, that you don’t have the opportunity to use people’s familiarity to promote different people into leadership.

                                    So it’s going to take a real deliberate focus on training field leadership, in a way that they haven’t been trained before. And the deliberate selection and promotion of diverse people into field leadership, to create a new perception of the industry, the production we’re always driving, the safety we’re always looking for in the innovation, because we need new thought processes and voices.

Nancy Novak:                My dad taught me years and years ago, that if you really want to know how to build something, you ask the person who’s going to put the work in place, and they know best. So two thoughts on that. One, well, I appreciate you bringing up the mental health aspect. Because many people don’t realize that the construction industry, we have three and a half times more likely suicide rate, because of mental health. And it’s treacherous to have that be a statistic. I do have high hopes that if we can become more diverse, that we can start to solve for that. Because a rising tide lifts all boats, and I feel like if you can solve for the reasons why we’re not very diverse, then everyone will benefit from that.

                                    So the second part was, what do you think it’s going to take to be able to attract more women into the industry, and into the skilled trades? What are the big prohibitions from making that a reality?

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        I think knowledge of what it means to be in the skilled trades is one of the biggest challenges. I knew nothing about construction, until I was in college, working as a Starbucks barista, who asked one of the contractor project managers during opening shift, what they did, and for an internship. And it wasn’t until that internship that I saw what a general contractor does, and saw how work goes in place, that I was like, “This is an amazing world that I’ve never seen before.” And it just wasn’t on my family’s radar as an option. It wasn’t on my school’s radar, none of the schools I went to. I went into engineering because I was like, “Cool, bridges,” like many people do. So, visibility of other women doing the work. We’re about to finish Women in Construction Month. There’s a big focus in March, where that happens. And it’s been growing every year, which is awesome. But what I like to see is when people are highlighting the women that are on their crews, and the leaders that are supporting those women on their crews, and the women who are the leaders on those crews.

                                    Because we’re starting to do a great job at the salaried and the corporate level. The challenge is translating that level of inclusion, and belonging, and support to the field still, because there’s a lot of differences there. There’s more turnover. There’s unions, where you’re sent to different jobs, and you’re not even able as an organization to control all aspects of how people are treated, or the resources that they have. So, the challenge of seeing people in the roles, and getting the information down into the skilled trades, about the message of inclusion we’re trying to change as an industry, are two primary challenges. So I try to make myself seen in the industry.

                                    I am a role model. And as soon as I became a project superintendent, my vision and my understanding of what it was to be a woman in construction completely changed. We all started like, “No, I don’t want to be in a woman’s group. I don’t want to be in an ERG in my company. I want to be one of the guys. I want to prove myself. I don’t want to be seen as different.” I am now very much on the side of, ‘No, we need to make sure that… I need to make sure I’m doing my part, to lead others into this incredible industry.”

Nancy Novak:                And celebrate those differences, because that’s what makes a difference, right? That’s fantastic. I’d like to pick your brain a little bit more on the skilled trades. Because I do feel like there’s some opportunity there with modern methods of construction, and I’m hoping that this ends up helping this situation. And what I mean by that is when you look at the inconvenience of every time you start a job, the faster and better you work, the faster you run out of a job. I don’t think a lot of people put it in that mindset, where they don’t understand every new job means, “The better I perform, the faster I have to go look for work again, as a tradesperson.”

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        It’s true.

Nancy Novak:                And the hours. If you have a commute… And many of the jobs that are built in urban areas have these commutes. The hours don’t really allow for care providing for children, and things like that. It’s difficult. So there are some methods in our industry now that we’re trying to move towards, like offsite manufacturing, and advanced work packaging, and ways in which you can try to normalize that. And again, I want to go back to a rising tide lifts all boats, before I get your insight on this. Because I was thinking, men want to be home in time to see their kids play ball, and go to the school play and things like that. And our hours sometimes don’t allow for that. It’s early in the morning. It’s late at night. The kids are in bed, before you even get there. And you know that, because I bet you have children, right?

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        Yep.

Nancy Novak:                So it’s challenging. It’s challenging for everyone. So, I would love your thoughts on just how these modern methods of construction could help the industry, from a diversity standpoint, and just from a getting better standpoint, honestly.

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        Sure. You’re spot on. Any gender is looking to help support their family, or to figure out what life exists outside of work, with traffic, with how cities are built, with project demands, and different requirements for their teams. How do they support their teams, if people are on different schedules? My foreman of my drilling crew last night, was talking about his kindergarten son’s paleontology project, where they buried bones in the grounds. And he was just talking so excitedly about participating in that, and then said, “But I never get to go on field trips, and I would love to go on a field trip.” And the concrete crew that’s starting… We’re going to be working through November, on a concrete building. He’s got a baby due in three weeks, same week we’re going to be putting up the crane.

