LEED Fellows and women leaders | U.S. Green Building Council
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Hear from women who are LEED Fellows on their leadership, challenges and inspiration in green building.

This article was co-authored by Nicholas Firmand.

The LEED Fellow is GBCI’s most prestigious credential, awarded to outstanding LEED APs who have demonstrated exceptional achievement in key mastery elements, have a history of leadership and have made significant contributions to green building and sustainability.

As the world celebrated International Women’s Day last week, the idea of women leaders in the green building industry is one that is near and dear to many of us. We had the chance to talk to a panel of LEED Fellows recently, all of whom are inspirational women and leaders and were energized by what we heard. 

LEED Fellow women leaders panel

Megan Ritchie Saffitz
Megan was the Director of LEED Support at GBCI from 2010 to 2017. During those years, she grew GBCI’s customer service infrastructure and the Technical Customer Service Team to handle a 700 percent increase in project-related inquiries. Her team won more than 10 customer service awards, including “Customer Service Team of the Year” three years in a row. Megan joined the International Living Future Institute as Certification Director in March 2017.

Jenny Carney
Jenny is a Principal and LEED Fellow at YR&G. She heads up YR&G’s Performance and Operations Team and manages the Chicago office. In that role, Jenny oversees YR&G project work related to sustainability strategy development, performance-based benchmarking, corporate sustainability programming, reporting and LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (LEED O+M) certification.

Beth Heider
Beth is Chief Sustainability Officer for Skanska USA, supporting the design and construction of high-performance green/LEED/Envision projects throughout their life cycle. Over her career, Heider has been responsible for the pre-construction management of large-scale multimillion-dollar construction programs. As CSO, Beth ensures the goals of Skanska’s sustainability agenda are being met across Skanska’s four U.S. businesses while serving on Skanska USA’s Management Team.

Maria de Los Angeles Perez
Maria is a Senior Associate and Director of Sustainable Design for Gensler, a global architecture, design, planning and consulting firm of 5,000+ professionals networked across 46 offices. In this role, Maria serves as one of the firms leading sustainability ambassadors and educators, engaging staff, clients and the public on innovative and sustainable design, construction and operational thinking.

Q: Tell me about your leadership style and what best suits you.

Megan: At GBCI, I used a holacratic model, meaning that I delegated authority and decision-making across my team rather than investing in a rigid hierarchical management structure. This allowed for increased leadership development across my entire team: theoretically, anyone had the opportunity to be a leader and develop leadership skills. In practice, 72 percent of my 26-person team held a managing role over a team, program or scope, while still contributing to our primary scope of work: assisting customers directly.

My opinion is that the worker-as-manager/manager-as-worker model prevents burnout and over-specialization or “typecasting,” while increasing retention, preserving institutional knowledge and increasing the overall quality of work. In addition to this specific management model, I also tried to give my time to each and every team member so that I could keep a pulse on their happiness, their current successes and challenges and mentor through obstacles. While the hierarchical model is more traditional, I personally find the holacratic model more effective in our particular line of work; it is more complex to manage, but ultimately more rewarding, bestowing benefits to team members in addition to the organization.

Jenny: Looking within my company, there are two or three different arenas where I can be a leader. I have the relevant technical expertise, and can communicate it to the advantage of projects and teams that I work on. This is a conventionally recognized form of leadership. Internally, a type of leadership that I have brought in is that I am thoughtful about how I manage dynamics, so that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. I really strive to make people better by giving people the opportunity to bring their own ideas into the fold.

The reason that some may not use this leadership style is that it is not the typical method of succeeding focused on alpha leadership or individualism. It is a focus on group dynamics. There is diminished space for this, and there can be less emphasis on conversations that don’t have a direct ROI. However, at the meta level, these conversations lead to an overall improvement. There is an intrinsic integrative design aspect to sustainability, but this approach may not always reflected within the management structures of the firms that deliver green projects.

