Leading from Above and Below

Incoming AIA CEO Lakisha Woods talks about how women and minorities can find success in the AEC industry.
Leading from Above and Below

National AIA Executive Vice President and CEO
Lakisha Ann Woods

Since assuming the role of executive vice president and chief executive officer of the American Institute of Architects on Jan. 31, Lakisha Ann Woods granted one of her first extensive interviews to Perkins Eastman in a firmwide event to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. During an hourlong conversation with Perkins Eastman Principal Betsey Olenick Dougherty, FAIA, and Associate Emily Pierson-Brown of the firm’s Women’s Leadership Initiative, Woods covered a broad range of topics, from the AIA’s programs to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion to her personal journey to become the first African American woman to lead the U.S. architecture industry’s chief governing body. She also offered valuable advice to emerging women and minority professionals looking to forge their own path in this quickly evolving profession.

This excerpted interview was edited for clarity and length.


Who were your mentors growing up and how did they influence you?

When I was growing up, it was both my mother and my father. I was a military brat. We moved pretty much every two years of my life so I adapt quickly and I make friends fast because that’s what I was taught to do. My father would always come home from work and talk about how the customer is always right, and he would share his work experiences at home, and although as a child I did not necessarily want to hear about work, I, of course, found myself later in life saying all the same statements my father used to lecture us about when I was young, and then also of course my mother, who was a working mom. I was excited when the movie ’Hidden Figures’ came out because I realized, ‘That’s my Mom!’ She was programming Fortran and working with those big computers that filled up an entire room. … She managed to balance life with work and being there for the family and for me.

I’ve always been influenced by great people, specifically other women leaders who have shown a pathway, and it reminds me that I need to be an exceptional leader, because someone else is looking at the work that I do and I want to bring a pathway forward for them.

What is the AIA doing to advance diversity and inclusion in the architectural profession right now?

First, we partnered with the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law to create what we refer to as the Hastings Report. It documented workplace experiences in the architecture profession. This report is a qualitative and quantitative study of bias based on gender, race, and ethnicity in the practice of architecture.

We’ve also done a lot of different assessments around our honors and awards, and our governance programs. We developed an internship with HBCUs as it relates to our upcoming headquarters renovation, and then of course we have a variety of different resources and guides to help the industry. In addition, we have a variety of resources and the guide to equitable practices available on our website. And with women in architecture, we launched the Next to Lead program, and we piloted a virtual series for women in leadership.

This is International Women’s Day, and the theme is Break the Bias. Do you have any advice on how to start changing some of the structural biases that have historically been part of the architectural industry?

Let’s be honest. First, we have to be self-aware. How do you internalize the biases that you may have to address? How do we deal with microaggressions, the subtle acts of exclusion? … You’ve got to let people know what you’re experiencing, and how we can move forward.

What is your vision for the future direction of AIA?

I want to make sure that the work we do aligns with [AIA’s] strong strategic plan that connects to climate action and racial and gender equity. We just want to ensure that we are listening to the needs of our members, of the industry, and that we are reacting in a way that will improve the profession.

What can we do as professionals to encourage a diverse and welcoming pathway to the architectural profession?

Part of it is how you kicked off this conversation today [with the announcement of three new women members of Perkins Eastman’s Executive Committee]. Who sits at the table, decides the direction of the conversation, and ultimately the solutions and the path forward? … AIA is committed to harnessing the passion of our members and the broader design community to advance racial justice and equity in our organization, in our profession, and in our communities.

We all know we have not reached that goal, that if we look at the profile of our membership, we are far from it. When we’re working with clients and communities, they want to see a presence that reflects them. How do we help clients and the broader public see the impact that architects have on the built environment and the significant challenges facing humanity? What can members do to support this vision?

It’s important to just get out and let people know what you’re doing. Share your story, make them aware. Let the clients know how you’re impacting your community, become more involved in your local politics or discussions about the built world in your community. There are no better ambassadors for the power of design to positively change lives than each and every one of you.

How can we collectively impact our communities to inspire and enhance the quality of life in America to focus upon those things that are very important to Perkins Eastman, which are sustainability, equity, and health—and as corny as this sounds, making the world a better place?

Designing a sustainable future begins with designing a sustainable community first. That’s also why we’ve partnered with civic organizations like the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Mayors Innovation Project. Architects are uniquely positioned to have these important conversations with the stakeholders in their community to build a healthier, equitable, and more sustainable future. We also have our Blueprint for Better campaign, and it provides the resources architects can use to talk with their civic leaders about improving their cities and towns.

Audience Questions:

Of all the opportunities you’ve had in your life and career, why was the AIA an important move for you?

The strategic plan [which includes a call to foster diversity and inclusion in the architectural profession]. I have spent my whole career in the construction space and the built environment. I’ve always talked to the women that I’ve met within my various organizations, and I will never forget my very first one. At the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, there was a woman who was on our board, and she ran a sand and gravel company, and she’d taken over the business from her father, but she always shared the challenges that she ran into serving on the board. People assumed that she was the spouse. She was spoken down to. …  I wanted to be able to fix it. I was a problem solver, and I couldn’t fix it. I knew that I needed to keep growing and stay in this space because I wanted to make a difference, and when I was at the National Institute of Building Sciences, the board said that we really need to diversify our membership, our leadership—what do we do? One of the elements of what we worked on was a Women Executives in Building event that was specifically targeted to women in the C-Suite, where they could come together and share their challenges and talk about how to find solutions. What was amazing to me is that all these years later, they’re still running into the same exact challenges. How are we really going to move that needle? Part of it is having the discussion.

