Lakisha A. Woods
courtesy National Institute of Building Sciences Lakisha A. Woods

Earlier this spring, the ARCHITECT editorial team met via video call with AIA executive vice president and CEO Lakisha Woods, who assumed the role in January 2022. In this wide-ranging interview, we speak with Woods— who recently authored the 2022 book Never Get Their Coffee: Empowering Fearless Leadership—about her ascendance in the industry; the influence of her parents on her career; growing up a "military brat"; the Hastings Report and its implications and directives; her favorite city; and, of course, leadership.

ARCHITECT: Tell us about your background. Why did you become interested in architecture and the built environment?

Woods: I’ve spent my whole career representing associations in the built environment. It all started when I was right out of college and had an opportunity to work for the National Ready Mix Concrete Association. And it was their members and their passion for concrete that I immediately fell in love with everything that had to do with the built environment. I've always loved architecture­­—that was something that I think so many people appreciate when they're growing up. As a military brat who lived everywhere such as Utah, Arizona, and Alaska, I got to looking at unique buildings, and just how our home was so different from others. Because of those life experiences, I've always had an appreciation for architecture. And as I moved through my career into various segments of the building industry, I always hoped that one day I could work for the American Institute of Architects. When the opportunity came to actually be able to lead it, and I saw the AIA’s strategic plan, it was a no brainer and that was the move I wanted to make.

Lakisha Woods spent part of her youth living in Fairbanks, Alaska. "My favorite location growing up was Fairbanks, Alaska, where everybody is just so nice."
Quintin Soloviev Lakisha Woods spent part of her youth living in Fairbanks, Alaska. "My favorite location growing up was Fairbanks, Alaska, where everybody is just so nice."

You come from the concrete industry and also the National Association of Homebuilders. If we go even farther back, you started off your career working at a local movie theater in in Fairbanks, Alaska. Looking back on your career, are there any insights when you were aware that this is not just a job but a career I really want to do?

When I was in high school I assumed I was going to be the chief marketing officer for Coca Cola by the time I was 24, because that's what you do when you're 16. And, when I went to college at the University of Maryland, I was inspired by a variety of professors. It was my first real job at the National Ready Mix Concrete Association that [brought the realization that] this was going to be a career for me. When I was at one of their meetings, I looked around the room, and saw that out of 150 people there, only one was a woman, and she came up to me and immediately befriended me. We had many conversations after that. Other members often assumed she was a spouse of one of the members—she was the owner of a very large aggregate company—and I would just listen to her great stories. I was a manager at this association but I wished there was something I could do about that, other than support her and help talk about her business. It was that eye-opening experience where she is the owner of a company but they're treating her differently because she's a woman, and I wondered, who else would would fall into that situation? I also wondered how can the industry change, because they're really great people and that they weren't aware of the bias that they showed? They literally just thought that because we don't see many women in this industry, you must be a spouse. My question became: How can you frame things differently? How can we bring more women into the industry so that she isn't alone, or so that doesn’t happen to other women that would come after? So, I've just always had that inquisitive mind about that. And when I went to the Associated General Contractors of America, where I was dealing with general contractors, and then later when I was at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), I was seeing similar cultural challenges taking place.

Because we lived in so many different places, my parents always had a diverse set of people from different professions that we were around. That has shaped who I am and how I lead.

Can you talk about a few of your mentors and what you learned from them?

My first mentor would always be my father who was a businessman and in the Air Force. He went to work for the Army and Air Force exchange service where he managed all their retail establishments on bases, and was on the road all the time. He would come home from work and give his speeches about how the customer's always right, and sometimes share his experiences that he also dealt with as an African American man. He always tried to frame things in a mindset. I learned so much from him. Now I find myself saying all the things that my father used to say, and quoting him. I realize how lucky I am to have been raised by both parents in a typical middle-class environment. I had everything I needed, and most of what I wanted, and it shaped who I am. And, because we lived in so many different places, my parents always had a diverse set of people from different professions that we were around. That has shaped who I am and how I lead.

How did your mother influence your leadership style?

My mother and father are two completely different people. I am my father, but I want to be my mother. She's very soft spoken, unassuming, but she knows the power of words. I've always tried to learn from her and her quiet demeanor and her way of getting her point across in a different style from mine.

Traveling the world where would you like to go back to and what is your soul city?

My favorite location growing up was Fairbanks, Alaska, where everybody is just so nice. During April, all the snow in Alaska melts in about a week, and no matter where you drive, you’ll get stuck in the snow, so you’re taught when you start driving there, if you see someone stuck, get out of your car and help them out, because you’re going to turn the corner and you’re going to be stuck and somebody's going to help you out. So, when I moved from Fairbanks to D.C. because my father got stationed at Bolling Air Force Base, and I was stuck in my car in my first major traffic jam, I proceeded to get out of the car and tried to go meet people like strangers on the street. I've now lived here in D.C. long enough to know that if you are walking down the highway and trying to shake people’s hands, you’ll be seen as a crazy woman. But it was just what we were taught growing up. If you’re by yourself, go make a friend. But my favorite city in the world is Rome; I could just get on a plane by myself, eat pasta and gelato, and look at the beautiful architecture, and just be at peace.

