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Women in Construction: 5 questions with Julie Hyson, Senior Executive Director, Skanska USA

Women in Construction: 5 questions with Julie Hyson, Senior Executive Director, Skanska USA

In honor of International Women’s Day and Women in Construction Week, we spoke with Julie Hyson to find out how she got to the top of the construction game, her best career advice, and what keeps her up at night.

Julie Hyson’s list of accomplishments is enough to make anyone feel intimidated. At half the age of her fellow executives at Skanska USA, she brings a fresh perspective to the business, and credits much of her success to her strong work ethic, aptitude, attitude, and drive to see results. Known for bringing energy and passion to the office and the jobsite, she’s often referred to as a disruptor.

Her construction career began ten years ago when she started her own residential design firm in Florida. Soon after relocating to California, Julie joined a structural engineering firm. Since then, she’s worked in engineering, planning, and construction (her favorite so far). Focusing mostly on sales, marketing, and strategy, her current role is as complex as it is challenging. And, to top if off, she’s done all this while successfully raising three children.

“I don’t believe that the blissful balance we all dream of is real, but I know that we can be present, loving mothers at home and badass, brazen leaders at work. It’s possible, and it’s a beautiful kind of chaos.”

Julie Hyson (Photo: Diana Rothery)

A relentless champion for her colleagues and clients, Julie has never been afraid to ask difficult questions and push for change. As Executive Sponsor of Skanska’s Diversity & Inclusion and Community Outreach councils and Advisor to Skanska’s Women’s Network in California, she’s constantly asking herself if she’s doing the right thing for the clients and communities that Skanska serves, and putting ideas into action.

In collaboration with leaders from organizations including Kaiser Permanente, PlanGrid, and Autodesk, Julie has also developed forums to encourage, promote, and support women in construction — and any industry — to lead boldly within their companies, regardless of their position.

As creative as she is analytical, Julie is an inspiration to women in construction around the world.

What does an average day look like for you right now?

[Disclaimer: Right now I’m wrapping up maternity leave with my third son, Jagr. I head back to work full time on March 17th, so I’m going to answer regarding a typical work day.]

I wake around 6 am, help with breakfast, and help to get our three boys ready for the day (a 4th grader, a kindergartener, and a newborn). My husband is a stay at home dad, so he takes care of a lot.

At work by 7:30 am, I usually have morning meetings in the office. If not, I’ll spend time catching up with our staff and responding to emails. I try to have lunch with a customer, AEC partner, trade partner, or even a competitor at least three times a week. I’m not huge on happy hours — with three kids, I’d rather enjoy a glass of wine at home with my husband and eat dinner as a family.

I love getting out and visiting our jobsites. I’ll sometimes tour a site, then have lunch with the project team or client. With projects located all over the Bay Area, this can sometimes fill an entire day. I’m typically back in the office in the afternoon for more internal meetings, whether they’re strategy sessions, training, or staffing meetings.

I also try to block out an hour every day on my calendar for “time to think.” I’m being pulled in so many directions that I sometimes don’t have time to think, process, or research. This time allows me to catch up on industry trends and customer insights, brainstorm or innovate, re-energize, and make sure I understand the reasons behind my decisions. It’s the equivalent of “me” time, but at work.

I get home between 5:30–7:00pm most nights, which works great as my kids are involved in baseball, soccer, flag football, and chess after school — not to mention all of the homework. Sheesh!

What (work related thing) keeps you up at night?

Our people. I can be intimidating and tough, but I care deeply about people; even those working for our competition.

I find myself awake in the middle of the night (probably too much for my own good), questioning whether we’re doing the right thing for our people, our customers, our partners, and our colleagues. Am I doing enough to support women in our business? How could I have handled things differently? A lot of questions and thoughts run through my mind at night, but they are almost always people-related.

What’s the best career advice you ever received?

  • If it makes you nervous, it’s probably the right thing to do. If you’re comfortable, you’re probably not growing.
  • Don’t feel boxed in by the paths that people have taken before you or those coming up after you. Make your own path. Be the architect of your own career. You are never stuck.
  • Accept and admit your failures. This is especially important as a leader. Remember: you’re always either succeeding or learning, and both are good. Vulnerability and humility are traits that people admire. They are qualities of a strong, confident leader; the kind that people want to follow.
  • If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Don’t give up! The days I’ve wanted to quit the most are the days that I know I’m making the most progress.
  • Deepak Chopra said, “embrace the wisdom of uncertainty.” And I love this advice. There is a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity in our business and embracing the wisdom that comes from that is really important.
  • Patience is good when it comes to learning and also dealing with people. But being impatient enough to take risks and push forward in the face of uncertainty has helped me achieve success in my career.

I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of mentors and professional heroes, so I’ll stop here, but I could spend all day on this topic.

What trends are you watching in the construction industry?

I’m watching to see which companies take diversity and equity issues seriously. I was recently in discussions with a recruiter about an opportunity, and after asking how many female leaders the company had, I found out there was only one — out of 25+. I declined that opportunity. There were other reasons for saying no, but I am passionate about seeing more women in construction take on leadership roles.

I’m also watching how technology (specifically robotics and artificial intelligence) will change our business. I believe there will come a time when we no longer have preconstruction departments at all because you’ll be able to gather quantities and costs through software. Our industry will become safer with the use of robotics, smart hard hats, and smart safety vests. We need to use data to work smarter — our industry is so archaic in many ways.

I’m watching recruiting practices, too. In order to drive change, we have to stop recruiting solely from engineering, architecture, and construction management schools. I want to see business school grads or healthcare providers-turned-architects who know how patient treatment really works and can design for our ultimate customer: the patient. I’d like to see new hire grads with degrees in finance, economics, psychology, etc. We need a generation of tech-savvy disrupters working alongside our seasoned field and project management staff — two diverse worlds that collide can be really powerful.

Why should a person consider a career in construction?

A career in construction offers endless possibilities. You can pursue project management, innovation, safety, lean construction, field expertise, accounting, scheduling, BIM, and so much more.

I enjoy working with hard-working, blue collar people; good people that still use their hands and aren’t afraid to get dirty. Construction is challenging, and ultimately, we’re all problem solvers in this industry.

It’s also a dynamic business where you can have a tangible impact. Our “product” lasts decades. Being a part of building a customer’s vision — the hospital that will save lives, the schools that will educate our future leaders, the transit hub that will take you to work each day, the airport that will bring international travelers to and from the US — it may sound cheesy, but it’s a really meaningful way to contribute to society and feel pride in your work. Win win.

I also appreciate that there are paths to leadership that don’t strictly follow the ladder approach. You can zig-zag your way to the top if you seek out the right experiences and seize any opportunity to use your strengths. It’s also an industry that has a lot of potential for change and improvement, and we need that fresh perspective. I recently heard that by 2025, 50% of our industry will be made up of millennials. It scares some people, but not me—I think it’s awesome.

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