Leading on the Job Site: Suffolk Advances Women in a Male-Dominated Industry

Advancing Women in the Construction Industry

Suffolk Project Managers Tracy Deal and Elizabeth Clarkin are overseeing their respective projects in Miami and Boston from the ground up. That means both managers are on-site working from field offices and leading their teams, which are predominantly men, through the development of their projects.

“What I love about this industry is working with my team and developing a project from start to finish – one that’s likely going to change the community and the skyline for good,” said Clarkin. “At the same time, construction is an industry undergoing a massive transformation and that can present unique challenges.”  

One of the most significant challenges in the construction industry today is the labor shortage. Attracting talent in today’s market is more competitive than ever. The construction industry will need to attract an estimated 546,000 additional workers in order to meet the demand for labor, according to a proprietary model developed by Associated Builders and Contractors. In addition, women make up only about 10.9 percent of the entire U.S. construction workforce and according to recent reports from McKinsey, for every 100 men promoted only 87 women receive promotions. 

Creating a culture of inclusivity and equity in the workplace, especially in industries where women are underrepresented, takes a new level of focus. Coaching and leadership development are key components of establishing this strong culture.

Disrupting Through Innovative Talent Practices

To navigate a constantly shifting talent retention market and deepen investment in female leaders, Crystal Wahle, VP of Talent Management, Leadership & People Analytics at Suffolk partnered with AceUp. Wahle has a passion for leadership development and supporting great leaders. 

“Suffolk Chairman and CEO John Fish always says, ‘We don’t build buildings, we build people.’ Leadership is an important element of that promise, and the frontline manager is the most critical relationship between an employee and the company,” said Wahle.

One of Suffolk’s goals working with AceUp is to help their organization  build a culture that supports women and provides them with advancement opportunities. An all-women’s coaching cohort aims to level the playing field for women leaders, strengthen the management bench and achieve important business outcomes. The cohort ran from August 2022 to January 2023, with 90 percent of the women being highly engaged with AceUp’s platform and with their coaches.


Building Leaders in the Field

In addition to advocating for the extra time and energy to focus on coaching, Wahle encouraged participants to view coaching as a positive experience that can make a difference in the careers of others. Although building people is a core tenant of their mission, Suffolk still faced obstacles on its journey towards a human-centered leadership culture. 

“We have many people in field-based roles. They are physically on construction sites. Their workdays start very early in the morning and continue well into the evening hours, and we’re asking them to take time out of a very high-pressure schedule for coaching while also asking them to deliver a project on time, on budget and safely,” said Wahle. 

This meant rolling out the program in a way that demonstrated to Suffolk employees the long-term value they would receive from carving out time during their busy days for coaching.  “We weren’t trying to solve a performance problem. We believe coaching is about helping people transform themselves from good to great,” added Wahle.

Transforming Leadership Development at Scale

Besides individual coaching, group coaching sessions were also utilized for the first time and experienced strong engagement.

“We felt there was an opportunity for collaborative learning among the women in the cohort. At many of our job sites, we have just one woman present, so having an opportunity for her to be able to connect with her female peers was powerful,” said Wahle. 

During these group coaching sessions, women who participated shared their experiences about moving up in their careers, gaining new levels of confidence, and feeling part of a larger group. 

For Deal and Clarkin, the coaching sessions were a chance for them to grow as project managers and gain valuable tools to use with their colleagues in meetings. Their fellow female leaders also reported increased self-awareness, improved communication skills, and better leadership abilities.

“I feel like I boarded an express train and caught up on five years’ worth of decisions I had been putting off. Working with my coach accelerated everything I had been trying to do personally and professionally. He helped me identify my thought processes, how I approach situations, and how I limit myself by some of the decisions I make,” said Deal.

Lasting Impacts

The Suffolk women’s cohort laid a strong foundation and further emphasized the company’s focus on building a culture that supports women. Participants like Deal and Clarkin who were a part of AceUp’s program reported a 5 percent improvement in collaborating across the organization, a 5 percent improvement in managing conflict and difficult conversations, and a 4 percent increase in developing a coaching approach to management.

Furthermore, Suffolk is using the insights gained from its partnership with AceUp to inform and shape its leadership and development strategy. For example, as a result of the input from female participants during group coaching 360 reviews, Wahle plans to host a networking event in Boston this coming summer for Suffolk female leaders. 

“We’re helping individuals understand their own well-being and stressors. This is crucial to learning ‘smart skills,’ not soft skills. We’re grateful to AceUp for coaching us through this massive shift in workplace culture and professional development.”  

To learn more about Suffolk’s human-centered leadership journey, tune into this webinar.

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