Wendy Burke, vice president of the Linbeck Group in Houston, Tex., knows what it takes to raise a building. Since joining the construction firm in 2005, Burke has worked with her clients during every phase of construction to assess their needs and to craft service packages that lead to sustained success for Linbeck’s customers. She also manages the company’s marketing, communications, and branding activities.
I recently sat down with this successful businesswoman to ask her some questions about what drives her, as well as ask her to share some stories about challenges she has overcome in the course of her career.
AllBusiness: What are the three aspects of your work that you enjoy the most?
Burke: First, my work changes every day; I rarely do the same things two days in a row. I love that variety.
Second, I love the fact that, since 80 percent of Linbeck’s revenues are derived from not-for-profit clients, we’re having a direct impact on the community. For example, we work with YES Prep Schools to build new facilities that enable [that organization] to teach more at-risk children in Houston. I like enabling those types of community projects, making a difference by contributing to something larger than myself or my company.
Third, I am not a traditional construction person. I am not from the industry and I don’t have a construction background, and because of that I offer a different perspective. I can use my background in consulting, high tech, and professional services sales and adapt those skills to the construction industry. I never cease to be amazed by what we do. We can have 1,000 people working on a job — from project managers to subcontractors — all melding a building together over the course of time. I am impressed by their skills, thoughtfulness, intellect, and vision.
Everyone thinks that people who work in construction are like their plumber or their homebuilder. In fact, big-ticket commercial construction is a serious and significant industry. The manager of each individual construction project essentially runs his own business — people rarely appreciate the skills and knowledge needed to do that successfully. I certainly didn’t appreciate it before I went into construction.
AllBusiness: What are some of the challenges you encounter in your line of work?
Burke: Construction is a pretty conservative industry. I swim upstream a lot, which offers me equal parts of fun and frustration. I am a change agent by personality and nature. Linbeck hired me in part to be a change agent. I have had to learn to slow down and allow others to understand what we’re changing and why. I can’t create effective change unless others buy into that change, too. It’s hard for me to slow down or stop, especially when I am busy.
The other constant challenge is the decision-making cycle. In the construction industry it is not short. No one makes quick decisions for multimillion dollar capital investments. The sales cycle might be two to three years for a single project. It can be hard, especially if a sale doesn’t come to fruition.
Fundamentally, mine is a sales job. I’ve had to learn to be OK with being told no. You don’t win every time and that’s hard for somebody who is a perfectionist.
AllBusiness: Can you share a recent struggle you’ve encountered? How were you able to resolve it?
Burke: The reality of being good at your job is people always want you to do more. I would like to do more, but there are only so many hours in a day.
Part of Linbeck’s career development process is that all members of the senior management team have an external coach. I’ve been working with my boss and my coach to learn how to say no. If I can’t say no, what do I delegate to my staff? I have to spend sufficient time with them to get them prepared to deal with that. I’m still not nearly as good as I’d like to be at saying no.
AllBusiness: As someone who sounds extremely busy, it must be a challenge to take care of yourself in terms of continuing education. How do you keep up with industry developments so that you can maintain your competitive edge?
Burke: I read a lot. Construction is a lagging industry so I generally watch indicators now that will impact our business in the next two to three years. I also visit our job sites often, which is the best source of education for me.
As part of my job, I watch industry and economic trends as well as keep up with what’s going on in sales and marketing. I keep a “to read” pile and when it gets about six inches high I schedule a morning and just read. I like taking information from different sources and developing my own viewpoint and then making it usable for strategy planning.
Because I am a lay person, not a veteran from the construction industry, there are many things I need to learn such as changes in construction law, risk management strategies, and other topics. I really pay attention to that.
AllBusiness: How do you take care of yourself physically so that you have enough energy to maintain your demanding schedule?
Burke: I make it a rule to take all of my vacation every year. I usually find a beach somewhere — my favorite is on Maui. I have learned that there is an “off” button on my Blackberry and I’m not afraid to use it. When I’m at home, I retreat to my backyard pool and the “tropical paradise” I had specially landscaped to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. I also have bamboo and Oleander privacy fencing to provide a more tranquil setting.
AllBusiness: What three pieces of advice would you give to someone who would like to emulate your success?
Burke: First, you have to know yourself; know your core values. I have found that I like to work for a company whose values match mine — my personal satisfaction is really impacted by that. My moral center, the basis of my decision-making, matches Linbeck’s. That is very important. From an integrity perspective, we match. I don’t ever feel like I have to compromise myself to work for or be successful at this company.
Second, you need to push yourself. That last time I looked for a job, I read an article that said women have a tendency not to apply for jobs they think they’re not completely qualified for and men often apply for jobs they’re only about 30 percent qualified for. It is good to take on jobs you’re not fully prepared to do. Be willing to push your boundaries. Get out of your comfort zone. That willingness to take risks is the difference between middle and senior management.
Third, have a personal life. Sleep on a beach, spend time with your family, quilt … do whatever turns you on. Find a creative outlet outside of work. Keep yourself fresh. This can be a 24/7 job so I remind myself to make the conscious decision to unplug.
To learn more about the Linkbeck Group, LLC, visit the company online at www.linkbeck.com.