I want to say that who sits at the table, decides the direction of the conversation and, ultimately, the solution and path forward. So that's why it's so important to ensure that the profession is as diverse as our society, and it's critical to meeting the challenges ahead. Establishing that as an expectation starts at grade school, not graduate school.

AIA has traditionally had architects as CEOs, but you come from an organizational background. What unique skills do you bring to the table to better AIA as an organization?

I asked myself that same question. I assumed AIA was going to hire an architect. But what's really great is so often associations when they start a search, they ask the question, do we need someone who is an industry expert, or do we want somebody who knows how to run an association? And [former AIA EVP/chief executive officer] Robert Ivy—who is one of my mentors—is a fantastic person and is an architect and did an amazing job. I know the importance of managing an association, and it's a different lens. So, when I came on board and took a look at what's happening within the organization, I'm so excited about the business opportunities for this organization, not just as an opportunity to provide services and resources for the profession, but also to understand what I would refer to as generating non-dues revenue and making sure that this organization as a business is fruitful and prepared for the future. Robert has done such an amazing job setting us up with some of the business decisions that he has made, and now there's an additional opportunity to build on that success and create additional programs, also using some of my background in marketing and association management.

AIA has two important pillars that it governs on—sustainability and equity and diversity, inclusion, and belonging. I’d like to focus on the latter—something we know you’re passionate about. How do we address such an important issue to truly create an inclusive environment, and not just pay lip service? What tactics do you think are failing? And what tactics do you think are succeeding?

I know you’ve read the Hastings Report, which is an investigation into bias in the architecture profession. The first thing we need to do is look at the data; and that's the importance of what AIA has done in working with the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law on the report, is to identify the three or four things that we tried to do to move beyond anecdote and to deepen, identify, and address the issues of bias, sexism, and racism within the firm culture, including the experiences, perceptions and opinions of women, people of color, and other historically resilient but still underrepresented groups within the profession. The other piece of it was to build awareness, and to help members recognize and identify bias, to start a conversation in firms that disrupt bias, and then also to amplify those voices. We have to talk about these challenges. The next steps are also addressed by AIA in our Guides for Equitable Practice, because you need tools and resources to help people move past just the conversation of bias to taking action.

We’ve noticed in the last year that there is some frustration, especially from younger generation of architects, that there's a lot of talking about equity, but not enough action…

Absolutely. One of the things that we did was realign our emerging professionals program to support the new definition of emerging professionals. We transitioned our National Associates Committee to a state-based governance structure to increase leadership opportunities for emerging professionals and to align with the strategic council structure. We also sponsored the NCARB Licensing Advisors Summit, which engaged over 200 licensing advisors in a hybrid conference. Of course, AIA’s Women in Architecture—a big passion for me—launched the Next to Lead program, which is a pilot association leadership program for racially and ethnically diverse women to strengthen the pipeline to component leadership. And they also piloted a virtual series for the Women's Leadership Summit.

I'm very excited that this fall we will have the Women's Leadership Summit in person again. It is so important to provide that opportunity for women to network, to have proactive career management, and just the personal empowerment you receive when you engage with eachother face to face.

A lot of EDI efforts overlap with mental health efforts in the workplace. With the great resignation of the past few years, workers are being spurred to reconsider their priorities within architecture and calls to organize for better working conditions are initiating conversations about infamously long hours, compensation, and the lack of diversity in the profession making it especially challenging for architects of color to feel accepted. Monograph, a company that makes project management software for architects surveyed 225 architects in 2021, and about 97% reported that they were experiencing some form of burnout. We're also seeing that mental health and wellness is such an important conversation these days, so how would you define that for the architecture profession? Why does wellness matter? And where does equity fit into this?

Let me take this a little piece at a time. First, I want to say that who sits at the table, decides the direction of the conversation and, ultimately, the solution and path forward. So that's why it's so important to ensure that the profession is as diverse as our society, and it's critical to meeting the challenges ahead. Establishing that as an expectation starts at grade school, not graduate school, so we can take steps as an organization to help move the needle.

AIA is committed to harnessing the passion of our members and the broader design community to advance racial justice and equity in our organization, in our profession, and also in our communities. We have an emphasis on a couple of different things: One is dismantling barriers within all AIA systems governance, honors and awards, internal policies, vendor selection, hiring and retention, and any business practice that intentionally or unintentionally contributes to injustice and exclusion, including policies, practices, and programs. We're also expanding inclusiveness and diversity within the profession through K-12 and higher education engagements and advocate for effective pathways into the profession. Expanding the profession through the participation of racially and ethnically diverse populations, women, and underrepresented groups is also important.