What kind of anecdotes have you heard from women and minority AIA members regarding the types of discrimination and exclusion they have experienced, and how do you respond effectively to continue advancing your own career?

I talk about exactly this in a book that I have coming out. Women I’ve met in the industry, and in the association community, share their stories, because we must work together and let people know and identify where there are challenges. What steps are we putting in place to address certain issues, but also increasing the diversity of our leadership team? That’s what it always comes back to. Not just gender diversity. Racial and gender equity. That’s the piece in the strategic plan that made me say, I can’t believe an organization put that in writing. Sign me up!

Relative to representation in our profession – for people of color and for women especially, what advice would you give to young designers and emerging professionals of color, and young women, to urge us in our pursuit in this profession?

I hear our president, Dan Hart, say all the time that design is our super power. Well, I agree, so to truly capitalize on your super power, you’ve got to have all the right people at the table who are looking at the little details that make all the difference. So it’s important to not step back and not shy away, but showcase and shine and share the knowledge that you have. I often hear people say, ‘Well, you’re younger, so come learn from somebody who’s more experienced.’ I can tell you right now that there are people who are more experienced that have a lot to learn from younger people that are coming up. [For example], I want to know who’s building their community in the metaverse. Are you ready for that conversation? It was literally created for architecture. I don’t know anybody who’s there yet. But we need to be ready and we need to be teaching you because that’s the reality.

So is this the good news that came out of our Covid isolation, that we’re thinking outside the universe?

I’m sure there are AIA student members who are prepared to have that conversation and help our other members. We don’t want to sit back and say, ‘Oh, remember when that was coming out but we didn’t really think it was going to be a thing?’ Yeah.

From your perspective, have you seen a positive shift in how women at the table are perceived as professionals in our field, and to what extent? Is it shifting fast enough to be more inclusive as more women are becoming leaders in our profession?

I have seen a positive shift as I look at the data. The data shows that corporations that have at least 20 percent of their leadership team that is diverse, they’re more profitable, and they are more innovative, so it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the profitable thing to do, so you need to diversify your leadership teams.

The pandemic had more of an effect on women and their roles—a disproportionate effect. Do you have any thoughts on continuing in a hybrid mode to help support work-life balance, which does not just benefit women but really benefits quality of life across the board?

Before the pandemic, one in every sixty-seven jobs was remote, and now it’s one in seven. So one piece of advice or feedback to those who are managing architecture firms is that it is an employee marketplace, and we are struggling to just recruit people into the architecture profession. We must learn to be flexible. We must learn to have the balance and utilize the amazing technology tools that are out there in order for us to continue to grow our firms, continue to grow our organization and instill that diversity of thought that’s so important as you’re shaping and framing and designing for the future, and so I would recommend that people just note that it’s a new day. I’ve sat on many calls with other CEOs who say, ‘Oh, God, I just can’t wait until we can get back to normal, get back to the way it was.’ We’re not going back! … We have to think of what’s next. And if you don’t think there’s some other pandemic-like thing coming, you’re wrong.

How do we eliminate that implicit bias that [says] women need to prove and over-qualify themselves if we’re being invited to be at the table?

I just have to say to all of the women out there, you have to look within. Recognize that you are in your role for a reason. You are good enough, and you can do nothing but add value to your organization. We have to believe in ourselves first, and if we don’t believe it, then nothing I say to you is going to matter. We have to stop questioning and doubting ourselves. … When was the last time you went on social media and bragged about a big success that you had? Or did you not want to say anything because that’s just too much? No. No. You can’t [be modest]. You have to share it, because somebody else will want to do the same thing because you did it. They need that validation.

What advice would you give to women who are emerging professionals in areas where the professional community limits opportunity and inclusivity for those individuals? Where could they find the support they deserve if not from their own local AIA?

There are a ton of groups that are out there, mentoring groups for young emerging professionals. There are women in architecture groups where they connect a young professional with someone who’s been in the career for a while so that you can learn from them, so look for those mentorship groups. We’re also establishing those within AIA in our Next to Lead program, so there are just a lot of opportunities, and we are eager to get more women and minorities involved in the organization.

From some of the leaders who you have worked for, what are some of the qualities that you have really responded well to, both as someone who is looking to them for leadership and then as you became a leader in different spaces yourself?

In all of my hopping around to many associations, I was following a boss who understood my style and respected what I brought to the table, so I followed him around to a lot of companies, and what I liked is the fact that he allowed me to be successful and gave me an opportunity to shine, so it’s important that you work in an environment that has that positive culture, that your supervisor trusts and respects the decisions that you bring to the table. … If you don’t have that leadership that’s inspiring you within, which would be difficult to believe at Perkins Eastman, then look outside, but also, make sure that you’re looking for the person who’s looking up to you, and you may not realize that [you can be] a mentor, but you can be. Make sure you’re always looking for [a mentee], and share your knowledge and ask what they need, because I have a mentee who has taught me so much. She shared with me about how her organization operated, where the challenges were, where the voice was being blocked because leadership only talks to leadership and not anybody below. We need to make sure we have these open circles where we’re dialoguing outside of that next level. It’s important to become a mentor, no matter what level you are in your career, because you can learn just as much from them as they can learn from you.