Women in Construction: Interview with Alicia Karr

In January 2020, Alicia Karr was named president of Meyer Design, a national architecture and interior design firm in Ardmore, PA, after more than 20 years with the firm. Her career began, however, with a degree in foreign service, a two-year stint with the Peace Corps, several years as an admin at Meyer, and zero experience in the design and construction industry!  After returning home from the Peace Corps after college and while deciding whether to go to grad school, she started at the firm as an administrative assistant – in what she thought would be a temporary position while figuring out her future.

Over the next two decades, Alicia steadily moved up in the firm, advancing from that early admin position to HR manager to CFO and now president.

What is one characteristic that you believe every woman in the design and construction should possess?
For me, it’s being imaginative – being able to see yourself in a position, in the “room”. For many women in this industry, we don’t always have mentors or women leaders around us. So you have be able to really see yourself in a position that may feel like a stretch. It takes courage and gumption. And sometimes you just have to ask for what you want to be. I think women are often hesitant to ask for that next step, that next leap.

Getting from the Peace Corps to firm presidency has been a journey with many watershed moments and a lot of imagination and gumption!

In my career, the growth opportunity that really took imagining myself there was my advancement to controller. After I’d been at the firm for a few years moving from admin to my HR role, our controller left. I had shared an office with him for two years where we shared a lot about our respective roles, and I couldn’t help overhearing his conversations about the firm’s financial business– so I felt conversant in finance. I approached our CEO and told him, “I can do this” as only a 30-year-old could say!   To his credit, he gave me the opportunity in September of 2008. I got the training I need from our former controller, learning about balance sheets, P&L, taxes – all that.

Of course, then the 2008 recession hit – it just marks your career as a defining moment when you are getting a company through a recession. It was a terrible time, having to let people go on a large scale. I learned a lot and it really influenced how I manage. And I remember thinking, “Wow, if I can get through this, I can get through anything … fast-forward to becoming company president in January 2020. Back in 2008, when I was imaging the worst that could happen, ‘pandemic’ never entered my mind.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career thus far and how did you learn it?
After going through the recession and now the pandemic – as well as some recent health concerns for a family member – I know that you don’t go through these things alone. You have your team, your colleagues, your family. And the support I’ve had from my work team has been exceptional. I had the chance when I became president to create my executive team – which came about through some voluntary shifting around.  I was very intentional about surrounding myself with people who think very differently from each other – and from me. I have my agitators, my mediators, my introverted thinkers, my devil’s advocate… And diversity has been so successful. It can be contentious from time to time – but I know that any decision that comes out of this group has been so thoroughly examined and explored and vetted that it is a solid decision.

So, the short answer? Surround yourself with diversity.

Why do you enjoy what you do? What would make it better?
I love that every day is so unpredictable – I love the challenge of that. I structure my calendar with gaps to deal with the unexpected, the problems that eventually crop up, because every day something happens that I did not expect. And by leaving my calendar a little open, I can address them without throwing everything else into crisis mode.

What would make it better? I’m at the point in my career where it’s hard to say no. I volunteer, I want to give back, to help others, to solve problems in our community. But I know I can’t do it all, and those are the difficult days when I get overwhelmed by all I’ve taken on. So, I try to re-prioritize and to also accept that not everything will get done exactly as I would do it – and that’s ok.

Do you have a mentor?
I am a firm believer in mentors. I’ve had several throughout my career and I still do. My mom and my aunt were both incredible mentors for me, strong women who really gave me something to tap into. My current CEO has been an exceptional mentor as well. He took a chance on me when I asked to be CFO, and he’s always been my advocate, always looking to stretch me, make me better, make me dive in those spots I can’t see or worse, avoid.  I still have mentors – there is never a time to not need a mentor.

Are you a mentor?
Our executive team started a very informal mentoring program earlier this year. Each of us took on a staff member to mentor for one year – nothing formal or structured, just checking in, guiding, providing advice or feedback. I took on our director of client services – not a direct report to me – and I did that very deliberately. His focus is external on our clients; mine in internal on the business. I have learned tremendously from him in better understanding our clients and improving my BD skills. And in turn, I think he’s learned from me as well.

Whether mentoring or being mentored, make sure that the people you are choosing to learn from bring a diverse background and different experience from you.

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