How I’ve come very close to throwing in the towel – By Danielle Lester PhD FRICS

I’ve come very close (many times) to throwing in the towel…

Any one that knows me will know that I have had a fairly ‘love/hate’ relationship with my career in the built environment, but recently my issues in my career have led to serious consideration of an exit strategy.

Like many of us, I started my career in construction due to my fascination with the technical aspects of buildings and their surrounding infrastructure. My early days spent outside, either building a new bypass or repairing the deck of one of the UK’s busiest elevated motorways were the absolute best. I used to walk around site thinking to myself that I was so fortunate to have found a job that allowed me to be myself. ‘Myself’ was an inquisitive and curious problem solver, and my organisational skills and ability to fearlessly quote contract clauses made Quantity Surveying a good fit for me.

My issue with ‘fairness’ started pretty early on in my career after discovering that my male counterpart, with the same experience, was being paid more than I was. I had completed a BSc in Valuation Surveying, and after spending many of my undergraduate classes with the other built environment disciplines, I took it upon myself to enrol in BSc Quantity Surveying courses in measurement and contract administration to bridge the gap. I spent one afternoon a week in classes, and was told during my first interview that once I had completed the two courses that my salary would be reviewed. Long story short, during my review with my line manager I bought up both of these points, neither of which was taken seriously and quickly led me to believe that I was not valued by my organisation. It was my first job, no one offered me mentoring or even tried to talk to me about a career plan, or even suggested in any way that I could receive some kind of guidance. I was the only woman on site and quickly realised that I had to have my own back, so I did what I thought was best for me and found another employer.

Over the next three years in the UK I worked for a contractor where I was expected to do things that breached my personal and professional ethics, a contractor where I was ‘let go’ after four weeks because they were ‘looking for someone more senior’ (to fulfil an Assistant QS role), and a small subcontractor where I witnessed the company do everything they could for an engineer who was unreliable, incompetent, and a liability, while ignoring my requests for mentorship, advice, and guidance. It was during this time that I started my RICS APC, if only I could have had someone around me to take it as seriously as I was taking it then I might have been taken seriously myself when trying to seek guidance. All this being said, I was still enjoying my work, able to learn about the industry, and feeling fulfilled but also aware that things were going to be different for me than the majority of my colleagues. In fact I was feeling so good about my work that I signed up to be a Construction Ambassador with the CITB, a role I found very rewarding as I was able to share my enthusiasm and passion for the industry with the future of the built environment.

I had always wanted to travel with my job, so after four reasonably successful years in the UK I moved to Australia to work on my first megaproject, this is where things really started to go awry. My first job was as a Quantity Surveyor for a subcontractor engaged in a mega infrastructure project, and it was my role to set up and manage their cost management systems, something that in hindsight was far simpler than expected and should have led me to the conclusion that it really wouldn’t take much to succeed in Australia. However, my inquisitive and curious problem solving brain just couldn’t settle for something so ‘simple’. One of the first things I was told after arriving in Australia was ‘the engineer is king’, which I didn’t really understand at the time, but quickly became apparent to me as I began working within larger project teams. Over the next four years I would work on a number of megaprojects, all of which opened my eyes and frequently left me bemused about the processes that led to some of the most significant decisions I would witness during my career. Questioning procedure or highlighting implications of decisions was ‘frowned upon’ and quickly had me marginalised from the wider project team. I couldn’t work out at the time whether it was a personal issue, a cultural issue, one of gender, or a combination. I still don’t really know, but it is something that I continue to deal with.

It was around this time that I started to think about how much I enjoyed spending time with students, and anyone who wanted to learn and improve themselves and their careers, and that I should consider a career in academia. I can vividly remember the day that I was sitting at my desk thinking about how I was going to make the move, it was just before a meeting with the executive team on my most recent megaproject where I was about to present our forecast for $700m worth of work on a $1.5bn project. I was incredibly stressed and conflicted about what I was being asked to present versus what was actually happening on the project but went to the meeting and ‘played along’ because it was a Friday afternoon, and I was over it. Almost immediately after the meeting I was sat at my desk when I got the ‘tap on the shoulder’ from the head of HR and asked to join her in her office where my boss was already seated. Long story short (again), I was told one week before the end of my 6 month probation period that I had not fulfilled my role, but when I asked how I had not met their expectations I was told that I ‘wasn’t a good fit for the team’. I had done everything possible to get my team to provide me with the information I needed for the forecast, but experienced major resistance and a distinct lack of support from my seniors in trying to do so. Shocked and confused, I made the decision to return to the UK and figure out my next move. I was at the stage where I felt like I was having to fight my corner, every single day, something I’m feeling again despite having given everything to my career.

