Women in Construction Week: Interview with Kari Luedtke

Kari Luedtke is a Project Manager at KBE Building Corporation with 17 years of construction industry experience.  Kari started as an admin in the field and over the years has transcended several roles, working her way up the ladder, to become a successful and well-rounded leader in her field.

Tell us a little bit about your current role and the career path that led you to it?
I am currently a Project Manager with KBE. I began my career starting out at the bottom at WCS Construction, where I was an administrative assistant in the field, with no college prior to that, and none since then. So I have literally learned everything on the job, as well as taking any continuing education courses that I could get my hands on through our local ABC chapter.

When I first started, I was really the only lady on the administrative side of things. I was a small fish in a big pond of guys, so I really had to find a way to stand out.  And one of the ways I was able to do that was through my organizational skills and taking on tasks that others wouldn’t typically want to deal with.

Why do you like working for KBE?
I have been working for KBE for almost two years. The reason why I like working here is because the environment is open. Since starting at KBE, I have never had the feeling that I couldn’t go to my boss with a problem. There is a lot of open dialogue here, and I think that’s really important. You can always talk with your boss and know that the repercussion is that ‘we are going to work it out’ as opposed the repercussion being ‘now you’ve opened a can of worms.’  I think that is the difference between KBE and other companies, that feeling of being comfortable to share what is on your mind.

I also think that the career development plan at KBE is great. The meetings are bi-monthly, and they really do give me good feedback along the way. And it gives the opportunity for both myself and my supervisor to set goals, which helps me stay on track and set expectations for myself.

What is one characteristic that you believe every woman in construction should possess?
Well…there are probably 15.

But, I would say that the most important characteristic is having the courage to set expectations, and having the courage to say hey, we need to have discussions early on about what we expect from each other – and being the person to say it first.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career thus far and how did you learn it?
So far I would say my most important lesson is relationships. They can make or break a job, a project, they really are the basis for not only this industry but for any career field you work in. If you can’t at least find a way to get along, it’s not going to turn out well for either party.

What project are you most proud of?
I would have to say my most proud project to date would be THEARC Phase 3 (Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus) – it was one of the last projects I did with WCS and it was a multi-use commercial building. It housed a school, a theater, a daycare center, and a couple of other tenants. It was the first commercial job I had ever done. It was a big challenge, but it was a lot of fun – my supervisor was a friend before the job started and was wonderful to work with. It was incredible – having the ability to work with them on that job was great. I learned a lot and it opened a lot of opportunities. I was able to interact with a wide array of subcontractors that I wouldn’t have if I had stuck with residential.

Why do you enjoy what you do?
Because I love being insane. I mean the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, and I believe wholeheartedly that is the definition of construction.

Really though, I love that you get to make new relationships and maintain relationships, and you get to build something with your team. The camaraderie that comes with that is special. At the end of the day, looking back and seeing what you were able to accomplish with those relationships, with all the paperwork, the irritations, the back-and-forth, looking at the schedule and tossing it out the window…and then going right back outside and picking it up and fixing it...construction is a crazy complex business, but it’s so rewarding and worth it in the end.

Also, my grandfather was in the construction business, and there would be a lot of times that we would travel, and we would see a building that he had built, and he would always point it out to us. And having that opportunity to go by a building that I have built with my daughter, I get to do the same now.

Do you have a mentor? Are you a mentor to someone else?
I would say, in a way, that Bob Nelson is my mentor here at KBE. He is my boss, so he is definitely the person I look to. I don’t know if that’s an official mentor, but I would consider him someone that I look to for guidance and someone that I can always call and ask questions.

I don’t know if I would say that I am a mentor. I do have a wonderful project engineer that I currently am working with. I don’t know if he would consider me his mentor, but I’m always there if he has questions – though I probably ask him more questions than he asks me questions – but that’s the give-and-take.

What books, blogs, podcasts, or other media resources would you recommend to other women in the industry?
There weren’t any materials that I used or referred to early on in my career, other than taking every ABC class that was available. Anything from blueprint reading to contract documents, all the way to the leadership development program they offered through ABC Metro DC.  That program it definitely got me out of my shell. I made a lot of contacts and made a few friends as well. That is one of the things I would recommend to any woman in the industry – try to get out of your comfort zone as much as you can.

Additionally, I would say in the past few years, I have started to focus on leadership, and what type of leader I would like to be. I think I gained a lot of my knowledge from Brené Brown. She’s wonderful and she gives a down-to-earth approach to genuinely being yourself and how that correlates to being a leader. I have listened and read every book she has at least three times. Her book Dare to Lead gives me the opportunity to take skills of how to deal with inter-office relationships. And it’s helped me out a lot, especially in the field and working with men; understanding different personalities and different approaches to dealing with those personalities. We all think we have to go out there an act like a dude. From my perspective, we don’t need to go out there an act like a dude, but we need to go out there and just set a tone.

What message do you have for other young women interested in following in your footsteps?
Don’t feel as if you have to stay in the expected position you’re in. What I mean by that is that if you come into this industry and you are in a low-level administrative position, don’t think that that is where you are going to stay. If you see something that interests you and it is not in the office, say ‘hey I’m really interested in getting out in the field.’ I think that is one of the things that we don’t have enough of – lady superintendents. I think we have a lot to offer out in the field.  I think we give a slightly different vision and perspective, and we also can be more attuned to what our client wants and pick up on subtle details. Not to say that guys don’t do this, but we can too.

For example, I can stand in a wood-framed building where  I’m envisioning dry-wall, paint on the walls, and suddenly, I see an outlet that is a little too high – and a little too close to another wall. Well, that’s not going to work. Not to say that guys wouldn’t pick up on that too, but I feel like us ladies can pick up on those details a little bit quicker.

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