                                    It is up to me to start a conversation that says like, “Can we figure out how to get your foreman ready to go for this, to take over for a week? It’s your first child. Children don’t always come the way that you think they’re going to come into the world. I want to be able to support you on this project, if that means that me and my team step up into a new role.” I had a meeting with eight women from another general contractor here in Seattle, a few months ago. They were just, “How do I do what you’re doing? How do you do it logistically?” I can only show up at 5:30 in the morning, because my wife brings our children to the bus. She works full-time. She works 60 hours a week. I work 60 to 80 hours a week. We’re a busy family. But, the support systems wouldn’t exist. I’m out here in Seattle. My family is all on the East Coast. We don’t have anybody local. So, trying to find care…

                                    Like today, school is off. We didn’t know that, until yesterday. We did not have that on our radar. My seven-year-old informed us of that. One of us has a more flexible job. So, the challenge logistically of putting women into field leadership is real. You need to be able to supplement a support system. How do you do that with technology? Well, I had an introduction during a pre-con meeting this week, and I just had up on my screen all these tabs. “This is our app for putting in all of our daily reports. This is our app for putting in our deliveries. This is our app for talking to our crane operator.” And they’re really slick apps. I’m excited to use them. People can use those from their home. I don’t need to write on the whiteboard, “The delivery is coming.” They can log into their phone, when they get out of their car, and they’re like, “Oh crap, I forgot I got that crane coming in,” and put in their delivery. So technology is facilitating a different level of communication.

                                    The last few years, obviously, our industry has made leaps and bounds, in terms of our ability to communicate. I don’t remember having one single virtual meeting, before 2020.

Nancy Novak:                Right.

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        Right? And now, virtual interviews are everywhere. The ability to exchange information via [inaudible 00:16:15] and podcast is great. So, information sharing is where we are able to find our flexibility, and technology is facilitating that.

Nancy Novak:                That’s helping a lot. That’s absolutely helping a lot. I know that during COVID, we had to virtually commission a few projects, where we had a very skeleton crew. And now, they’ve got digital tools to do pole planning, and things where you can include folks who are not able to be present. So we learned fast, that there are many ways to be more flexible in the industry, instead of… The way we always saw it was, if you’re not on site, you can’t do work. It just isn’t true.

                                    Kabri, what types of things or initiatives do you think owners could do to help with that diversity and inclusion in the construction industry?

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        I think that… The owners that I work for, I’m very lucky. I’m working for large public entities that have a vision and legislation usually, that allows them to require certain things, whether that’s minority apprenticeship counts on a job site, or it’s small business participation. What needs to happen to support those efforts is ongoing conversations between the owner and the contractor, to support the initiatives that the contractor is taking on. It’s really hard to say, “I need you to get 23% small and local businesses,” but it’s a competitive bid process that’s just solely on price. How do we work together, to make sure that we have the systems, tools and administration to be able to achieve this? How can I make sure to get apprentices of color onto my project, when you as an owner have a very stringent background check process? Not everybody has a clean background. There’s societal challenges that have made it really challenging for different populations.

                                    So, we need to find ways to change our systems, to support our goals. We also need to look at new ways to enhance those systems. I work with a great organization, called Build Out California, that is the first LGBTBE-owned, so LGTBQ-owned businesses. And they were able to change legislation in California last year, where the Utilities Commission now requires, I think it’s 1 or 2% participation. So keep pushing the boundaries, keep sharing resources to support our industry.

Nancy Novak:                Yeah, no, that’s fabulous. I wanted to get your opinion on some of the things I was thinking about to make the job sites more welcoming, and also to encourage good behavior when it comes to the ecosystem of sub-trades, and specialty trades, and things like this. Well, number one, at Compass, what we try to do is we absolutely insist that there’s always separate facilities for men and women, and that they’re well-kept and private. We also expect our general contractors to have protected gear that’s designed for women. So the vest and gloves and things that actually fit them, when they show up to the site. If we have visitors, we want to make sure that women feel they’re welcome there.

                                    And then, one of the ideas I had, and this is what I really need your opinion on, is to be able to pitch kind of incentives to encourage the draw for more females, especially in the trades. To say, “Hey, if the industry standard is that 3%, I would like to see if there’s some money in it, or a bonus, or some type of incentive that says, ‘If you get it to 5%, there’s something in it for you.'” And then the last thing was technology, like using things like exoskeletons to kind of neutralize the brute strength and requirements that also help both men and women, the wear and tear on our bodies. Being able to invest in things like that, or encourage the use of those types of technologies, to then again, make the site more welcoming for women.

