Construction and architecture executives share on the power of mentorship, resilience and how to find, keep and exude inner confidence.
Construction executive Louise Ellrod traces the multiple steps and promotions she’s had in her career, starting from when she was an administrative assistant, to an inability to sit still.
Constant motion helped her land the position she has today, of vice president of business development and marketing for Gainesville-based construction firm Charles Perry Partners Inc. After working for other companies, in banking and in architecture, engineering and construction, Ellrod has been in that role for a decade, based in the firm's Tampa office.
Ellrod’s penchant to be on the move, while important, is only part of her leadership story. A bigger part of Ellrod’s success stems, I think, from an understated fake-it-till-you-make-it confidence. Another way to say that: Ellrod isn’t afraid to bet on herself. “I’ve always had a mindset that I can do better,” she says. “I can learn more. I can learn what I don’t know.”
For some high-powered executives, confidence seemingly comes naturally. But I think for most others in business, cultivating an inner confidence, in a variety of ways, is essential to strong leadership — both in career advancement and in building and coaching high-performing teams.
Ellrod participated in a recent panel hosted by the Tampa Bay chapter of the Society for Marketing Professional Services entitled Carving your Career Path: From Marketing to Business Development. Three others with similar career trajectories in the architecture, engineering and construction fields joined Ellrod on the panel: Emmalee Legler, director of marketing and operations for Sarasota-based Jon F. Swift Construction; Kathryn Pankow, business development manager for Orlando-based Baker Barrios Architects; and Shannon Stein, business development manager for Clearwater-based Creative Contractors.
All four share the headline accomplishment: moving up in their careers from marketing to business development. More than what’s on paper, a behind the scenes look at how they overcome challenges and obstacles, and, notably, leverage their network, is like a mini-master class on being a better leader. In both the panel and in one-on-one phone calls after the event, several leadership themes emerged.
Back to Ellrod’s story, it starts with confidence.
All four panelists stress confidence is a progression of small steps to ‘put yourself out there,’ as opposed to one big thing or event. “Business is all about relationships,” Legler says. “You just have to go out there and start conversations with people.”
Stein, 51, worked in health care before construction, where she learned to not be afraid to stand up for herself — and ask lots of questions. “Early on in my career, people told me the road would not be smooth,” she says. “But I love a challenge.”
Legler, 36, earned a master’s degree in journalism, and that’s where she honed the confidence to be curious. She went on a different career path, first working for an ad agency before going to Jon F Swift. The “culture of curiosity” Legler says she found at grad school, at USF-St. Petersburg, gave her the confidence to “ask questions about the stuff I don’t know.”
A Business Observer 40 Under 40 winner in 2019, Legler turned to her budding confidence a few years into working at Jon F. Swift. Hired as marketing manager in 2015, Legler says she soon saw “some things I could help this company with.” She started asking questions. When the answers left some gaps, she started to take on more tasks, from business development to HR to financials. In 2018 Legler was promoted to director of marketing and operations.
Pankow, in real estate sales before a career shift, says she learned her confidence through doing — or not doing. “I’ve been very timid at times,” says Pankow, 41. “I didn’t push for more. I just accepted things. But I’ve learned you have to ask for something. The worst they can say is no.”
Asked how much mentorship, and others mentoring her, helped build her career, Pankow says that’s been “huge, huge, huge.”
“If you don’t have someone in your corner to turn to,” she adds, “you won’t be successful.”
Pankow cites Baker Barrios COO Rob Ledford has one of her career mentors and champions, someone who has helped her overcome self-doubt. Pankow has been with the architecture firm for five years, being promoted three times. “He’s given me the confidence I can do this.”
Stein, at Creative Contractors, talks about mentorship in a way I’ve heard several times lately from leadership consultants and executive coaches, particularly within women’s leadership. It’s the idea that more than a mentor, it’s essential to have a cheerleader, someone who says ‘you need to talk to her.’ “I’ve had a very tight group of people who championed my success,” Stein says. “They made sure I was with the right people at the right time.”
Much like building confidence is a progression, the four executives’ advice for young people, in any field, is to seek out mentors and build a relationship with someone who could become your champion. Ask them about their careers and experiences. Legler calls it an informational interview. “Find the winners,” she says. “Go to LinkedIn, find them and start talking to them.”
On the flip side, when the right opportunity arises to be someone else’s mentor and cheerleader, they say, be sure to pay it forward. Pankow calls it “emptying your cup into others.”
Ellrod, 59, says this also holds true when you are in the same field. “Don’t be put off if it’s competition,” Ellrod says. “This is the direction you need for your business practice.”
Even with confidence and a mindset of we’re all in this together, the toughest thing each of the four business development leaders face at work is unanimous and resounding: losing a bid for a project to a competitor.
“When you work on something for so long, it’s gut-wrenching when you lose,” Legler says.
The three other panelists nodded in unison after Legler said that, talking about risking it all but then being able to suck it up when you lose. “When you get knocked down, you have to be able to get up,” Stein adds, to more head nods.
"I’ve been very timid at times. I didn’t push for more. I just accepted things. But I’ve learned you have to ask for something. The worst they can say is no." — Kathryn Pankow, Baker Barrios Architects
Ellrod counsels others who have lost bids, that, despite the sting, you have to “be willing to hear things you don’t like hearing,” and constructive feedback that can help with the next bid.
Legler, after briefly ruminating over what went wrong, looks for the other angles. One, there is always more work to chase. And two, she will tell herself something she learned from Jon F. Swift President Jason Swift, that “sometimes the best jobs you get are the ones you don’t get.” By that, Legler knows some projects, while potentially lucrative and maybe a match on paper, aren’t the right fit for a company for any number of reasons.
Ellrod says the first thing she does after finding out she lost a bid is to call and congratulate the winner. “Being gracious is the first step,” she says, “toward going on to the next pursuit.”
Ellrod offers another piece of important leadership advice, not only when you lose a bid: perspective. “I have a lot of energy and enthusiasm and I just try to stay positive,” she says. “That can be hard some days. But as you grow in your career, you learn, not everything is permanent.”
(This column has been updated to reflect the correct headquarters of Charles Perry Partners Inc.)