Beth: For me, it’s about bringing people together and elevating others on the team. We recently were working a project that had committed to certification. The project engineer was slammed closing out the job. At the same time, I had an exchange employee from Sweden who is a rising star and needed more opportunity to contribute. I believe the magic really happens when people from different backgrounds come together to achieve common goal that is bigger than any one person.  

Greenbuild was coming to Los Angeles. The project was also in L.A. A Greenbuild tour submission created the perfect aspirational goal. I connected the Swedish and L.A. stars into a constellation along with the national lead. Everyone was energized by the urgency and aspiration. The project was certified Platinum just before the Greenbuild tour. This week, the job received Skanska's highest award. 

I am always looking to catch our stars doing green, connecting them into a constellation. Often it means finding the “dark moons” that need a little illumination to be visible. By empowering people, a leader can compound and elevate their impact. I am most delighted and energized seeing the amazing places my colleagues take the snowball I set in motion. 

When you have a limited staff, like I do, you have to rely on your ability to lead by influence inspiring and persuading others instead of sending out marching orders. This reflects USGBC's approach, inspiring, educating and providing a language to define green and recognizing excellence. I have found that women tend to be naturally good at leading by influence and being a catalyst in their firm and market. 

Maria: I have a nurturing nature and consider myself a good listener and an excellent networker. I enjoy creating ecosystems and I support a collaborative leadership style that blends the thinking and ideas of others. I’m an integrator whose goal is to connect people and ideas. My way of thinking is big-picture and nonlinear.

Q: Do you have any role models in the green building industry? How have these leaders shaped where you are today?

Beth: One of the leaders I’ve emulated is Gail Vittori—she is so good at listening. She makes sure everyone is included in the conversation while moving the conversation along. She has a really graceful way of recognizing each individual’s unique contribution to the dialogue. 

At the Women in Green breakfast, someone used the term “bro-propriate”—finally, a term for what I experienced, especially early in my career when I would bring an idea to the table and not be heard. An hour later, one of the guys suggests the very same idea and is a genius. Gail recognizes the contributions of everyone, regardless of gender. 

Maria: I admire the work of both Naomi Klien and Majora Carter. Naomi Klien is a journalist and author whose book "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate" has brought awareness to the climate change crisis. Naomi brings to light the connections between the growth model of the free market economy and its impacts on climate change. She believes we have the power to make the changes needed, we just need to know it ourselves.

Majora Carter is a leader in urbanization, real estate developer and social justice advocate who focuses on diversity and social justice. She has been responsible for the creation and implementation of numerous green infrastructure projects, polices and job training and placement opportunities for low-income communities. In addition, Majora has helped connect tech industry pioneers to diverse communities at all levels.

Q: Do you see the role female leaders play in our industry changing in the future?

Jenny: When it comes to the capability of convening disparate groups, garnering consensus and moving forward, that is a style of leadership that is more prevalent among women—and there is a growing need for this leadership style industrywide. There is a lot of work in this industry that is not about glamorous triumphs; it’s more about community organizing, deploying our good green building strategies at a broad scale. 

To be successful at that, we need to tap all the talent, in all the people, in all the ways, and specifically around engaging the entire building community to move past focusing only on LEED in iconic new construction projects, and toward having all buildings have these green building elements in them. This is a space that women can help facilitate, and help reach the “tipping point.” The LEED Fellow program is not yet set up to recognize someone who shines in that arena alone or as a primary strength.

There are also more structural barriers for women to become technical experts. It’s not so much that they don’t go into math and science fields, but once they enter the professional world, there are structural barriers that keep them off the traditional path of advancing in their fields.

The act of pursuing acclaim or promotion is known to be something that women don’t do at the same rate as men. Are there more interventions we can do about being really explicit about outreach to encourage more women to pursue a LEED Fellow nomination? A study from Harvard Business Review showed that men who are unqualified for a job have no qualms about pursuing it, whereas women are more likely to self-censor themselves.

