#WomenExcel, Impact

AECOM’s Komal Dewan served as project manager for the 2030 vision and master plan for Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California, United States.

In my opinion, one of the hardest things about becoming a leader is letting go.  You spend your professional life working to become a manager with full production and financial control of your projects — a role you obtained because you know every nuance of your projects. But the catch is that you are then expected to delegate, which means trusting someone else to do it as well as you. How does that work?

The progression from working in an entry-level position to becoming an associate, senior associate, and then project manager is pretty linear. However, the jump from project manager to leader is a quantum leap because it isn’t merely a title change — it’s also a transformation in your way of thinking. However, when you let go of your own prejudices, you can truly fly.

I joined one of AECOM’s legacy companies in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a master’s degree in community planning. So, what did I decide to do with that winning combination? I aspired to be an urban designer and create classic and inspiring spaces through compelling design.

At the time, however, there was an opening in the military-planning studio. The position was offered to me as an interim step until something opened up in urban design. Talk about a niche discipline! Master planning for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD)? Never heard of it.  It isn’t covered in any coursework at university; you don’t study it in grade school alongside lessons about firefighters, doctors and teachers; and no one talks about it on TV.  Although People magazine has yet to do a spread on it, the leading professional journal for practitioners covers it under engineering. And, it is highly unlikely that you know someone who is a military master planner.

Regardless, I figured I would put in my time until my urban design position materialized. Seven years later, I was still biding my time for urban design glory, while unconsciously acquiring the language, rhythm and politics of federal DoD planning.

Then, the revelation came while I was still waiting for my big break. I had become a really good military master planner. I had great clients, a firm grasp on process and products, and was working on some really interesting projects. The work involved doing space requirements analysis, master planning, landscape design, strategic visioning and policy impacts, and infrastructure analysis in support of a company town — a military installation. Another plus was that it included urban design, and the town had weapons, planes, ships and tanks that I was able to plan for as well. That’s when I realized it was time to let go of my vision of solely focusing on urban design.

As soon as I embraced this career choice, it became a lot of fun. The universe conspired to bring compelling and innovative projects my way to manage and direct. I had ownership of my federal domain. Through a series of events, I progressed quickly to take leadership of the federal studio, which is when the other dilemma came up. I finally had control, but how was I going to let go and delegate?

And that’s the leadership dilemma that so many leaders — men and women — come to face. You are grooming your replacement even as you are still working the job. However, the smartest strategy — since you are convinced that no one person can replace you — is to assemble a team of practitioners who can support portions of your work. Leadership truly is surrounding yourself with people better than you, and if you have trained them well, they should be able to take the baton and run. It’s also possible that they might stumble, but that is part of the risk and reward of leadership.  Recognize your passion first, and then nurture it in those around you. You won’t regret it.

What do you think is the hardest thing about becoming a leader? Comment below, and be sure to use the #WomenExcel hashtag when you share this post on Twitter, Google+ or Facebook.

Komal_BW_89x100Komal Dewan is a principal in AECOM’s federal planning practice and leads the company’s Los Angeles Metro federal market sector in the buildings and places group. Her passion is to be the head cheerleader for her practice. She has a travel-happy family; a very active, extended social life (with visitors who just came THIS weekend!), and vows to write the Great American Novel.

Komal Dewan

Originally published Mar 24, 2015

Author: Komal Dewan

Komal is the Americas Federal Planning lead and is based in Orange, California.