This article originally appeared in the Sacramento Business Journal.
For a building project to be successful, the right components have to be there: strong structural support, sound materials for framework, expertise in putting it all together. Wendy Cohen, the new president in Sacramento at Kitchell CEM, said there’s a similar approach to company leadership: making different parts work together.
“That is what happens on every single project,” said Cohen, who became president in June. “Construction is a leadership lab.”
Cohen, a veteran of the construction industry, moved into the top spot through a succession plan long in the works. What no one knew when the plan was hatched, though, was that she’d be taking over during a global pandemic and have to face challenges ranging from new job site safety practices to dealing with suddenly more conservative lenders.
Overall, that means volatility, and having to adjust to meetings online rather than in person, which is tough for Cohen, who said she enjoys personal interaction. Originally, Cohen said, she was attracted to construction because of a fascination in how things go together. Over time, that’s turned into an interest in motivating people to come together for a common goal.
Much of what she’s picked up about leadership came from overseeing projects with various companies. In 2001, Cohen had a career highlight when she oversaw a $1 billion hospital project, Palomar Medical Center in Escondido.
“I was definitely over my skis, and I had a boss who saw I had some potential,” said Cohen, who’d only been in construction for a few years at that point. The project drew interest from across the country, she said, which gave her an opportunity to show off her skills. But more importantly, she said, the project gave her insight into leadership, which she discovered doesn’t mean being fearless or without doubt. She said that while she felt like the project was beyond her, she had to overcome those doubts and fears to make it happen.
“It’s also the ability to learn in the moment and learning to manage yourself, understanding what triggers you or what our blind spots are,” she said.
Learning those skills, she said, helps her as a leader because she can recognize the value in other voices, including those with different backgrounds, skill sets and work experience. Just because someone’s had a specific role for years doesn’t mean they always have the answer. Cohen said she also learned a lot from stepping away from her career for a while. In 2006, coincidentally just before the construction industry began to go into a severe downturn, Cohen left her job to help her husband run a small business.
She returned three years later, and within a few years, joined Kitchell and began to focus her attention more on leadership than project oversight.
“I liked working with clients and owners, and now I was getting the opportunity to work with many different owners,” said Cohen, who came to Kitchell in 2013, first in the San Diego area and then last year she relocated to Sacramento. “It suits my personality.”
As with different disciplines within a construction project, working with clients means recognizing expertise different than her own. If Kitchell is overseeing a health care or education project, the people she’s working with on the client side likely know that area very well, but may not know construction at all, she said.
Ken Harms, Kitchell’s senior vice president of business development and strategy, said he recognized Cohen’s attributes when they first met more than 20 years ago, and he hired her for one of her first jobs.
“What I saw was a passion for the business, one of those people who’s self-driven, self-motivated,” said Harms, who’s worked with Cohen at Kitchell for the last seven years. “But she also brought some joy to work. That hasn’t changed much.”
While Cohen’s own career goals have shifted, so has the way she’s perceived. Compared to when she started, she said, there’s much more receptiveness to being a woman in construction who’s in a position of authority. There are also more women getting interested in the construction field because schools have emphasized that science, technology, engineering and math are for all students, and that there’s a growing workforce demand for those skills.
“My attitude when I was younger was always to just do well at what I did,” she said. “My goal now is to help mentor underserved populations, including women, and show them you can be successful.”
Cohen said she also wants to play a role beyond just Kitchell. She’s joined the board of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, where she said she can expand her knowledge about the region beyond just what she’s learned over the last year or so. She’ll also build her personal network of contacts on the board, she said, but the bigger reason is understanding Sacramento and how Kitchell’s work fits into it.
The Covid-19 pandemic introduced a new wrinkle for everyone, meaning adaptability is going to be that much more important, she said. Part of that adaptation means dealing with a slowdown in state construction projects, as well as market shifts in the health care industry. At least for now, Cohen said, education projects look like they’ll remain steady.
On a typical day, Cohen said, she gets ready for her day by meditating and reading newspapers, looking forward to working directly with people. Right now, that lack of interaction is the hardest part of her job.
“I’m a problem solver by nature,” she said. “I like to look ahead.”
Education: California Polytechnic State University, degree in civil engineering; currently at the Stanford Graduate School of Business
Career: 2001-06, director of development and construction, Intelisyn; 2009 to 2013, Palomar Health, director of facilities planning, development and construction; 2013-current, operations manager and then president, Kitchell
Personal: Married 18-plus years
Something people would be surprised to know about you: Raced in the Baja 1000, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, hiked across the Grand Canyon and back four times, ran an ultramarathon, loves to bake.
An effective business leader: Listens and is not afraid to admit when they are wrong.
Fantasy job: News correspondent or anchor
Toughest professional decision: Taking a three-year break from construction in 2006. Best professional decision I ever made. Taught me about how to run a small business from finance to marketing to customer service.