Lastly, we have to conduct training, enhance education, knowledge and dissemination, and increase the number of high-quality new resources for the board, staff, volunteers, and members. When we talk about mental health and wellness, there are things that we control as an organization and as leaders and managers, and there are other things that we need to encourage. It's important to be an inspiration as much as a leader, or an inspiring leader. Think about the new reality we live in—how so many people are working from home, and how are they balancing their day? How are we encouraging our leaders and our staff to take a mental break? Does every meeting need to be on Zoom? Are you taking a walking meeting where you get on your phone and have a conversation while you take a walk outside and enjoy the fresh air?

Part of that great resignation is you have to change your mindset. And you can't just try to force people into this little bucket, you have to see how new technology can help you innovate your business. It is also important to see how our employees are going to manage this virtual experience differently. How are you managing people that are from diverse communities that don't look like you? Do they feel comfortable still staying in contact? And are you giving them a voice? What I'm afraid of is that when we look back a year from now, instead of having improved our diversity stats, we're going to see a negative return, because those who don't feel connected to those leaders aren't finding an opportunity to grow and advance in their firms.

You’ve just come out with a new book, Never Get their Coffee, in which you focus on the value of leadership. What's one or two points that you've observed when it comes to leadership that you'd like to share?

I want to focus on the positive. I've been inspired by leaders who truly stay connected to their team and think team-first. I've been inspired by those leaders who are finding new ways to connect to their employees, creating team building engagements, even in a virtual world, and that they again, are creating spaces for people to grow personally and professionally. Being that inspirational leader is really important. And then I also believe that leaders try to provide feedback that reminds people to be intentional. And again, helping leaders understand what true diversity is, to ensure that the company and leadership team that you have is a representative sample of either your state or the group that you represent.

So, we're a national organization, and our leadership—whether it's our volunteer leadership or our staff team—needs to be a representative sample of our nation, because that's who we're representing. And we must be intentional on making those decisions about who our future leaders are and how to develop because it makes every company more innovative and more financially viable when you have those diverse teams in place. I want to ensure that we're showing the architecture profession—not just telling them why it matters, but also showing them how it can help them be more successful. I hear architects ask: How do we recruit people into the profession and get them paid better? Trust me, it is on my list of things that are very important: You want to be able to recruit people, but they have to know that they're going to be paid a fair wage for the work that they do.

We're hearing that many of the large design firms have expressed a renewed commitment to creating equitable workplaces. From your position as a CEO, and from your previous positions in the building industry, is there any noticeable increase in leadership positions focused on equity? And if so, are these leaders being given the tools they need to succeed?

At two months into my role at AIA, I don't have the breakdown of all the job leadership positions and every architecture firm across the country, but it's on my list of things to find out. I've been invited to speak to the large firm roundtable because this is one of their action points where they want to see movement on EDI. I know there's a passion around the topic: People want to make movement. Now what they've done specific to leadership positions is information that we're still data gathering. But we also want to be sure that we are again sharing with them the tools and frameworks so that they can make those right next steps, and again, reminding them of that intentionality that is required in order to make the changes that are necessary. We're providing tools to all architects, no matter what the firm size.

The great news is I have heard from so many architects in the industry when the press release dropped announcing me coming to the AIA. Specifically, many minority architects reached out and were extremely excited about me being in this role, and they all wanted to share their story. So, I've just been listening and listening. Many have told me how they tried to start at a firm, whether it was a smaller or medium sized firm, but [because of] the challenges that they faced—much of which is already noted in the Hastings Report—they ended up going out on their own and creating their own firm. It's great that some people can have the opportunity to start their own firm and be successful, but we also want to ensure that we are providing the tools and resources for small- and medium-sized firms to make better decisions, or to recognize those biases that may be in play. It's about awareness. We just keep bringing awareness to the challenges that are out there so that people can see it. And then the next time they're in that situation, it may be that “aha” moment for them to make the change that is needed in order to make improvements in the profession.

The next generation of architects and designers is really important to us at ARCHITECT magazine. They are genuinely interested in sustainability, EDI, and having a better work-life balance. How do you think AIA can support emerging architects?

AIA’s Next to Lead program—where we're trying to provide a platform for them to be heard—is important. I will remind people, when we think of the biases, there are racial and gender, but there's also age biases that people have. We also need to encourage people to recognize the importance of a mentor relationship. Oftentimes, the mentor has just as much as to learn from the mentee. AIA has done a great job of making an effort to put those variety of voices into our board leadership. That's why somebody from AIA Architecture Students (AIAS) sits on our board. But we want to ensure that they feel comfortable sharing their voice and, then again, providing tools so that they can get through licensure for those who aren't already licensed.

Which is what do you do to recharge your batteries?

Woods: During the pandemic, I renewed my love of cooking because I wasn't on the road all the time. That is my love: Turn on the music, cook, and I am at peace.