Beth: I hope women will be more present in leadership positions. There are still some barriers. Some are cultural. It seems natural for men to be very forward in self-promotion, but it can be regarded as unladylike for women to act this way. It is essential for leaders to encourage women to “go for it.”  This was true for me. I had not considered throwing my hat into the ring for USGBC Board Chair until a male colleague believed in me and inspired me to go for it. Our industry needs men and women to endorse each other and to encourage women to pursue top leadership roles.

Another thing our industry is addressing is unconscious bias. One of my female colleagues is highly technically accomplished, but is also very nice, and her contributions are sometimes drowned out by the louder voices in the room. I am on a mission to make sure that a colleague is given leadership opportunities and to endorse her as often as possible. We all need to look out for our “high potential people” who aren't heard and to cultivate future leaders. 

Women can be more afraid to fail than men. Perhaps this is because of the way boys are socialized through sports, learning it’s OK to be rough with each other, OK to fail, as long as you get back up. Women tend not to go for an opportunity unless they are “overqualified” for it, whereas a man may take a swing for the fence, even if he thinks it is unlikely he will make it. We need to encourage women to just go for it, and if you fail this time, you are not a failure as a person; you can pick yourself back up, learn from it and try again.

There are problems with the pipeline to LEED Fellow for women. For example, we know that today, more women graduate from architecture schools than men, but then when it comes time to get licensed, they are at the point in life where they may also be having children. When women drop out of or slow their careers to raise their children, reentry into the workforce requires support, or they may leave the profession or stifle their own leadership ambitions. We need to cultivate female professionals, and continue to encourage them across the arc of their career to aspire to and move intentionally toward LEED Fellowship.   

MDLAP: Yes, I grew up with a Hispanic upbringing and was surrounded by strong-willed, hardworking and purpose-driven women. It is through their leadership that the traditions, values and legacy of our family have been upheld. My grandmother, mother and daughter all possess natural leadership skills and they are the masters of opportunity—seamlessly keeping all in check while running the family household and at the same time supporting the family. They have taught me that a woman’s instincts and emotional intelligence can be off the charts. They seamlessly manage crisis and change and are turnaround experts, sensing and neutralizing any signs of danger well before it invades our path. It is because of these women that my family is full of love, spiritually aligned and well balanced. We are a modern family who embraces traditions even as we adapt to changing times.

Q: Anything else to add about female leadership in the green/healthy building industry?

MRS: In general, right now women are still are required to “play by the same rules.” Historically, success in leadership used traditional criteria that focused on longstanding notions of success. If a woman is successful, then minimally she had to excel when compared against this pre-existing criteria. But does this miss something because we haven’t updated our success criteria to be more modern, more reflective of the change we want to see in the world? Maybe the point to make about women’s impacts is not so much that there is something separate that women do, but they have to both meet existing expectations around success, in addition to being the change they want to see in the world by helping others succeed as well.

BH: "LEED Fellow" is, by nature, a technical designation. Some women have enabling roles instead of the role of technical expert. Some people achieve leadership status in other areas long before they lead LEED projects. Once you are at the executive level, it is your job to be the catalyst, the inspiration—not only to start the chain of events that have an impact, but to see it through to completion. Female leaders who have a strong technical mind can find ways to unlock progress by resolving technical issues, without being the person who came to prominence by filling out scorecards and doing LEED submittals. 

MDLAP: Women leaders understand survival, renewal and reinvention. They have grit, are resilient and are not afraid to fight for what they believe in or an opportunity to achieve something of significance. They believe in what they stand for, but that doesn’t mean they won’t put their ideas and ideals to the test. For them, doing more with less is simply a matter of knowing how to strategically activate those around them.

This group is an inspiration to us all. The nominations period for the LEED Fellow has been extended until Monday, April 17.

Join the LEED Fellow Class of 2017

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