The next six years was all about education. I completed my MSc in the US, and PhD back in Australia focusing on construction management and human behaviour, decision making specifically. I figured making myself an expert in something might allow me to be taken more seriously… (excuse me whilst I laugh at myself at this ridiculous thought!). After several years in education I’m now beginning to wonder where I really do fit in the big picture scheme of the built environment. My academic ideas are shot down in flames, despite my research being about the impact of education on project delivery; I have received very aggressive student evaluations (and one physical threat) which proved my safety and wellbeing were not my employers priority; and the notion of having to comply with others’ agendas to be successful, and in most cases rewarded leaves me feeling very uncomfortable about the future of my career.

I started writing a piece for this blog at the beginning of last year about how often I felt like going ‘Full Serena’, a term I coined in my last role as it was the only way I could express how I was feeling, without actually going ‘Full Serena’ (for those unfamiliar I am referring to Serena Williams’ full blow up on court during her US Open final). What she did on that court resonated with me so much, but as I started writing the article I realised I was probably digging myself a deeper hole. No one wants to listen to a woman moaning about the daily BS she has to deal with just to survive. While I am in no way comparing my story to that of Serena Williams’, I can absolutely relate to the feeling of being constantly marginalised, criticised, and vilified while trying to do the one thing that I love the most, make the built environment a better place for everyone.

Self-awareness is something our industry is definitely short of, but I’d like to sign off with some tips on how some relatively small changes can make a difference.

  • Telling someone they are wrong will never lead to a favourable response. At least try and understand the reasons behind a decision or idea, which may help people appreciate your position.
  • Constructive criticism is welcomed. Linking criticism to a personal attribute is not required unless followed by guidance and strategy on how to make improvements and/or succeed.
  • Giving your opinion on what you think is the best idea for someone else’s career, without knowing their background, aspirations, or needs, is not helpful. Get to know people and be empathetic, and wait for someone to ask for your opinion.
  • Trying to devalue someone’s enthusiasm and passion can have a significant detrimental impact on their performance, contribution, and mental health. If you don’t understand why someone would do something to benefit others above themselves then give it a go yourself.
  • We are all individuals, we have different needs, motivations, and interests. We all have something to contribute, take the time to listen before responding.

I often wonder why I continue to give so much to an industry which has taken so much from me, physically, mentally, and financially, and I honestly don’t know what the answer is, but I do continue to show up and seek new opportunity in everything I do because at times it can feel like there is no alternative. I am now working harder than ever to ‘be the change I wish to see in the world’ and I am just moments away from launching my consultancy business, or ‘Collaboration Agency’ as I have decided to call it. PS2 (Problem Shared Problem Solved) is an agency that provides collaborative solutions to problem solving in the built environment. Whether developing skills to create a high performing team, or finding collaborators for a specific project, the power of working together to solve a problem is often underestimated and can be difficult to achieve if the diverse range of motivations, interests, and incentives are not aligned. For more information, get in touch

I would like to say thank you to this forum, and the amazing people who created it. There was a time when I wouldn’t have dreamed of writing a piece like this, but having read the honest and often vulnerable stories of others, I figured it was time I followed my own advice, after all honesty IS the best policy.

One thought on “How I’ve come very close to throwing in the towel – By Danielle Lester PhD FRICS

  1. Giovanni Zambrano

    Wonderful piece! I remember working closely with you during our Master’s program and enjoyed how smart you were and how you were a great leader. You always had a great analysis of the obstacles that we had to face and came up with excellent ideas. I wish you lots of luck in your future and know that you will always succeed.

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