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        All great ideas. I heard that you addressed, “How do we do this through logistics?” I heard, “How do we do this through creating our crew structure?” And, “How do we do this through the support of what the crews are actually doing with their bodies?” Now, maybe in order. I like to talk to the women on my projects, and ask them about what they would like for their restrooms. Sometimes, it can be more frustrating to have to go to the restroom that has the lock on it, and to make sure you have the code, and to go into it. So, you said rising tides raises all boats. What if we just make sure that all restrooms are extremely well-kept, and clean? Because I have mixed feelings about the separate restrooms, which is why I talked to my crews. Because I also want to make sure there’s an acceptance of gender identity. What barriers are we also putting up? So that really takes a conversation, so I like to address that personally. Though, there is a very strong historic bias and problem with not having the right facilities or designated facilities.

                                    In terms of our crew makeups, ugh, to be able to incentivize getting new people out there. What came to mind when you said exoskeleton and support, it requires a culture on your crews, where people are empowered and excited to support each other. I mentioned earlier, that there were industry values. One of them is pride of work. Ask a drywaller what kind of screw he likes, man, hour conversation right there, you got a buddy for life. The second one, though, is training and apprenticeship. How do we tap into what we all know to be true, which is you learned these skills somewhere, and holds it up as the highest esteemed task to participate in?

                                    When I talk to a crew, and I know there’s an apprentice, I very deliberately point out like, “Gosh, imagine how you could teach that to this individual.” Or like, “I love that you just taught that, that you have such great experience.” Being able to show on my projects that one of my values, one of the things I expect is that there’s a supportive relationship there, and it excites me, and it should excite you to do that. I don’t want to see you putting down your apprentice, and showing them how to do hard work. I’m going to be like, “Dude, not here.”

                                    So how do we make sure that we’re also building a culture, where… Exoskeletons are great. Yes, we need to make sure we’re treating our bodies well, and that we’re taking care of our people. But gosh, that woman or that man would be over there doing it alone in their exo-suit. How do we help people be like, “I feel okay to go ask somebody to help me carry that piece of plywood, because my five foot half inch arms can’t carry that piece of plywood. I need to be empowered and comfortable to do that.”

Nancy Novak:                That makes a lot of sense, yeah. Again, anytime anyone has an idea on how we can try to improve or have good behavior, that’s really what I look at. And not just good behavior, but just different behavior, different systemic behavior, different understanding about how things always have been and how things maybe could be.

                                    And that’s one of the things I really want to finish up on, Kabri, and it’s your strong sense of this relationship building within the community on the job. Because it is a unique leadership perspective in the construction industry, and I really want that to be kind of the takeaway on what people are understanding is important, and what drives the change. Because I truly believe that… One of my superpowers is always writing [inaudible 00:23:46] language that allowed people to behave in the right way. Being in person and leading by example has got to be one of the ways that having your high performing teams really, really excels on a job for success. And not just the field, not just the staff, the owners, the whole ecosystem, supply chain, the whole thing. I would just like for you to kind of close this off with this takeaway, on these lenses of this relationship building and what that does.

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        In any position that we are in, we have resources at our fingertips, whether it’s a green check mark on a submittal that has to go back to a trade partner, or a note we need to write in an RFI to our design team. How we word things, how we pick up the phone and have a conversation to get clarity first, to not jump to conclusions. How we call and say, “Hey, I know we talked about this in your contract, but this situation has changed. Can we talk through this?” We have resources and responsibilities, and we can use every single one of them to engage people in a way that makes them feel like they can talk openly, and gets support. Because we all have the same goal. And some projects really click and realize that, like, “We’re all working together to get this building built. And it’s awesome, and we’re high-fiving.” Not many projects. But if everybody were looking at the resources they have as, “How can I use this to serve another person?”

                                    And of course, I have privilege in my position. I’m the head of all field operations on my project. But if I’m not doing it, no one else is going to be doing it. So, I expect it of my staff at all levels. I expect it of the foreman and the superintendents out in the field, on all my crews. And from the start, I make those expectations clear. “You are here to contribute to the team. I’m excited that you’re here. I’m here to do whatever I can for you. We have to keep talking about this, so that we make sure we’re always on the same page.” And when they hear me talk about other trades, and how, “Listen, that’s great. Let’s make sure your crane goes over here, because the drywaller has a delivery coming in. And they really need that, because they’re behind, because they lost two people last week.” They understand I’m here to support them all, and that when I talk about them, when they’re not there, it’s representing their needs. And anybody can do that.

Nancy Novak:                That’s true. That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much, Kabri. This has been such a fun conversation. I look forward to seeing you in one of the future conferences that’s coming up. And just keep doing the great work you’re doing.

Kabri Lehrman-S…:        Thank you so much.

Nancy Novak:                All righty.