When No Becomes Yes: Authenticity for Women in Construction

Jan 28, 2022 | Article

How do women jump beyond the swamp of to-do lists and think strategically about growth?

As the current Global Head of Industry Transformation at Procore Technologies and on the Board of Directors for the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), Sandra Benson has shared nine hints on how authenticity has shaped her success from new hire to executive to board member.

 Never Accept a No 

Growing up, Sandra saw her brothers being encouraged to choose engineering schools, but her father told her to get a liberal arts degree. Therefore, she majored in electrical engineering. “Don’t tell me what I can’t do” stuck with her as a way of life. “I was already good at math, science, and not accepting limits,” she says, so those skills helped her lead Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) Initiatives for airports and other large construction projects.

Do What Nobody Else Wants

Computer-Aided Design (CAD) was the norm when she started, and nobody was interested in the new ERP software programs, so since she was the newest member, she was told to work with the finance and IT teams. She was “voluntold” to lead because she was the newest hire, but she found it so fascinating that it led her to pursue an MBA in construction and technology.

She saw it as an opportunity that eventually led to unique skill sets, “Thirty years ago, I would’ve never guessed that I would be here . . . and talking about my amazing job at Procore, NIBS, Amazon Web Services (AWS), or anything.” Seeing a challenge as an opportunity opened doors she had not envisioned.

Be Kind

Early in her career, a CEO who was her grandfather’s age told her that she was the smartest woman he ever met. She knew he meant it as a compliment, and so she simply responded with a thank you. 

Nowadays everyone knows that a better compliment would be to have said that she is the smartest person he knows. “You’re smart, for a girl” stung, but back then, the same cultural and gender conversations were not going on. She was empathetic to his upbringing. He had no intention of being hurtful and Sandra has empathy for everyone.

“The intent was to share his belief in me. If that conversation happened now, I still wouldn’t correct him. Causing pain is of no benefit.

Find Sponsorship

This CEO believed in her and gave her new projects to lead when they came up. He pulled her through a lot, enabling her to be the only female in certain groups. Because he knew her work on the engineering side, he was able to trust her on the software side. 

Mentorship, which is asking others for a coffee and talking about ideas, isn’t useful. It is weird when total strangers ask for mentoring on LinkedIn. 

Sponsorship, on the other hand, is uniquely helpful because it allows younger folks to have exposure and opportunities they can stretch into. Sometimes Sandra will bring newer hires to listen in on a meeting or call so they can be in the room to see how to navigate new situations. This kind of sponsorship provides opportunity instead of advice. 

Make Values-Based Decisions

Choosing to act from her values helped her decide when to change jobs. 

When she discovered that she could not accept the volunteer role at the National Institute for Building Sciences (NIBS) while working for Amazon Web Services (AWS), she had to think long and hard. Was she willing to give up the certainty of the AWS work in order to gain this new role?

She had always encouraged others to take risks and follow their hearts, and she had to confront the real fear of being without a paycheck for a while in order to take the monumental leap of faith of resigning at AWS. However, being nominated to serve on the board at NIBS would allow her to pursue her passion for improving construction and productivity. 

Because she values living a life of influence, she trusted that other paying jobs would come through and accepted the nomination. Turning that opportunity down would have been ignoring part of her true self. Not accepting the NIBS position would have gone against her values. During her time off of work, she leaned into her professional network and later joined Procore

Look for Companies Whose Values You Support

Sandra looks at how companies treat their employees. When she is 100% behind the company and how it functions, she is able to work authentically with her clients. 

Her new role allows her to support inclusion and education. Being the first female lead in some of these committees positively affects the lives of people in construction: in the office and in the field. She chooses roles where she will be able to have the most influence. 

Keep Competition out of Friendships

Although her network seemed small to her at the time of her job change, she spent time with other female friends in construction. Even though some of the companies were in direct competition, she was able to maintain friendships. She didn’t see these lateral relationships as competition. 

General discussions about the industry, trends, diversity, and challenges are helpful among friends. Specific advice or product information is off-limits. Respect each other and the other companies. “There’s enough for everyone,” she reminds us.

Show up as Your Authentic Self

Authenticity takes confidence, competence, and time. 

Even if you have to say, “I don’t know,” say it confidently, and get back to them with a confident answer. 

“At the beginning, I watched how everyone else did it. I had to be myself. Over time, I became very good at saying what I think without couching it.”

When incredibly knowledgeable people speak without conviction, they do not seem as capable, even when they are. Therefore, it’s valuable to spend the time to learn how to work confidently.

Some folks think they have to be hostile to get what they want. It’s not true. Verbal dynamite is not necessary. “If enough water goes over a rock [it] will eventually disintegrate. It doesn’t happen overnight.” Persistent authenticity is how she grows and affects change. “I continue to be who I am.” 

Authenticity at work is like driving down a highway. There are four or five lanes to choose from. If none of those lanes gets you where you want to go, then you’re likely in the wrong industry or wrong company.

Start Small

At Ambition Theory, we remind folks that the biggest changes start with the smallest steps. 

Sandra suggests the following for increasing authenticity at work:

  • Review the day before you leave work. What could you have handled better? 
  • Consider where can you add your own true self to how you work. Share what you truly enjoy with others. What do you like doing and how does that fit with the job?
  • Get to know people. Not just passing out business cards, but having reciprocal conversations benefits everyone. Leverage those relationships–not just taking–but giving them something too.

You can find Sandra Benson on LinkedIn and learn about Procore here

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